The killing of a top Iranian military commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani, by the US forces is breathtaking and forebodes the escalation of the US-Iran confrontation. As Washington and Tehran move from a proxy conflict to open confrontation, the entire Middle East is in danger of being consumed. Gen Soleimani was no ordinary soldier. He headed the much-feared Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. He was the face of Iran’s expanding regional strategic footprint. Soleimani was widely seen as the most consequential figure in Tehran’s political hierarchy after the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Soleimani’s aggressive political and military tactics continuously challenged America’s regional primacy. His hybrid warfare compensated for the weakness of Iran’s conventional military forces. His successful intervention in the domestic politics of various countries in the Middle East — from Iraq and Syria to Yemen and Libya — made him a formidable opponent to the US and its regional allies.
President Donald Trump’s successful targeting of Gen Soleimani has been compared to his predecessor Barack Obama’s attack on Osama bin Laden in the summer of 2011. President Trump will surely expect a huge bounce in the approval ratings that could feed into his campaign to retain the White House in the elections later this year. But he will also have to contend with political consequences larger than those from Osama’s killing. Unlike Osama, Gen Soleimani is a high-level functionary of an important state in the world. In a furious reaction, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif warned that the US will bear “responsibility for all consequences” of its adventurism. There is no doubt that Tehran will respond at a place and time of its choosing. Having raised the ante in the confrontation with Iran, Trump has little room to back down. Unless something gives in either capital, there is no avoiding an intensified military confrontation between the two sides.
Ever since the Islamic revolution in Iran four decades ago, Washington and Iran have been daggers drawn. Occasional attempts at finding compromises have failed. But the unintended consequences of US policy in the region — the ousting of the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001 and Saddam Hussein from Iraq in 2003 — generated huge space for the expansion of Tehran’s regional influence. Iran has also successfully mobilised the support of Russia and China and has constructed a regional coalition with Turkey, Qatar and Syria against the US and its allies. Although the elimination of Soleimani and other militia leaders is a big setback, Iran is fully capable of widening and escalating the asymmetric war against America. This, in turn, puts the entire Gulf region, the world’s largest supplier of hydrocarbons, at risk. And with it, the already fragile global economy. As a major importer of oil, India is especially vulnerable to the deepening crisis next door. Delhi will also be under pressure to take a fresh look at its regional policy that sought to overcome the multiple contradictions in the Gulf by trying to be friends with all. The sharpening conflict will certainly make India’s navigation of the Gulf that much harder.