This story is part of
The Hindu Explains: Belagavi dispute, West Asia tension, and WTO woes

Explained: Is West Asia headed for war?

How will the killing of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, in a U.S. drone attack, impact the region?

January 05, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 09:43 am IST

The story so far: Relations between the United States and Iran hit a dangerous new low on Friday, January 3, 2020, when Major Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian commander, was killed in a U.S. air strike outside Baghdad airport. Gen. Soleimani, who the U.S. held responsible for the deaths of scores of American soldiers in Iraq, was the commander of the Qods Force, the external intelligence and security unit of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). A furious Iran has now vowed a forceful revenge for the killing, raising the risks of a direct war between the U.S. and Iran to an all-time high.

Why did the U.S. launch the drone attack?

As the main architect of Iran’s foreign operations, Gen. Soleimani has been in the cross hairs of the U.S. for years. Ever since he took over the Qods Force in 1998, he expanded the operations of the unit, by deepening Iran’s links with its proxy groups such as Hezbollah and the Badr Organisation, or building new militias such as the Shia Popular Mobilization Units and Houthis. As a leading figure of the Iranian regime, he was seen in public quite often, either attending events in Iran or on the front lines of Iraq or Syria. Attacking him with high-precision air strikes was not an impossible option for the U.S., but U.S. President Donald Trump’s predecessors chose not to take that path as the risks outweighed possible benefits. Mr. Trump ordered the hit as tensions between the two countries were soaring, especially in Iraq.

The latest spell of the crisis was triggered after a rocket attack by Iran-trained Iraqi militias in which an American military contractor was killed in Iraq last month. In retaliation, the U.S. launched air strikes at Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, a Shia paramilitary group trained and funded by the Iranians, killing at least 25. This was followed by an attack on the American Embassy in Baghdad on Tuesday by protesters. The Trump administration held Iran responsible for the storming of the Embassy, and warned of serious repercussions. On Friday, in retaliation, Mr. Trump ordered the drone hit on Gen. Soleimani, who was practically the commander of the Kataib Hezbollah and other Shia militias operating in Iraq. U.S. officials also say that Iran proxies under Gen. Soleimani’s leadership were planning to carry out more attacks on U.S. interests in West Asia and that the assassination was carried out to deter them.

Why is the U.S. targeting Shia militias?

Also killed in Friday’s air strike was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella organisation of pro-Iran Iraqi militias in which Kataib Hezbollah is a member. The PMF was founded in 2014 under Gen. Soleimani’s supervision when Iran was trying to put together militias in Iraq and Syria in the wake of civil wars in both countries. Iran’s main goal was to save the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and defeat the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, which was threatening the Baghdad government in 2014. The PMF is constituted of dozens of militias, including the Kataib Hezbollah, Badr Organisation and Kataib al-Imam Ali, through which Gen. Soleimani and Iran in general exercised enormous influence on Iraqi politics. The PMF played an instrumental role in defeating the IS. The militias fought alongside the Iraqi Army, with the U.S. providing air cover, and liberated Iraqi cities in the north and west from the clutches of the IS. But once the IS Caliphate was destroyed and tensions were on the rise between Iran and the U.S. after the U.S. pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, the PMF militias started targeting U.S. forces in Iraq.

In September, the U.S. State Department shut the consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, citing “repeated incidents of fire from Iran-backed militias”. The decision followed a rocket attack on Basra airport close to where the consulate is located. As U.S.-Iran tensions soared in the wake of Washington doubling down sanctions on Iran, U.S. forces in Iraq came under several rocket attacks. The U.S. repeatedly blamed Iran-backed militias for the attacks. Unlike the previous attacks that did not have any American casualty, the rocket attack on a military base in Kirkuk on December 28 killed an American civilian contractor, following which the U.S. launched the hit on Kataib Hezbollah.

What is Iraq’s position?

Iraq is caught between the U.S. and Iran. The U.S., since Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled, has been a major security partner of Iraq. At present, America has about 5,000 troops deployed in various parts of Iraq. On the other side, Iran is Iraq’s more powerful neighbour. Most Shia political parties and leaders in Iraq have deep, historical ties with the Iranian regime. Also, the Shia militias are a parallel military force; it takes its orders directly from Tehran rather than from Baghdad. Thus, Iraq cannot totally ignore Iran. The U.S.’s unilateral use of air power within Iraq targeting Iraqi militias without the permission of the government has upset Baghdad. The Iraqi government had strongly condemned the U.S. air strikes on Kataib Hezbollah; a huge crowd participated in the siege of the American Embassy. The assassination of Gen. Soleimani triggered instant street protests in Iraq, with protesters chanting “Death to America”.

It is a complex situation. The Iraqi government is being pushed to a point where it has to choose between Iran and the U.S. And given the intricacy of Iraq’s domestic power dynamics and the influence Iran wields over the Iraqi polity, Baghdad is unlikely to antagonise a wounded Tehran.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi has said Parliament will meet in the coming days to discuss “appropriate measures to preserve the dignity of Iraq and its security and sovereignty”. The question is whether the Iraqi government will ask the U.S. to leave the country. Already, calls are getting louder from the Iraqi political class to expel U.S. troops from the country.

So is war inevitable?

It depends on Iran’s response. After killing Gen. Soleimani, the U.S. has said it is committed to de-escalation. The U.S. is saying that it does not want the situation to spiral out of control. But for Iran, this is not just another attack. Gen. Soleimani was one of the top generals of the regime. Self-preservation or protecting the lives of the top leaders is the primary objective of any regime. A failure means a hole in its deterrence. If Iran’s deterrence capacity prevented previous American Presidents from taking such a step, Mr. Trump decided to ignore that, taking a huge risk. So it is upon Iran not only to take revenge for Gen. Soleimani’s death but also to bolster its deterrence. If not, there is no guarantee that the U.S. or Israel would not carry out attacks in the future, targeting other Iranian leaders. Iran cannot afford to take such a risk.

Iran has multiple options for retaliation. It can target U.S. troops in Iraq, either using mid-range rockets or ballistic missiles. Iran-backed proxies in the region, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the PMF in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen, can carry out attacks, targeting America’s allies and assets. The decision is up to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He could also wait for an appropriate time, plan and execute a surprise asymmetric attack — which is Iran’s main military response model — on the Americans in the region. The risk is that an Iranian attack could trigger a cycle of violence, with both sides targeting each other in West Asia. That is the path to war.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.