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The Mideast Just Turned More Dangerous

By Steven A. Cook
The killing in Baghdad of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani escalates an already tense contest in Iraq between U.S. and Iran-backed forces, makes the battle against the Islamic State more difficult, and is likely to feed further regional upheaval.

Will the killing of Soleimani trigger broader U.S.-Iran clashes and more upheaval across the region?

It seems more than likely that the Iranians will respond to this attack. That said, they will not want to confront the United States head on, especially since they have a range of asymmetric options that Iran’s leaders can employ over time. For example, Iran could ramp up its nuclear program and target U.S. interests in Iraq relatively quickly. It could also stir up more violence in Afghanistan, where thousands of U.S. forces remain deployed, and target Americans abroad. Tehran is also active in the cyber world. Additionally, there is the possibility of violence along the Israeli-Lebanese border stirred up by the Iran-allied Hezbollah militia. Such responses are likely to come at different times and in ways that are intended to drive home the point that even with Soleimani gone, Iran can cause great damage.

Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani during Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s meeting with Revolutionary Guards in Tehran, Iran, in September 2016. Pool/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

How will U.S. operations to counter the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria be affected?

There is no doubt that Soleimani’s assassination will make these operations harder, but it was already getting more difficult. Iran’s proxies in Iraq had begun targeting Americans. That is precisely what began this round of violence.
U.S. and allied forces now face a conflict that pits them against the Islamic State and against Iran’s proxies in Iraq, which were also fighting the Islamic State. This problem is particularly acute in Iraq, where Iran’s proxies are part of the security forces, which are allegedly a U.S. partner. Donald J. Trump’s administration just sent additional forces to Kuwait to be on reserve to help secure U.S. facilities in Iraq. The White House will likely need to send more forces if it plans to stay in Iraq and continue fighting the Islamic State the way it has been, under Operation Inherent Resolve, because with the killing of Soleimani, it just became more difficult.

What has been the reaction to Soleimani’s death in the so-called Arab Street?

The reaction of people in Arab countries has been muted. Whereas Iran was quite popular among Arabs during the conflict in Lebanon in 2006, Tehran’s efforts to shape the region after the Arab uprisings have sullied its image. The Iranians have, after all, helped enable the killing of hundreds of thousands of Syrians. I would not expect any major protests commemorating Soleimani.

It is important to underscore, however, that this assassination reinforces a narrative in the Middle East that the United States is hardly the force for regional stability that it claims to be. Arabs know that they are likely to pay a price in the regional competition between the United States and Iran.

Are there any diplomatic options for ratcheting down the tensions?

It is hard to imagine that any third parties have enough clout with both the United States and Iran to effectively de-escalate the situation. It also seems unlikely that the Iranian leadership could be encouraged not to respond. It is easy to understand why Americans should brace for an Iranian response: this was comparable to Iran killing a senior U.S. military commander or intelligence official. In that scenario, any U.S. president would be impervious to diplomatic entreaties and would respond violently.

Source: Strategic Study India
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