Late on Thursday night, the United States military launched four missiles, via drone, that have sent shock waves crashing through Iran, the Middle East and the world.
In the strike, authorized directly by President Donald Trump, legendary Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force and spearhead of Iran’s spreading military influence in the Middle East, was killed. The impact within Iran’s leadership has been huge.
This is a hammer blow to Iran; make no mistake about it. It is also no over-exaggeration to say that such an action could well be the spark for a renewed war in the region, with some commentators even questioning if this could be the opening salvo of a much wider regional confrontation. Some commentators are even whispering “World War III” in hushed tones.
“At the direction of the president, the US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani,” a Pentagon statement reads.
The assassination of Qasem Soleimani comes amid the widespread US belief that he was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq, and throughout the region, in the very near future.
There is also a widespread belief in America that Soleimani is personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members, and the injuring of thousands more.
Up until this point, Qasem Soleimani has always been the “man that got away,” seemingly immune from any Israeli or American retaliation. Many believed that he acted in the Middle Eastern theatre with near impunity. Not anymore.
Iran has openly called this a “declaration of war,” and declared three full days of national mourning. Qasem Soleimani was much more than merely a military leader to the Iranians.
Within Iran, Soleimani was an emblem, a figurehead, for Iran’s stand against the West in the Middle East, and the world generally. He was a revered hero, seen by many as an all-conquering warrior against the Zionists and the infidel West; he was a national icon, second only to the Ayatollah himself in popularity and esteem.
He is now dead.
For Iran, Qasem Soleimani’s death was the unthinkable. But it has happened, and the response from Tehran has been immediate, vowing that America will receive a “crushing” retaliation for this strike.
Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami, also a top military leader for the elite Al-Quds Brigade, of which Qasem Soleimani was the head, said, “A crushing revenge will be taken for this unjust assassination. We will take revenge from all those involved and responsible for his assassination.”
US Defence Secretary Mark Espira has, in the wake of this attack, announced the United States’ policy to begin pre-emptive strikes against her enemies in the Middle East, “to Iran and it’s proxies: we will not accept the continued attacks against our personnel and forces in the region. Attacks against us will be met with responses in the time, manner and place of our choosing. We urge the Iranian regime to end malign activities.”
There is no doubt that this assassination could be the catalyst for a major escalation in the Middle East. Some have even described this as akin to throwing a stick of dynamite into a dry powder keg. Others to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914 that sparked the beginning of World War One. This assassination is potentially that important.
Such an action, without question, carries with it the risk of swift and significant escalation, yet it is difficult at this early point to estimate with any specificity what Iran’s response will be. But that they will respond is an absolute certainty.
The immediate Western response from Israel, the United States and regional allies has been to put embassies, bases and all personnel, military and non-military, on high alert for immediate retaliatory strikes.
Additionally, all embassies and consuls around the world, not just in the region, have now been placed on a state of high alert. The Iranians are masters of asymmetric warfare, something we may all potentially learn in the weeks ahead.
At this point, all eyes must be on Iran. Much of what happens over the coming weeks, months and even years will be determined by how Iran responds to this assassination right now, over the coming days.
When Iran does respond, they will be walking a very fine tightrope indeed. Not go far enough, and they look weak; go too far and they will provoke war with a country that they cannot hope to defeat in direct, conventional warfare.
There is a very real danger that any Iranian response could lock both them and the United States into a cycle of mutual escalation that might end in a much wider regionwide war, one which would impact all of us, and be almost impossible to pull back from.
In any direct military confrontation between the United States and Iran, the probabilities of the conflict becoming a major regionwide war within 48 hours are currently estimated to be about 90% or higher, quickly drawing in other nations and US allies.
The Iranians have equipped and paid for a massive missile force in Lebanon, estimated by some to be as many as 110,000 rockets. This evening, Israel sits firmly in the crosshairs of any potential Iranian response.
It is hard for me to overstate the potential significance of this moment. Whatever happens over the next few days, one thing is certain: the United States is closer now to a real, direct hot war with Iran than it has ever been in recent times.
Equally, for the US, the end result of this may be a huge loss of influence. Iraq has already declared this US assassination to be against their sovereignty. In this context, it may well now lead to the forced military withdrawal of the United States from Iraq, a question that the Iraqi government was already considering before the strike occurred. This would be a huge, worldwide humiliation for America.
Considering the tangled alliances in the Middle East, and that Soleimani controlled Iranian foreign policy across the region, we very well could be looking at a Franz Ferdinand, 1914 moment.
I have been watching the Middle East intently for 25 years now, and this is one of the most frightening set of circumstances I have ever seen.
What happens next no one can reliably predict, but one thing is for sure – something is going to happen. When, where and how? We will just have to wait and see.