Bob Seely is the Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight. He is running to be Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
The US drone strike killing of Iranian General, Qasem Soleimani, during a visit to Baghdad is a dramatic act, one which is very likely to generate a violent response from Tehran, although how is unclear.
Soleimani, 62, leader of Iran’s specialized Quds Force, was the public face and driving force of the expansion of Iran’s power throughout the Middle East in recent years. Like the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps it is both an ideological vehicle – the bulwark of the 1979 Iranian Revolution – and the expeditionary, violent wing of the Iranian state.
Like Russia, Iran has developed a very considerable expertise in what has been referred to as non-conventional forms of struggle. In Iran’s case, it is based less on the use of psychological tools such as deception and information warfare and more on supporting and developing proxies and insurgent tactics, ranging from paramilitary groups in Iraq to the Lebanese political/military organization Hezbollah.
Since the 1980s, books such as The Secret War with Iran have shown how Iran experimented and perfected the art of suicide bombs using proxies during the Lebanon civil war, primarily targeting Israeli soldiers and their Christian allies. However one of the most deadly attacks in that period was the 1983 suicide bombing of the US Marines, which killed 241 in Beirut. The attack was linked to Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, and Iran itself. Iran has also been linked to assassinations of dissidents in Europe and even to the Lockerbie bombing, which killed 270 passengers and 11 on the ground in the UK.
Iran’s development of non-conventional war and proxy militias, not just in Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq but in Bahrain and elsewhere, was developed prior to Soleimani’s leadership. But he took and expanded it, using these indirect tools to confront the US and Saudi Arabia. He was something of a hero in his own country, but a villain amongst many others, including Sunni Arabs and Iranian opponents of the Tehran regime.
It was Soleimani who very likely supported Iraqi insurgent attacks against US and UK forces, and was in part responsible for the development of the improvised bombs and the supply of rockets (made in China and elsewhere) that slammed into military bases and patrols during the Iraq Insurgency – including into the Basra airport base out of which many UK forces, including this author, served.
Indirectly, at least, he had the blood of many US and UK soldiers on his hands. He was the adversary of the US, the UK and many others who were victims of the Quds Force throughout the Middle East.
So what will happen next?
The current struggle between the US and Iran began in late spring 2018, when Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, whereby Iran agreed to limit its nuclear development and accept international inspectors in return for the lifting of sanctions. The UK and others have remained committed to the deal.
US sanctions against Iran have proved highly effective. In response, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, called for “pressure tools” to be used against Washington. These included the seizing of vessels in the Persian Gulf, drone attacks on Saudi oil refineries, and attacks against US forces in Iraq.
In the past weeks, US forces have came under mortar fire – known as ‘indirect fire’ – and the US embassy attacked by a mob. The US responded by striking several military bases on the Iraq/Iran border, and now by the killing of Soleimani.
Both Iran and the US have their strengths and vulnerabilities. Iran is economically weak and probably cannot strike back conventionally. There won’t be an ‘all-out’ war because Iran can’t fight one.
However, there may well be a return to what one may call a ‘hot, cold war’. Iran has personnel across the Middle East, including proxy forces in Lebanon, Gaza, Syria, and Iraq as well as clandestine personal elsewhere. It has advanced expertise in the arts of espionage-led warfare; suicide bombs, IEDs, and targeted killings.
The US clearly has highly sophisticated means for tracking Iranian personal, has forces in the region, and is hurting the Iranian regime through its sanctions. However, it is fighting on territory in which its Iranian enemy has freedom of movement through its proxies.
US actions may also hurt those in Iran wanting reform. More dangerously still, the US has many, many soft targets in the Middle East for Iran to attack, such as embassies, personnel, and citizens. America has allies, including both the Saudis and the Syrian Kurds, but it has also treated them poorly in recent months. The decision to abandon the latter – potentially to appease Vladimir Putin – now looks exceptionally foolish.
The greatest danger maybe that the President understands neither the style of conflict fought by Iran nor has the patience for a drawn-out campaign of the kind of which that the Quds Force and the IRGC will fight.
Iran may be more of a paper tiger than it appears, but we should expect retaliation, certainly non-conventional. Tehran will contemplate actions designed to humiliate the US and perhaps its close allies in the region – meaning Israel, Saudi Arabia, and possibly the UK.
Attacks are as likely to happen in Lebanon or Syria as Iraq. Individual assassination, which were conducted by the Iranians in Europe and the Middle East in the 1980s and 1990s, may again be mounted against individual targets. Iran’s response may also feature hostage-taking and suicide bombings.
For the UK, everything that is happening in the world, from the growth of China to a destabilised Middle East, shows how badly we need an overseas policy review so that we can begin to understand, in a strategic way, what may unfold in the coming years, and align our power to meeting those difficult challenges.