Two and half years ago, claims began to surface in the security world that highly placed Saudi officials, close to the royal family, were trying to take out contracts to assassinate enemies of the Kingdom – with Qassem Soleimani as the prime target.
The proposition was said to have been made at a meeting in Riyadh in March 2017. Among those present was major general Ahmed Al-Assiri, the deputy head of Al-Mukhabarat Al-A’amah, the intelligence service, who was later to be tried and acquitted by a Saudi court for the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The Saudi authorities refused to comment on the alleged meeting, as did lawyers for two businessmen supposedly present, George Nader, a Lebanese-American, and Joel Zamel, an Israeli with close connections to his country’s intelligence apparatus. According to security and diplomatic sources, the two men refused to get involved.
Reports of the meeting were published in a number of news outlets after the Khashoggi killing, including The New York Times, which also claimed that while turning down the offer, Mr Nader told the Saudis of a London-based private security company run by former SAS personnel who might take the contract. The identity of the company has never been established. Representatives of Mr Nader refused to verify whether he made the suggestion.
The extraordinary episode illustrated how Major-General Soleimani was seen as the main and most dangerous opponent by Iran’s adversaries in the region and beyond. The leader of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) had survived several attempts to kill him by western, Israeli and Arab states in the past two decades.
One of the most notable was in 2008 when the head of Hezbollah’s chief of international operations, Imad Mughniyeh, was blown up in a joint operation by the CIA and Mossad, Israel’s intelligence services, in Damascus.
Soleimani, according to reports, was due to be the second target, but the Bush administration pulled the plug on the operation after deciding that his death was likely to trigger waves of violence which would get out of control.
But while the commander was viewed with fear and loathing by his adversaries abroad, he was regarded as a national hero by many in his country – after playing a key part in returning Iran to its rightful place as a regional power.
Ali Soufan, the former FBI officer and security analyst, was not wrong when he observed last year: “More than anyone else, Soleimani has been responsible for the creation of an arc of influence – which Iran terms its ‘Axis of Resistance’ – extending from the Gulf of Oman through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea.’’
I had met Soleimani, along with a small group of other journalists while reporting from Iran. He was polite but, as to be expected, guarded. All attempts to obtain an on-the-record interview were turned down.
The killing of Soleimani, 62, in the American missile strike, will have widespread consequences in Iran as well as abroad.
Donald Trump’s withdrawal from Iran’s nuclear agreement with international powers has already thrown the delicate political balance inside the country out of kilter, weakening the reformist government of Hassan Rouhani and strengthening the hardliners whose mantra had been that you can never trust the west.
I recall an Iranian MP, a keen reformer and critical of the IRGC on a number of issues, speaking of the importance of Soleimani during my last trip to the country: “He is not just a military man, but a political strategist as well. He is in contact with all factions, and he is powerful enough to keep some of the really reactionary elements in check. He is actually a stabilising figure in this very difficult period. Who knows who will come if he goes.’’
Now this violent intervention by the Trump administration is likely to have huge inflammatory consequences.
When last in Iran I interviewed members of the IRGC and Basij militia who had served in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime, one of them seriously injured in combat. Although professing their willingness to fight again to defend Iran and its allies, they hoped that there would be no need to do so.
The fighters also spoke of their admiration and loyalty towards commander Soleimani and how he had led from the front against the west and its Sunni Gulf partners. Such men, one can anticipate, may well be prepared to take up arms again if asked to in retaliation for his killing.
Philip Gordon, who was White House coordinator for the Middle East and the Persian Gulf in the Obama administration, described the assassination of the commander as little short of a “declaration of war” by America against Iran. Robert Emerson, a British security analyst, pointed out that Mr Trump had embarked on a path that his predecessors in the White House had been careful to avoid, saying that “what has happened has put not just Americans but others from the west at risk”. Vali Nasr, an analyst on the Middle East and a professor at Johns Hopkins University, warned that “the pressure to retaliate will be immense”.
What is perplexing is why the US took this step now. There has been a growing view that Mr Trump is not a war president. He had sacked John Bolton as his national security adviser apparently because the lifelong hawk’s confrontational policies were driving the US towards a conflict with Iran.
It is true that a series of low-level rocket attacks against US bases in Iraq, with one American civilian contractor killed, were blamed on Tehran. But that had already led to US military action against the pro-Iranian militia believed to be behind them.
Earlier Iranian operations – against tankers in the Gulf; the shooting down of a US drone; even the attack against a Saudi oil facility – had not resulted in major armed response.
During another confrontation, a year before last, the IRGC commander sent a message to the US president saying: “Mr Trump the gambler, I’m telling you, know that we are close to you in that place you don’t think we are. You will start the war but we will end it.”
Soleimani is no longer there, but the threat of war has not disappeared with his death. It has, instead, become much more of a real possibility, and with it the prospect of very dark days ahead.
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