The reason Qassem Soleimani was in Baghdad shows how complex the Iran crisis is

The commander is said to have been in Iraq to discuss moves to ease tensions between Tehran and Saudi Arabia – something that will have been of interest to Washington

Kim Sengupta
Monday 06 January 2020 18:11 GMT
The rising tensions between the US and Iran explained

As part of the incendiary and escalating crisis surrounding the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, there has come an explanation of why the Iranian commander was actually in Baghdad when he was targeted by a US missile strike.

Iraq’s prime minister revealed that he was due to be meeting the Iranian commander to discuss moves being made to ease the confrontation between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia – the crux of so much of strife in the Middle East and beyond.

Adil Abdul-Mahdi was quite clear: “I was supposed to meet him in the morning the day he was killed, he came to deliver a message from Iran in response to the message we had delivered from the Saudis to Iran.”

The prime minister also disclosed that Donald Trump had called him to ask him to mediate following the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad. According to Iraqi officials contact was made with a number of militias as well as figures in Tehran. The siege of the embassy was lifted and the US president personally thanked Abdul-Mahdi for his help.

There was nothing to suggest to the Iraqis that it was unsafe for Soleimani to travel to Baghdad – quite the contrary. This suggests that Trump helped lure the Iranian commander to a place where he could be killed. It is possible that the president was unaware of the crucial role that Soleimani was playing in the attempted rapprochement with the Saudis. Or that he knew but did not care.

One may even say that it is not in the interest of a president who puts so much emphasis on American arms exports, and whose first official trip after coming to office was a weapons-selling trip to Saudi Arabia – during which he railed against Iran – to have peace break out between the Iranians and the kingdom. But that would be far too cynical a thought.

Abdul-Mahdi spoke of his disappointment that while Trump was expressing his gratitude over the mediation, he was also simultaneously planning an attack on Soleimani. That attack took place not long after the telephone call from the president.

There is also the possibility that the US military planners knew nothing about the conversations between Trump and Abdul-Mahdi, and took out Soleimani when the opportunity presented itself.

There may be credence to this, if one follows the narrative which is emerging from defence and intelligence officials in Washington: that the assassination option presented to Trump was bound to be refused, as it had been by his predecessors in the White House. And that there was a desperate scramble to track down Soleimani when, much to their shock, Trump ordered the hit.

The existence of the talks between the Saudi and the Iranians and, more importantly, the threat of impending violence, has meant reaction in Riyadh at the killing has been markedly muted.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, not a stranger to sabre rattling, has sent his younger brother, deputy defence minister Khalid bin Salman, to Washington to urge restraint.

The very real risk of the region becoming an arena for conflict has led to rare cooperation in the stand-off between the Saudi-led Gulf block and Qatar, whose foreign minister was dispatched to Tehran with a similar appeal for calm.

In Tehran, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani met with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to discuss “measures to maintain the security and stability of the region,” the state-run Qatar News Agency reported. While in the UAE the foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, called for “rational engagement”, tweeting: “wisdom and balance must prevail.”

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei weeps at Soleimani prayers

As well as being in danger of getting caught in the crossfire of a war between the US and Iran, the Arab states in the region are vulnerable to Tehran’s allied militias – in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria. There is concern whether the US, after unleashing a wave of missiles, would do anything when retribution is taken on its partner countries.

The Saudis learned only too clearly last summer that one cannot always depend on American commitment, when drone and missile attacks on oil-processing facilities in the kingdom halved oil production. Trump directly blamed Iran for the attacks but there was no American military response, just as there has not been to the many attacks on the kingdom from the Houthis in Yemen.

In the light of all this Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi political sociologist, pointed out: “Saudi Arabia and all the Gulf countries are just quiet. They don’t want to antagonise the Iranians, because the situation in the region is so delicate, so divided, so sensitive, that you don’t want to stir it up further.”

Robert Emerson, a British security analyst, said that it was clear why caution was prevailing. “You don’t know whether Trump will just light the blue touchpaper and then just disappear,” he said. “The Arab states are right to be wary. The talk about Iran and Saudi negotiations is intriguing, further details should be emerging.’’

The Trump administration continues to insist that Soleimani was killed because he was about to launch an imminent terror campaign, without providing any evidence for the assertion. There is increasing scepticism about the claim and the questions are not going to go away. There are too many memories of Saddam Hussein and his non-existent WMD arsenal. The repercussions from the assassination in Baghdad will continue for a very long time.

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