Is this war by accident or war by design? We’ve all said that a major war in the Middle East could start by accident. But no one thought Donald Trump would go for the jugular quite like this. To kill General Qassem Soleimani is a sword at the heart of Iran, without doubt. And on whose behalf?
Trump boasts of his relationship with the Saudi king who has talked of “cutting off the head of the Iranian snake” and whose oil facilities were attacked with drone-fired missiles – which the US blamed on Iran – last year. Or Israel? Or is this just another decision with incalculable results, taken by a crackpot president in the US?
Just imagine what would happen if a leading American general – or two, since Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was a leading pro-Iranian figure in Iraq – was blown up on a tour of the Middle East. There would be airstrikes, attacks on Iran’s nuclear centres, threats by Washington to close down all traffic between Iran and the outside world. The death of an American in Baghdad on Friday and the riots outside the US embassy scarcely justify American attacks on this scale.
Qassem Soleimani was one of the most powerful men in Iran, although the Revolutionary Guards al-Quds forces he commanded is not quite the elite army which Iran likes to pretend. Soleimani, according to his fellow commanders, would take risks at the various al-Quds front lines in Syria and his men admired him for his courage under fire. So he regularly expected to die. But Baghdad International Airport is the last place you would expect to see an American drone put him and al-Muhandis to death.
The Americans have long grown used to staging attacks on pro-Iranian militia bases in Iraq and Syria. Over recent months, these strikes have become normal, regular – like Israel’s frequent raids into Syria and Lebanon. But it was a US military operation which also killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria, a Sunni Muslim who was an enemy of Tehran and whom the Iranians would have been happy to liquidate.
The Americans have been used to this sort of assassination – or “targeted killings” as the Israelis call them – wiping out their enemies when they choose. Osama bin Laden was the first, Baghdadi the second, Suleimani the third. Such killings are regularly undertaken by Israel in Gaza, where Hamas leaders are often assassinated.
Yet it’s easy to take these men as important – as they think they are. Iran’s forces in Syria, for example, are often grossly exaggerated by the US. Claims of the presence of 10,000 Revolutionary Guards Quds members in Syria were wildly inaccurate. Two thousand may be more accurate at any one time. True, Iranian intelligence men are scattered around the Middle East. But so are American agents.
One of Tehran’s most senior intelligence men was Ghadanfar Rokon Abadi who was Iran’s man in Beirut, and later its ambassador there. He probably knew more about Hezbollah and Syria than anyone else and returned to Tehran in 2014. This was not long after Sunni Islamists, reportedly with Saudi support, staged a suicide attack against his embassy, killing 23 embassy employees, Hezbollah guards and civilians. Rokon Abadi was spared. His top security man was killed. But in 2016, he made the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca where 2,300 people – 464 of them Iranians – were crushed to death in panic and riots for which Iran blamed the Saudi monarchy. Rokon Abadi was among them. It was months before his remains were returned to Iran. According to an Iranian official, all his organs had been removed. They never discovered why.
But in the Middle East, intelligence agents are always in danger. It was a Hezbollah satellite group called Islamic Jihad which killed CIA Beirut station chief William Buckley, and Imad Mougnieh, his reported murderer – or the man who gave the order – was killed by a car bomb in Damascus in 2008. In 1983, a suicide bomber blew up his truck bomb at the front of the US embassy in Beirut, killing 32 people and wiping out most of the CIA agents who were holding a meeting inside.
Oh yes, and one more thing. Isn’t there a US election coming up this year? And doesn’t Trump want to win – and Soleimani as a target in Baghdad will play pretty well with Republicans. Iran has always responded to insults or attacks by waiting and delaying its own retaliation. Remember two oil tankers called the Adrian Darya and the Stena Impero? But now it’s getting personal.
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