Following the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, our Heads of Office from Beirut, Tel Aviv and Washington analyse the situation.
In a targeted missile strike on 3 January of this year, the US killed the Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, Commander of the Quds Force and hence the most important strategist behind Iran’s military engagement in the region. The Iranian government and Revolutionary Guards promised punitive retaliatory measures and carried out air strikes on US military bases in Iraq. Previously, Iran had gone no further than largely symbolic attacks on US bases in Iraq and its official announcements concerning the nuclear deal showed a sense of proportion. Despite the protests of many of its Sunni and Kurdish members, the Iraqi parliament called on the government to put an end to the presence of all foreign troops in Iraq. The incident a few days after Soleimani’s death, in which a Boeing 737 was shot down by the Revolutionary Guards in Teheran, leaving 176 civilians dead, made the situation even more unpredictable. The possibility of a further escalation cannot be ruled out.
Anja: Joachim, in your report for our dossier last summer, you told us that Lebanon tended to stick its head in the sand over the crisis between the US and Iran, which already seemed to be escalating at the time. For the last several months, we have been reading about mass protest movements in Lebanon, the outcome of which appears uncertain. Do you get the impression that Lebanon is still keeping its head firmly below the parapet or is it paying attention to events in Iran this time?
Joachim: It is indeed different this time. Last summer, nobody here really believed that there was any danger of war. But Iran’s influence and, to some extent, that of Iraq is very much a fixture in Lebanon. In fact, in his speech on Soleimani’s death, Hezbollah’s Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah, made reference to how many times Soleimani had visited Lebanon in person – and incidentally also al-Muhandis, the leader of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd al-Sha’bi) – Shiite militias with close links to Iran – who was killed alongside Soleimani. If you drive through the most Hezbollah-influenced neighbourhoods around here, you can see posters of the two of them that people have put up everywhere. I feel that their assassination is having considerably more of a bearing on the protest movement in Iraq where it’s been in full swing for months. It’s brought millions of people to the streets and put across some strong demands of the government and denouncing corruption. It’s my opinion that the government was really caught off guard by the killing of the two figureheads, which has led to a national mood of opposition to foreign interference in the country and placed the focus much more strongly onto the security issues and social and political interests that are so urgent in Iraq.
Do you think that the attack has put paid to the dream of self-rule in Iraq and that the voices calling for it have fallen silent? Or will the protest movement go on? How would you assess it?
Joachim: I wouldn’t go as far as to say that they have fallen silent. But it is visibly getting a lot harder to place their concerns front and centre, i.e. against government corruption, against subdivision into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish interests, in favour of the rule of law. And one can-not remain silent on the question of the American presence, on the question of Iraqi self-rule, etc. One other thing: it was quite clear to see that there were also protests in Iraq against the Iranian dominance in the country. There were demonstrations outside Iranian consulates and demands to keep its dominance within Iran.
Bastian, the impression I got here in Germany that there was very little room for complex, differentiated analyses. Anybody who expressed criticism of the targeted assassination was very quickly branded a proponent of the Iranian regime. How did you perceive the debate in the US, how did it go there?
Bastian: The US government and various right-wing opinion-makers tried to polarise the de-bate in political terms, saying that anyone who criticised Soleimani’s killing was unpatriotic or an outright supporter of terrorism. But the broader debate here in the US reflected a much wider variety of views. There was a lot of criticism of Trump at political level and in the media, arguing that Soleimani’s assassination had done a lot of damage to American interests in the region. This stems from the concern that it could have the effect of Iran ramping up its nucle-ar programme again, seriously jeopardising the anti-IS mission and thus allowing Daesh to rise to the fore once again, and the US throwing away its entire influence in Iraq, allowing Iran to step in and fill the vacuum. The decision of the Iraqi government to order the American troops out of the country is already a step in that direction. For that reason, there has also been enormous criticism of that decision. Additionally, there is also intense debate in Congress about scaling up the powers and involvement of Congress in decisions on military deployments in relation to those of the President. In other words, it has also sparked an ongoing debate on the powers of the President in matters of war and peace.
Do you think the strike will help Trump in his election campaign or go against him?
Bastian: Among his own supporters, it’s unquestionably helping him at the moment. Killing Soleimani allowed him to consolidate his image as a ‘tough guy’ and ‘terrorist hunter’. He’s done it before, with al-Baghdadi. At the same time, he’s been able to avoid escalation to a state of warfare up to now, as another big US war in the Middle East continues to be a very unpopular proposition in the US and goes against Trump’s election promise of a military withdrawal from the region.
Steffen, let’s look at the situation in Israel. How has the escalation been discussed there and what is Israel steeling itself for now?
Steffen: Here in Israel, Soleimani’s assassination has been seen as an overwhelmingly positive thing. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been encouraging the American President to take a more confrontational line towards Iran ever since he took up office. One of Israel’s priorities informing this position is that they hope to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, another is that they wish to curtail Iran’s regional influence, obviously in the area around the Golan Heights and on the Israeli border. And Israel also hopes to avoid any permanent stationing of Iranian troops anywhere in Syria. Finally, there was a great deal of disappointment when Trump failed to respond in any way to Iranian provocation and, from Israel’s point of view, this inaction undermined the US’s credibility and deterrent potential. For this reason, the government and opposition both welcomed Soleimani’s killing, as he was perceived as a central strategic player in Iranian politics. At the same time, however, Israel emphatically disclaimed any involvement on the part of the Israeli army and Israel itself in the strike. Netanyahu gagged his ministers, as Israel was keen to avoid becoming a target of any reprisal measures itself.
As a major strategist, Soleimani was the puppet-master behind Iran’s allies, controlling their actions and strategic positioning. What does his death mean from Israel’s point of view, with regard to its enemies?
Steffen: It remains to be seen whether Soleimani’s killing will be connected to long-term victory. Bastian has already made a couple of important points. Israel’s experience of strikes isn’t especially positive either, as they have in many cases triggered a tit-for-tat situation. This has led to civilian victims, but very rarely to any fundamental change in the strategic situation. And from Israel’s perspective, there is now also the added risk of nuclear escalation. That is very much a red line for Israel: an Iran with nuclear weapons. Although Iran has announced the next step, it has not completely withdrawn from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Against that background, there is also great uncertainty about Trump’s intentions, whether Soleimani’s assassination was a one-off strike or part of a more comprehensive strategy. That’s something the Israelis aren’t quite clear about.
Within this highly complex overall situation, what do you consider to be the options for de-escalation? What do you think would be a smart strategy for German foreign policy and who should Germany be getting into talks with at this point?
Bastian: In the US, Germany is unfortunately seen as having very little room for manoeuvre, as is Europe. I think of course it would be a very good thing if the US and Iran also entered serious bilateral talks. But it is entirely unclear what the basis and aim of such negotiations might be. Nor does the Trump administration have any strategy for this. But it’s something the Europeans and Germany are more likely to watch from the sideline. I also think that the most important thing from the German and European point of view is to move heaven and earth to maintain and save the Iranian atomic treaty, as far as possible. It’s not dead yet. That’s the most important issue. Another issue for Germany and Europe, I think, is how to deal with it if the US does actually step up its withdrawal from Iraq and if Daesh, for instance, manages to make a comeback in the region. How we view the region as Germans and Europeans is entirely wide open, in my opinion.
Joachim, how do you see things?
Joachim: Bastian said that Germany and Europe don’t have a massive amount of scope at the moment and I quite agree. I think the view here is that it is extremely important to do everything possible to keep Iraq out of the conflict. There’s certainly a danger that there won’t be a direct confrontation, but that an indirect confrontation will happen within Iraq, as is in fact already the case to some extent. I also think that the biggest impacts in the region will be seen in Iraq. We’ve already mentioned the protest movement. But if there were increased attacks from unambiguously pro-Iranian forces trying to block political transition in Iraq to a more open, democratic system, or hoping to use Iraq to crack down on American institutions, or maybe even any Western institutions, then I would see that as a very unfortunate development. I think it should be a focus as well.
Steffen: So, I also agree that Germany and the EU as a bloc have very few options here. The Europeans set up the special purpose vehicle INSTEX, which is actually ready to start work, but has yet to process a single transaction. I think obviously, it would be important to introduce low-threshold possibilities for de-escalation steps for the US-Iran relations. And if you want to look on the bright side, Trump’s declaration of a successful strike, a kind of victory over Iran, could be an opportunity to get into talks on a new nuclear deal. But obviously, that would call firstly for a real strategy and, secondly, some restraint. Pompeo’s twelve demands most definitely cannot be the basis for it; it would be much more limited, for instance concerning the nuclear programme only.
Thank you all very much!