May I take this opportunity to wish all readers a Happy New Year. The world welcomed the new decade with an immediate crisis in the Middle East following the decision of the US President to assassinate Iran’s military supremo Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. I will resist the temptation to use this article to further attack the character of President Trump, for it is clear to all that the decision was made with little thought about the implications of such a reckless act and highly likely was undertaken outside the rules of international law. However, it is worth highlighting the strategic consequences of the assassination which proves how misguided an act it was by the United States.
Such an escalatory strike played directly into the hands of Iranian regime hardliners who now have an effective opt out from the Iranian nuclear deal. This wont worry President Trump, who of course has gone out of his way to undermine one of President Obama’s greatest diplomatic achievements. Despite its imperfections, the nuclear deal was a conduit for de-escalating tensions in the region and normalising relations between the west and Iran.
The assassination immediately placed UK service people and assets in immediate danger of reprisal attacks. The failure of the US Administration to give advanced warning is therefore unforgivable - so much for the so-called special relationship.
The attack also completely undermined domestic efforts in Iraq to counter Iranian influence over their country. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the Iraqi parliament passed a (non-binding) motion calling for US troops to be withdrawn unilaterally from their country.
It also undermined efforts to counter Daesh (ISIS) in the region. Soleimani led the Quds Force, the branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard responsible for external forces. They were probably, after the Kurds, the most effective anti-Daesh ground force in the region. Western forces also have had to stop their anti-Daesh activity in order to protect themselves.
UK and wider western foreign policy in Iraq have largely been based on two aims following the 2003 invasion. Firstly, to stabilise Iraq and secondly to counter Daesh. The attack completely undermined both objectives.
Fundamentally the strike has exacerbated tensions across the Middle East, although it was very interesting to observe the allies of the US, and in particular Israel, distance themselves from President Trump. The only State proclaiming to be on the ‘same page’ was the UK. In my contribution to the urgent Statement on the crisis I highlighted that the UK was effectively helping to escalate the crisis by allowing the deployment of US long range bombers to Diego Garcia, territory which the British State incidentally illegally occupies.
As I write this article, Iran has launched missile attacks on two western air bases in Iraq with no casualties. This would normally be seen as extremely hostile. Let’s hope that on this occasion that this could actually help calm things down. Iran can say it has saved face, and if I was a Whitehouse adviser, I’d be telling the President he has got out of this lightly and he should cash his chips now. I worry however, that Trump realises how well his foreign policy strongman strategy plays with the US electorate and deflects attention from his domestic troubles. And it is election year in the US after all.
At the end of the day our efforts must be concentrated on rebuilding the Iranian nuclear deal framework. It creates the path to reduce the likelihood of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the middle east and if implemented fully will normalise economic relations between Iran and the developed world.