The potential impact of the assassination of Iranian General Soleimani on South Asia
On the night of 3 January, Major General Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the mastermind of its military operations across the Middle East, landed in Baghdad, Iraq on an invitation from the Iraqi government. As he was on his way out of the airport, his car was struck by a missile launched by the United States (US), which killed him immediately. Another US missile simultaneously targeted the car in which Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the Iran-aligned Kata’ib Hezbollah group and the deputy chief of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) of Iraq that comprises dozens of Iran-supported Shia militia groups that had fought against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), was travelling. He too was killed, as were at least 7 others. The assassination of Soleimani is the most escalatory step that the US has taken in its long-running confrontation with Iran. It has been described by experts as being tantamount to an act of war.
Despite it being widely acknowledged among the Western allies of the US that Soleimani had the blood of coalition troops on his hands, several countries have questioned the propriety, the legality and the lack of strategic sense of President Trump’s decision to take out a senior functionary of an adversarial sovereign country travelling on the weight of a diplomatic passport and an invitation by a third country, whose government the US and allied troops were purported to be helping. The US action not only embarrassed Iraqi leaders but also violated Iraq’s sovereignty at a juncture when the country was beset by its worst political crisis since the US ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003. The caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi termed the assassination an act of aggression against the “Iraqi state, its government, and its people” and a “breach of the conditions for the presence of US forces in Iraq”. Subsequently, the Iraqi Parliament voted in favour of asking the US to withdraw its over 5000 troops from the country.
Soleimani had armed Shia militant groups in Iraq with rockets, bombs, and other sophisticated weaponry to take on the US-led troops. He had also worked to thwart the US efforts to topple President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and provided arms and aid to the Hezbollah in Lebanon and Houthi rebels in Yemen. In South Asia, Soleimani cultivated militia proxies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, thousands of whose members were deployed to fight in Syria. Nonetheless, successive US Presidents since George W. Bush have shied away from physically targeting Soleimani despite reportedly having several opportunities in which they could have done so.
The Pentagon justified the decision to kill Soleimani by alleging that he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General also approved the attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad that took place this week… The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world”. President Trump threatened Iran with further devastating attacks, including against Iranian cultural centers, in the event of Iran daring to retaliate. The political community in the US was, however, not taken in by these explanations and threats. Senator Elizabeth Warren accused Trump of “threatening to commit war crimes” by militarily targeting cultural centers. She also questioned the timing of the killing and the differing explanations being proffered by the Trump administration. She said, “I think that the question that we ought to focus on is why now? Why not a month ago and why not a month from now? And the answer from the administration seems to be that they can't keep their story straight on this”. Concerns reached such a pitch that the House of Representatives on 9 January voted in favour of a resolution aimed at restraining President Trump’s ability to use military action against Iran without congressional approval.
In Iran, emotions are running high over Soleimani’s killing. An unprecedented millions of people participated in his funeral processions, and the craving for revenge ran deep. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that “harsh vengeance awaits those criminals behind the martyrdom of General Soleimani”. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif termed the killing an act of international terrorism, adding that “The US bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism”. Esmail Gha’ani, Soleimani’s successor as head of the Quds Force, pledged to drive the US out of the region. He said, “We promise to continue down martyr Soleimani’s path as firmly as before, with the help of God, and, in return for his martyrdom, we aim to get rid of America from the region”.
After the three day mourning for Soleimani was over, Iran launched multiple rocket attacks against US bases in Iraq to demonstrate its capability. Despite some suggestions, including from Trump, that having made its point Iran would now back down, subsequent statements from senior Iranian officials and leaders of Iran’s proxy militant outfits in Iraq indicate otherwise. A prolonged and multifaceted conflict between the US and Iran appears to be in the offing, which makes the words of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that “We took a bad guy off the battlefield. There is less risk today to American forces in the region as a result of that attack”, ring rather hollow. Former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director General David Petraeus believes that “there’s a whole universe of possibilities now, everything from proxy retaliation, kidnappings of American citizens, actions against coalition partners, even an attempt to do something in the US”.
The impact of the US action, most believe, has the potential to destabilize not just the Middle East, but the wider world beyond. South Asia, two of whose countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan – share immediate borders with Iran, is a region that is more likely than others to be impacted by the US – Iran confrontation. An early indication that the ramifications of US – Iran hostilities would stretch to South Asia came from US media reports after Soleimani’s killing that suggested that along with US diplomatic missions in the Middle East, across which Soleimani’s killing has fostered an anti-American sentiment, US missions in South Asian countries had also been placed on a virtual lockdown.
India, which shares cordial bilateral ties with both the US and Iran, reacted with care to Soleimani’s killing. In a statement on 3 January, it said, “We have noted that a senior Iranian leader has been killed by the US. The increase in tension has alarmed the world. Peace, stability and security in this region is of utmost importance to India. It is vital that the situation does not escalate further. India has consistently advocated restraint and continues to do so”. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar spoke to Mike Pompeo and Javad Zarif and voiced India’s concerns over the escalating tensions in the Gulf region. India has about 9 million citizens living in the Middle East. Their safety and security in the midst of escalating tensions between the US and Iran in the region is a cause of serious concern for the Indian government. The expectation of a spike in the price of oil in the event of the situation in the Middle East deteriorating further would impact the Indian economy adversely. Instability in the Straits of Hormuz would also impact energy supplies on which India is heavily reliant. The Chabahar port project in Iran in which India has invested substantially, and on which its strategy for closer engagement with Afghanistan and Central Asia hinges, would also come under a cloud.
The security implications would also be a cause of serious concern for India. The one sphere in which the US and Iran were on the same page was their opposition to ISIS. Hostility between the two countries in the Middle East will give ISIS the space to regroup. Given the discovery of ISIS modules in India in recent years, this will be worrisome for its government. The danger of US – Iran hostilities physically spilling into India, as had happened in 2012 when an Israeli diplomatic vehicle in New Delhi was attacked by Iranian proxies, would also not be lost on India.
Afghanistan, which has been placed in a precarious position after Soleimani’s killing, expressed its concerns in its reaction. President Ashraf Ghani’s office said, “We call on the Islamic Republic of Iran, our big neighbor, with whom we have a common language, religious, historic and cultural values, and on the US, who is Afghanistan's strategic and fundamental partner, to prevent conflict escalation, and we hope that both sides solve their differences through negotiations”. The large presence of US troops in the immediate neighbourhood in Afghanistan could be targeted by Iran, especially given the close linkages that Iran has forged in recent years with the Taliban and other militant groups in the country. As Attiqullah Amarkhail, a retired Afghan General and security analyst, put it, “Soleimani had supporters in a number of extremist groups in Afghanistan, and they could act against the US. Iran is not capable of directly attacking US targets in the country; the only force that can do that is the Taliban”. Afghanistan has a sizeable Shia population that would be responsive to Iranian overtures and interests. The US, similarly, could, if it finds itself in a tight spot, use its presence in Afghanistan as a staging post for attacks on Iran. Further, Soleimani’s killing could also adversely impact the ongoing peace process with the Taliban.
Pakistan’s initial reaction to Soleimani’s killing favored Iran over the US. That was understandable in view of the fact that Pakistan has the second largest Shia population in the world, and because it is still smarting from the daring and unilateral US operation that took out Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad and India’s separate land and air operations in Pakistani territory in recent years in response to Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attacks in India. The Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesperson Aisha Farooqui in a statement said that “Respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity are the fundamental principles of the UN Charter, which should be adhered to. It is also important to avoid unilateral actions and use of force”. Pakistan’s Minister for Aviation Ghulam Sarwar Khan strongly condemned the assassination and expressed concern over the escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf, which, he felt, “will surely have serious implications” for Pakistan.
The Pakistani position, however, changed after Pompeo telephoned Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and, revealingly, not PM Imran Khan or Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. The Pakistani Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) tweeted after the conversation that “COAS received telephone call from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Regional situation including possible implications of recent escalation in Middle East was discussed”. Shortly thereafter, the US announced that it had decided to resume training and education facilities for Pakistani military officials under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) programme that had been suspended two years ago on account of the consistent inaction of Pakistan against its terrorist proxies. Media reports suggested that US military assistance to Pakistan amounting to over $ 2 billion that had also been withheld by the US for the same reason would also be resumed soon. On 6 January, Foreign Minister Qureshi was quoted by Reuters as saying that “The Middle East was and is volatile and this region can’t afford another war. We are part of this region and when a fire erupts there, Pakistan can’t escape”. He added, therefore, that Pakistan will not take sides in the US – Iran conflict.
Hasil Bezenjo, a former minister belonging to the National Party of Pakistan, opined that “Pakistan has a large Shiite population and if Islamabad sides with Washington, it would unleash a sectarian war in the country”.
General Bajwa, apparently, assessed that $ 2 billion and 50-odd training slots, as also the enticing prospect of getting back into the good books of the US, trumped both the sentiments of the country’s Shias and the professed Pakistani solidarity with the Muslim Ummah.