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The U.S. Assassination of a Key Iranian General Throws Fuel on the Fire

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.


The Big Picture

In response to the latest round of escalation between Washington and Iran, in which protesters in Iraq breached the compound perimeter of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week — likely at the behest of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Cmdr. Qassem Soleimani — the United States has taken the opportunity to eliminate the Iranian military leader and other key architects of Tehran’s strategy in Iraq. But the question is, at what cost? Iran will retaliate in a significant fashion, increasing the risk of further escalation that could lead to a direct military confrontation between the two countries.

See Iran’s Arc of Influence


It’s the spark to ignite a major conflagration: Late on Jan. 2, the Pentagon said it launched an overnight strike in Baghdad killing several officials linked with Iran, including Qassem Soleimani, the powerful commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force. In addition to Soleimani, the head of the Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah militia, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and the deputy head of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Naim Qassem were reportedly killed — although the latter’s death has yet to be confirmed. The Pentagon explicitly noted that among other reasons, the United States conducted the strike in retaliation for the attempt by supporters of Kataib Hezbollah to overrun the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone on Dec. 31, but the decision to target one of Iran’s most important military figures is sure to raise tensions between Iran and the United States in the Middle East to new heights. 

Soleimani’s death, which had followed a stark warning by U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper that the United States was willing to preemptively strike Iranian-backed militias in Iraq to protect U.S. forces, will reverberate throughout the Middle East. As the head of the Quds Force, Soleimani was, more or less, the peer of generals leading the U.S. military’s actions in Afghanistan or Iraq. Naturally, his killing opens the way for a significant escalation, as Iran could well target high-ranking U.S. military personnel in the Middle East in response. Ultimately, Iran will absolutely seek to retaliate against the United States — the only question is at what level, what scale and when. 

Here’s how Soleimani’s death might affect a number of areas around the Middle East — and the wider world:

Iraq

The risk that Iraqi militias backed by Iran would attack U.S. and Western forces, assets and, potentially, commercial interests was already high, but it’s just increased precipitously. Although Iranian-backed militias led by leaders like al-Muhandis were not popular among many Iraqis, the U.S. move to stoke a conflict with Iran on Iraqi soil will inject serious diplomatic tension into Baghdad’s relationship with Washington and fuel nascent efforts in the Iraqi parliament to reevaluate Iraq’s security cooperation with the United States. It will also complicate the Iraqi security force’s efforts to continue to work closely with Washington against the Islamic State.

Israel

Israel reportedly had come close to assassinating Soleimani a handful of times in recent years. And based on the missile threat that it perceives from the Quds Force and the Iraqi militias led by al-Muhandis and others, Israel will no doubt support this decision by Washington. But potential Hezbollah retaliation against U.S. interests in Lebanon could also turn into attacks on Israel, given the widespread perception in Lebanon — and throughout the region — that U.S. and Israeli interests against Iran and its allies are one and the same. In the worst-case scenario, that could touch off a separate fight between Israel and Iran.

Lebanon

Iran’s strong presence in Lebanon through Hezbollah makes the possibility of retaliation against U.S. targets there a distinct possibility. Hezbollah exercises influence in large swaths of Lebanon, including parts of Beirut, and has the capability to launch attacks against U.S. targets in the country. That risk will be even more pronounced if the death of Qassem, Hezbollah’s second in command, is confirmed.

Saudi Arabia and Gulf Oil Producers

It has been nearly four months since Iran attacked the Abqaiq and Khurais oil-processing facilities, taking half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production down. If the United States and Iran continue their escalation with direct strikes on one another, Iran could certainly retaliate against countries like Saudi Arabia, one of the closest U.S. allies in the region, and their economic interests. Each of the Gulf Cooperation Council states — particularly Bahrain and Qatar — hosts a significant U.S. military presence that Iran could target.

Persian Gulf

In addition to direct attacks on GCC member states, Iran could launch more attacks against the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf. For most of U.S. President Donald Trump’s term in office, Iran has hesitated to use its naval assets to harass U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz and Gulf of Oman despite its aggressive strategy to counter U.S. sanctions pressure. That, however, could change: As it is, the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group reported last month that Iranian naval ships had harassed it as it was leaving its deployment in the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea.

Syria

Soleimani’s death is a blow, but likely not a crippling one, to Iran’s ability to conduct its extensive operations in Syria. The United States does not have a significant presence in Syria compared to what it has in Iraq and the Persian Gulf, but the remaining U.S. forces in Syria are near Iranian-allied militia forces, meaning they could become a target. 

Afghanistan

Iran could decide to strike the United States in Afghanistan, given the target-rich environment of U.S. soldiers and military assets in the country, as well as Iran’s history of support for the Taliban. Iran is better positioned to strike elsewhere — since it does not directly control or direct the Taliban as it does other proxy forces — but the possibility of retaliation in the war-torn country cannot be ruled out.

Yemen

Iran could push the Houthi rebels in Yemen to launch retaliatory attacks against U.S. allies as well, even though Iran does not directly control that group, either. The Houthis maintain a robust arsenal of drones as well as ballistic and cruise missiles, which they have used to carry out attacks in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and surrounding waters such as the Bab el-Mandeb strait. Potential targets include, but are not limited to, airports, critical infrastructure, energy infrastructure, military targets and vessels transiting the Red Sea.

Beyond the Middle East

The threat of retaliation is not limited to the Middle East, given Iran’s history of conducting attacks against targets ranging from Latin America to Eastern Europe and South Asia, among others. Iran has also been linked to numerous plots in Western countries, including in Belgium, Denmark, France, the United States and the United Kingdom in recent years.


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The Apathetic American: Dismissing the Status Quo

Every December since the Affiliate Network was established in 2014, we seem to reflect on what a tumultuous year the world had. This year is no different. It seems so many things we took for granted since the fall of the Soviet Union are unravelling in some astonishing ways. Much of this can be attributed to the long-term effects of a rising China, climate change, or the Global War on Terror but there is a new and alarming contributor to the apparent dysfunction in the international system: American apathy toward the status quo.

Fluctuations

We began the year with a shutdown of the United States Government. Though it was the third such shutdown since the inauguration of Donald Trump, this was the most prolonged and severe in U.S. history. In Shutdown Security: Grinding the Axe, Lino Miani explains how the shutdown put tremendous strain on American relationships overseas and damaged U.S. security worldwide.

Latin America illustrates the wild fluctuations that happened this year. In January, Ligia Lee wrote convincingly that left-wing politics were on the decline in the hemisphere. In End of the Left: Latin America’s Right-Wing Swing, she describes a swing towards right-wing governments and voters’ frustration with leftist politicians. Just 11 months later, Christina Kirchner is back in Argentina, and conservative governments in Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador are under intense pressure that some may not survive.

American Apathy

Though U.S. apathy towards Latin America may arguably be the trigger for recent upheavals there, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, feel the direct effects of American ambivalence. Nowhere did this hit harder than in Syria, where the surprise decision by President Trump to withdraw U.S. troops had a global impact on U.S. credibility. Many of our contributors wrote about conditions that, one way or another, can be seen as a growing recognition that governments everywhere desire to chart a more independent course than they previously thought necessary or possible.

Dr. Chris Golightly, a long-time energy industry consultant, wrote about Europe’s growing need to secure its natural gas supply from Russian domination. As he wrote in Mind the Gap: Geo-Strategy of Natural Gas, this will be much harder due to Russia’s growing influence in transit countries Syria, Turkey, and Ukraine. He also describes this influence in detail in his update to Green is the New Black: Making a Gas Cartel.

Dino Mora wrote an entire series of articles on the influence of Russia and its allies in Latin America. In his articles Around the Caribbean, and Measure Up Costa Rica, he tells the tale of Russian foreign policy backed up by Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua using Soviet-style active measures to erode U.S. influence in the region. In Venezuela’s Bad Neighborhood, Dino describes just how critical these measures are to the vital interests of those nations.

Perhaps most striking is the case of Japan. President Trump’s ambiguous and thus far mostly fruitless diplomacy with North Korea has come at a cost for the security of South Korea. At the same time, U.S. trade pressure and antipathy toward its long-standing security responsibilities in the region has allowed latent hostilities to rise to the fore between America’s allies. As Lino Miani wrote in Islands of Conflict, Russia and China are likely exploiting this rift. In Isolating Japan, he argues the U.S. decision to quit Syria further impacts Japanese calculations about its security relationships with the U.S. and its allies. In American Basing in Asia: Taking the Cow by the Horns, Gary Sampson proposes a new footprint that accounts for these realities.

Electioneering

Though elections are always important events, the Affiliate Network covered several this year that were particularly noteworthy. In Battle for the Throne: Indonesia Votes, Dr. Viana Geary explains why the Islamic “Green Factor” encouraged by the nomination of an influential Islamic politician, served as kingmaker in Jokowi’s re-election. The resultant shift in Jokowi’s priorities reflects the needs of millennials and women that together made up the majority of voters this year. In El Salvador’s Combative New President, Lino Miani describes the hopes and challenges facing the charismatic Nayib Bukele as he makes it clear he has no interest in maintaining the status quo of El Salvador’s political past amid a worsening relationship with Washington.

At a time when the world is fixated on tales of Russian interference in the U.S. election and the possibility of a conspiracy to do so again in 2020, it is easy to view democracy itself as under threat. After months of protest, three million of Hong Kong’s four million voters took to the streets to select the leadership for the city’s 18 districts. In How the Pro-Democracy Election Victory Could Calm Hong Kong, we explain how the results left the pro-establishment government in control of just a single district. After the election, the world is waiting with bated breath to see whether this victory will moderate the protests. In Sandra Torres: Under the Electoral Weather, Lino Miani describes how corruption threatens Guatemala’s electoral system. Lastly, in Overcoming Democracy: Italy’s Online Experiment, Jared Wilhelm warns us about the dangers of direct elections over the web.

New Relationships

Apart from the expert analysis, however, these last four articles are noteworthy because they were all shared with or from our new partner, Stratfor. As the world’s leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor’s partnership with the Affiliate Network has brought our work to new and broader audiences and complemented our native content in ways that make the Affiliate Network an essential inclusion in the daily reading of decision-makers everywhere. We’re thrilled to be recognized as a partner of such a respected organization and consider it a testament to the quality of work from our contributors.

As we look back on 2019 and prepare for what will surely be yet another tumultuous year ahead, we are very grateful to our readers and contributors. This year, however, we feel especially fortunate to have partners to thank as well. With that, we wish you and yours a hugely successful 2020 and hope that the Affiliate Network will be part of it.


Fred Hendricks, Editor, The Affiliate NetworkThe views expressed in this article are those of their respective authors and do not reflect the views of any government or private institution.

Fred Hendricks is the editor of the Affiliate Network and a Surface Warfare Officer in the US Navy. He has eight years experience working in counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden, counter-narcotics in the Caribbean, and with NATO and allied partners in the Mediterranean.

A Major Attack on Saudi Aramco Leaves the U.S. in a Difficult Spot

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.


The Big Picture

As the United States intensifies its campaign of maximum economic pressure against Iran, Tehran is seeking ways to escape the straitjacket that oil sanctions have put it in. The U.S. blames Iran for a serious Sept. 14 attack against Saudi oil infrastructure, and the aftermath is likely to reveal Iran’s boldness, Saudi Arabia’s risk aversion and the difficult decision Washington must weigh as it chooses how to respond.

See the U.S. and the Balance of Power

See Iran’s Arc of Influence


Attacks on Sept. 14 apparently conducted with cruise missiles and drones targeted the Abqaiq and Khurais crude-processing and stabilization facilities belonging to Saudi Arabian Oil Co., knocking 5.7 million barrels per day of crude oil production offline — 5 percent of the global daily total. Although Yemen’s Houthi rebels quickly claimed responsibility, the United States asserted that the attacks did not originate from Yemen and were conducted with Iranian help. Details released in the aftermath of the attacks seem to corroborate at least the U.S. claim that they were launched from outside Yemen.

The Iranian Calculation

If this was indeed Iran directly attacking targets in Saudi Arabia, it marks a brazen escalation in its efforts to maintain and strengthen its political and military standing in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. It would also track with Iranian efforts to seek relief from increasing U.S. pressure. Iran has demonstrated with a number of recent attacks that it is willing to aggressively push back against the United States and its allies as it tries to break the current cycle of heavy oil sanctions and economic pressure.

With the United States blaming Iran, the odds that the United States or its allies would retaliate militarily against Iranian-linked targets, if not Iran itself, have risen significantly. In the hours after the attack, U.S. President Donald Trump stated that the United States was “locked and loaded” and waiting for final verification of Iranian involvement before deciding how to respond. The Iranians undoubtedly understand that attacks such as these could provoke a U.S. military response, but they are clearly willing to accept that risk and may even calculate that Trump would not be willing to chance a serious and highly damaging military conflict in the lead-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Alongside these attacks, the Iranians are also seeking to drive a parallel negotiation, mostly through the Europeans, to offer an alternative path toward de-escalation that the Americans could take.

The Case Against a Houthi Attack

Given the facilities’ geographic location, the Saudi air defense focus on Yemen, the angles of impact, the overflight reports over Kuwait and debris recovered from a failed cruise missile, it is quite likely that the attacks came from Iraqi or Iranian territory — or both. It is also possible that some of the drones could have been sea-launched. Regardless, the attack vector these details indicate more directly implicates Iran and/or its direct proxies in Iraq, increasing the danger of escalation. U.S. officials concluded in May that an attack on Saudi pumping stations originated from Iraq. Although that incident left only a fraction of the damage as the destruction of Sept. 14, it drove home how Iraq could be used as a staging ground for attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure.

Saudi Abqaiq and Khurais Infrastructure Attacks

An attack of that magnitude, however, will decrease the likelihood that the United States would be able to hold meaningful talks with Iran in the short term. The White House has already taken a generally hard-line stance on Iran, and the United States will be loath to back off in the aftermath of this major assault. It will not want to project weakness by allowing Iran to dictate events and will be concerned that too soft a response would send a message that could encourage other states it has disputes with, such as North Korea, to act provocatively. In addition, as the global hegemon, the United States has a vital stake in preserving the free flow of commerce and energy resources.

The Decisions Ahead

The United States now faces a difficult decision. Washington may calculate that an attack of this magnitude on critical Saudi oil infrastructure requires a military response to establish deterrence. But thus far, Trump has been unwilling to take actions that could escalate U.S. military commitments in the Middle East as Washington seeks to shift its focus and resources to the Western Pacific and Europe. Therefore, the United States will likely seek to commit to a response in conjunction with local allies, placing an added emphasis on the reactions by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

Saudi hesitance to embroil itself in a major conflict is clear already. Saudi and U.S. intelligence so far agree that cruise missiles were used in the attack, but Saudi Arabia has stopped short of concurring with the U.S. assessment that Iran provided the staging ground for the attack. Riyadh’s cautious response reflects Saudi Arabia’s general course of risk avoidance and its desire to avoid the disruption of a major Gulf conflict. If the attack came from Yemen, Riyadh would face an easier, albeit still costly, choice of further pummeling the Houthis there. This course would not require a strategic readjustment since the Saudis are already heavily engaged there. But with the evidence pointing toward the attack originating from Iraq or from Iran, the Saudis now face the decision of supporting a U.S. military response at the risk of escalation in its struggle to contain Iran. And despite a clear hesitance to stoke a broader conflict, the attack confronts Saudi Arabia with the clear, glaring vulnerability of its oil and gas infrastructure in a way that could drive Riyadh to support a U.S. military response.


Stratfor LogoAs the world’s leading geopolitical intelligence platform, Stratfor brings global events into valuable perspective, empowering businesses, governments and individuals to more confidently navigate their way through an increasingly complex international environment. Stratfor is an official partner of the Affiliate Network.

www.stratfor.com