Tag Archives: Iran

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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Update: Green is the New Black: Making a Cartel

This is an update to a 2017 piece by the same name. The original can be found here: http://affiliate-network.co/2017/07/russia-gas-cartel/


As the disastrous civil war in Syria stretches into its eighth year, the conflict has taken shape as a struggle for influence between Russia and the United States and their respective proxies. The Russian interest in Syria, initially limited to protecting the naval base in Tartus and keeping Bashar al-Assad in power, is now widely believed to have a regional and global power dynamic. Russia controls 26% of proven global natural gas reserves and has long been frustrated by its inability to export to customers other than the European Union (EU) and NATO member states. Not only does this geographic reality leave Russia dependent upon a single block of customers that has access to other suppliers, but it limits Moscow’s ability to influence politics with its overwhelming market share. In late 2015 however, the Russian military mission in Syria began to present other opportunities to exploit the politics and the pipelines that crisscross that war-torn region, thus giving birth to the prospect of a new natural gas cartel.

The global energy market is changing. Traditional, fossil-based energy supplies like coal and oil are becoming increasingly expensive to find and extract. Political turmoil in the Middle East coupled with popular pressure to address climate change, make natural gas a more attractive option for future energy needs, particularly in Europe. With average global gas consumption likely to increase approximately 1.6% annually until 2040, Europe needs a strategy to secure supplies from beyond the Russian monopoly. This is not a minor concern in Brussels. Moscow’s 2014 closure of gas pipelines into Ukraine highlighted the linkage of Europe’s energy future to Russia’s political ambitions, yet EU sanctions against the Russian oil and gas industry are seen as a delayed and ineffective western response. Europe, like Russia, now has direct interests in the massive natural gas reserves of the Middle East.

A Layered Strategy

The war in Syria is a catalyst for strategic cooperation between Russia and Iran. By bringing together the combined weight of their massive natural gas reserves, Moscow and Tehran would be able to influence Europe in powerful ways. If they bring Qatar’s reserves into the deal they could create an OPEC-like gas cartel with control of 60% of the world’s reserves; a frightening degree of dominance over an increasingly strategic commodity. However, there are many geographic and political obstacles to this ambition, and it is in these spaces the Russian strategy is taking shape.

Russia Natural Gas
Together, Russia, Iran, and Qatar possess more natural gas reserves than the rest of the world combined. Photo credit: http://www.energybc.ca/naturalgas.html

Distribution of Iranian reserves to Europe depends on the outcome of conflicts in Syria and Iraq and on the political independence of Kurdistan. These countries contain much of the existing regional natural gas pipeline transmission capacity. Stabilization of those conflicts presents an opportunity for positive Russian engagement with Turkey and formed the basis for a trilateral accord signed in Kazakhstan in 2017 between Russia, Turkey, and Iran aimed at ending the Syrian civil war; an agreement made possible by an expansion of the Russian military mission there. Subsequent talks reaffirmed the accord in August 2019. Turkey, with an intense interest in the political future of Kurdistan, plays a unique role by controlling access to many of the pipelines planned to transport natural gas to Europe. More importantly perhaps, Turkey is the southernmost outpost of NATO and hosts the important US military base at Incirlik.

The notable absence of the EU, the US, and the United Nations from the Kazakhstan talks reflects an important aspect of Russia’s strategy: limiting western — particularly US — influence in the region. Though Iran is an enthusiastic and powerful ally in this endeavor, strategy alone is not enough as the US has some very real ties to the region. American bases in Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar form a defensive network that bolsters the political stability of many of Iran’s rivals; not the least of which are Israel and Saudi Arabia. As mentioned, Turkey’s own security is still based largely on NATO, and most of the Gulf Emirates are completely dependent on American hard power for their defense. Given robust and longstanding support for this political-military structure in Washington, it is not surprising that Russia and Iran are exacerbating tensions between all of America’s allies in the region, particularly Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Russia and Iran are the unseen beneficiaries of fractured relations between the two important US allies. Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, Iran, is hardly an ally of Qatar, though enduring cultural links exist between the two states that can form a basis for renewed affinity. There is evidence Russia is encouraging an economic tie as well through business deals between Rosneft, the integrated oil company controlled by Moscow, and the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA). It is here, where Russian, Iranian, and Qatari interests converge, that the possibility of a joint pipeline project begins to make sense.

Russia Gas Cartel
The eventual route from the Persian Gulf South Pars/North Dome gas field (red region, bottom right) to Turkey is of strategic importance in the Middle East. Photo credit: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g7421h.ct002142/ (pipeline routes added by Chris Golightly)

Overland pipeline transport of gas reserves from the Qatari North Dome and Iranian South Pars gas fields may ultimately converge at the existing terminal in Ceyhan, Turkey but could take several different paths on either side of the Gulf. Russia prefers a nearly completed pipeline, — IGAT-IX, above in black — along the Iran-Iraq border, while the US prefers a route for Qatari gas that transits Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and possibly Israel and Syria. The American plan seems unlikely for now however, with strong signs that most Qatari gas will be transported via Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) vessels to Asia. Achievement of the Russian design depends upon three key elements: politically isolating the United States, fracturing its allies, and stabilizing the Syrian conflict on terms that are favorable to the Kremlin.

Though Russia clearly hopes to position itself as the lynchpin in the arrangement, neither Moscow nor Tehran possess the technology required to construct IGAT-IX or the high-end LNG export facilities required at its terminus. For that they require easing of western sanctions that currently prohibit US or European oil companies such as Exxon-Mobil from sharing technology. The framework for this collaboration already exists. In August 2011, Russian President Putin, and the Executive Chairman of Rosneft, Igor Sechin, met Rex Tillerson in Sochi when he was still CEO of Exxon-Mobil. There, the three signed co-operation agreements for ten joint ventures, including drilling projects in the Russian Arctic, exploration in the Black Sea, a joint Arctic research center, and substantial options for Rosneft to invest in projects in the Gulf of Mexico and Texas. Consequently between 2011 and 2013, Exxon-Mobil became the partner of choice for Rosneft and now puts Russia and Iran high on the priority list for exploration. The reciprocal cooperation and the elevation of Tillerson to Secretary of State increased the expectation that sanctions would eventually be lifted, or at least not increased. This expectation survived Tillerson’s tenure as Secretary of State. A 2017 bill for increased sanctions against Russia, which included prohibitions against certain dealings with its oil and gas industry, floundered in Congress due to opposition from the White House and the US oil lobby. A 2019 version, introduced by a bipartisan group of Senators in February, has made no progress whatsoever.

The Cost of Inaction

The prospect of Russia and Iran controlling 60% of the world’s proven natural gas reserves aims right at the heart of European security. Addressing it will require energy-specific strategies that not only reduce demand through the use of renewable sources, but also political solutions that guarantee supply by stabilizing the Middle East. With European unity hamstrung by homegrown nationalist movements, and the United States distracted by an endless series of domestic political dramas, it is difficult for either to formulate such strategies for the long-term. While the West limits its efforts in the Middle East to defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Russia and Iran are playing a much broader game that will ultimately be more effective.

The potential for a tightening of gas supply options is a sober call for Europe to overcome domestic distractions and concentrate on a comprehensive energy security strategy; one that incorporates development and commercialization of a suite of renewable energy technologies. This should include solar and offshore wind, advances in nuclear fusion, offshore methane gas exploration, and clean, dry fracking. Until Europe reduces its reliance on Russian gas and takes measures to ensure political stability in the Middle East, there will be a risk of unwanted influence from Moscow and continued uncertainty.


CG 002Chris Golightly is an Independent Consulting Engineer specializing in offshore renewable energy, based in Brussels. Prior to 2010 he worked in the Oil & Gas industry.