Tensions between the US and Iran, and across the wider Middle East, are reaching boiling point after the assassination of a senior Iranian military leader by an American airstrike in Iraq. What does it mean for the NZ personnel currently in Iraq?
What’s all this then?
One of the most tense parts of the world is currently experiencing another massive upheaval. After US President Donald Trump ordered the assassination-by-airstrike of senior Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani a few days ago, citing “imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel”, there has been speculation about the prospects of direct war between the two countries, or across the wider region.
Assassination by airstrike: that sounds bad.
It is, but it’s not new. The US has been raining death from above on their enemies for decades now, with the use of drones for targeted killings escalating under the Obama administration. What makes this so notable is the identity of the targets, for such a strike to be used against a known official of a foreign government, as opposed to the leader of a non-state terrorist group.
So who was Qassem Soleimani?
Soleimani’s public persona within Iran was that of a “noble warrior” – seen to embody both military strength, and the piety of a hero of the Islamic Republic of Iran. His title was the commander of the Quds Force, an elite Iranian unit that specialised in irregular and intelligence warfare. But his remit was in fact much wider: he coordinated Iranian operations across the wider Middle East, and managed the various proxy wars Iran is currently involved with. In that role, he has been accused of being responsible for thousands of deaths in countries including Syria and Yemen. One of his greatest victories was the shoring up of the Iraqi government in 2014, by some accounts essentially saving them from being completely overrun by ISIS.
Wait, ISIS – aren’t we at war with them, too?
Oh yep, it all gets rather confusing here. Be warned, there are some broad brushstrokes coming up, which don’t take into account every pertinent complexity, but will give you an idea of where everyone stands. Also, please note that the violent extremists within Islam are a tiny subset of the wider religion.
ISIS is a Sunni-fundamentalist group, which once had strong links to Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaida. They were trying to carve out a new state covering parts of Iraq and Syria, along with conducting operations in other countries. However, they were eventually overcome by a wide coalition of groups and countries. Among the most important were Shia Muslim militias, backed by Shia Iran. It’s also important to note that the Iraqi government is now also Shia-dominated. One of the great ironies of the US overthrowing Saddam Hussein is that the biggest winner of the conflict was Iran, which gained an important new ally in Iraq: two countries who had fought an utterly ruinous war in the 1980s.
How far back does this all go?
How long do you have? You could start with the various low level attacks that have been rumbling away in both directions over the past several months, including rioting at the US embassy in Baghdad. Or you could start with the US making, and then breaking, a deal to lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for them giving up their nuclear programme. You could go back to Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin-Salman launching an invasion of Yemen, with Iran backing the opposing Houthi rebels. You could go back to ISIS, or other consequences of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
Are you done?
Nope. You could also go back to the western sales of weapons to anti-Iran countries and groups, or the relentless efforts to overthrow their theocratic government. Or you could go back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, in which the Shah of Iran was overthrown. But then you’ve also got to go back to the 1953 coup, in which the democratically elected Iranian government was overthrown (with support from the US and United Kingdom, who were angry that the government was nationalising the oil industry to prevent western countries from looting it) to make way for the Shah. Or hell, even back to the formation of nations in the region in the aftermath of World War One, and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, in which the British and French governments decided to carve up the region into spheres of influence.
Right. So what has the reaction to the assassination been?
Fury and vows of revenge, particularly in Iran, but importantly also in Iraq. The airstrike took place on their soil, near Baghdad airport, and Soleimani was there at the invitation of the Iraqi government. Not only that, a Shia militia commander called Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was killed. In response to the airstrike, the Iraqi government has passed a resolution (which would require further legislation to make binding) which calls for the revoking of permission for foreign soldiers to operate in Iraq – there had previously been an invitation to a coalition of nations to fight Islamic State.
Wasn’t New Zealand part of that coalition?
Yes. New Zealand has had hundreds of military personnel pass through Iraq in the past five years, with around 40 currently on deployment, scheduled to leave later this year.
Here’s a key phrase from the Iraqi government resolution for those in New Zealand to keep an eye on: “The Iraqi government must work to end the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil and prohibit them from using its land, airspace or water for any reason.”
And what has the New Zealand government response been?
MFAT has advised any New Zealanders currently in Iraq to get out now. Aside from that, a government statement attributable to foreign minister Winston Peters called for “restraint and de-escalation”.
There have been rocket attacks on coalition military facilities in the wake of the assassination. Regarding those, Peters said, “we view very seriously any threats to deployed Coalition members, including New Zealand diplomatic staff and military personnel. Recent attacks on coalition bases and embassies constitute unacceptable risks to their safety. We continue to keep the security situation under close review, including implications for New Zealand personnel.”
As for the airstrike itself, that came as a surprise to the NZ government. “We acknowledge strong US concerns about Iran. We were not advised of the US strikes in advance of their occurrence. The US took action on the basis of information they had,” said Peters.
Does Donald Trump want war with Iran?
He says no. In fact, Trump says the assassination was carried out to prevent a war, as it took out the architect of a series of lower-level attacks on US-backed forces and interests. Trump has also however threatened massive bombardment if Iran retaliates. Given that from the Iranian point of view, a national hero and senior government figure was just murdered, retaliation of some sort is inevitable.
Of course, there are a lot of people in the Middle East who are thrilled to see Soleimani dead. Among them is Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, who tweeted in the aftermath: “President Trump deserves all the appreciation for acting with determination, power and speed. We stand completely alongside the United States in its just struggle for security, peace and self-defence.”
Does Iran want war?
As discussed, they’ve effectively been at war in a low-level way for years. There’s a huge desire for revenge, but on balance would probably lose an all-out war with the US. As Iran have generally shown themselves to be a self-interested rational actor in recent decades, it’s fair to assume they don’t want that.
But wouldn’t the US win easily if it came to war?
Certainly not easily. The most recent comparison – the invasion of Iraq – involved massive numbers of troops smashing through a paper-thin military and government, which had been dramatically hollowed out under Saddam’s dictatorship. And the vast majority of American casualties occurred afterwards anyway, as the US Army got bogged down in irregular warfare that they weren’t remotely ready for.
Iran, among the top 20 most populous countries in the world, is a completely different prospect. Their conventional army is much stronger than Iraq’s was, and has been preparing for years for war. But moreover, there’s a massive network of irregular and paramilitary forces – such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria – who can be activated to attack US forces and interests, with casualties likely to be immense. There is absolutely no chance of regime change and an occupation being popular among ordinary Iranians either, despite many citizens of that country hating their current authoritarian government.
And would New Zealand send troops to fight in such a war, or the aftermath?
At this stage, it’s impossible to say, given the stretching of resources involved in the current ongoing deployments. Typically, New Zealand governments don’t deploy troops without a UN mandate, and if it were to happen, it would be more likely to involve special forces units like the SAS, rather than the army as a whole. But regardless, right now many in Iraq and Iran will see US-aligned soldiers as legitimate military targets.
Given it’s such an unpredictable situation, is there anything we can say with certainty about what will happen next?
Yes. We can say with absolute certainty that more people will die as a result of what has been unleashed.