Any escalation of tensions between the US and Iran following the death of al-Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani could have significant implications for India’s energy security and the fate of some 8 million Indian expatriates in West Asia.
Soleimani was killed along with a top leader of pro-Iran militias at Baghdad airport in a US drone strike on the orders of President Donald Trump, who appears to have acted with an eye on both: an expected move in the US Senate to impeach him, and his re-election bid later this year.
Following a bomb attack on an Israeli diplomat’s vehicle in the Indian capital in February 2012, Delhi Police came to the conclusion the suspects involved in the unsuccessful assault were members of IRGC, media reports had said at the time. The bombing occurred at the same time as other attacks linked to the IRGC in Bangkok, Thailand, and Tbilisi, Georgia.
The al-Hashd al-Shaabi, an umbrella group of Iran-controlled militias in Iraq, announced on Twitter Soleimani was killed along with its leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
The drone strike was carried out near a cargo area at Baghdad airport on the orders of US President Donald Trump while Soleimani and nine others were leaving in two vehicles.
The Pentagon, in a statement, said Soleimani was killed at ‘the direction of the President’ in a ‘decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad’. The strike was retaliation for the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad, which was carried out by Iran-backed militias, and aimed at ‘deterring future Iranian attack plans’.
The US statement said Soleimani was ‘actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region’. It also accused Soleimani and al-Quds Force, which along with IRGC was designated by the US as terrorist organisations in April 2019, of being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition personnel. Trump claimed Soleimani was responsible for the ‘deaths of millions’.
‘He had orchestrated attacks on coalition bases in Iraq over the last several months – including the attack on December 27th – culminating in the death and wounding of additional American and Iraqi personnel. General Soleimani also approved the attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad that took place this week,’ the statement said.
Ayatollah Khamenei said ‘severe revenge awaits those criminals’ behind the attack, and President Hassan Rouhani pledged Iran would take revenge on the US for ‘this heinous crime’. Soleimani’s death has ‘redoubled the determination of …Iran’ to stand up to the US, Rouhani said.
Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif described the killing of Soleimani as an ‘act of international terrorism’ and ‘a foolish escalation’. Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi condemned the killing as a ‘dangerous escalation’ of regional tensions.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo spoke to UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab, German foreign minister Heiko Maas and China’s politburo member Yang Jiechi to explain the ‘defensive action to eliminate’ Soleimani and said the US ‘remains committed to de-escalation’.
Tensions between the US and Iran have spiralled since Washington pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran nuclear deal and imposed strict sanctions on Iranian oil exports last year, forcing major importers such as India, China and Japan to cut purchases to zero. Tensions also spiked after several attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf last year, which the US and its allies had blamed on Iran.
The al-Quds Force has been linked to Iran’s efforts to increase its influence in countries such as Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria by propping up Hezbollah and other pro-Iran militant groups. Under Soleimani’s leadership, the force expanded its military presence in Iraq by training and arming Shia militias, and shaped Bashar al-Assad’s campaign against rebel forces in Syria.
But Soleimani was also seen as a national hero in Iran for helping lead the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Former CIA director David Petraeus once recounted a story at a think tank event that demonstrated Soleimani’s influence. While leading the US campaign in Iraq in 2008, a senior Iraqi leader conveyed to Petraeus a text message from Suleimani: ‘General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Suleimani, control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan. And indeed, the ambassador in Baghdad is a Quds Force member. The individual who’s going to replace him is a Quds Force member.’
Soleimani’s death could be a major tipping point, given his proximity to Iran’s Supreme Leader. The al-Quds Force, along with the rest of the IRGC, reports to Khamenei, and some considered Soleimani to be more powerful than Iran’s President in matters of foreign policy.
‘We should expect to see the most significant/aggressive response,’ tweeted Yashar Ali, a journalist who closely tracks developments in Iran.
He added in another tweet: ‘But killing Soleimani is not like killing the head of a terrorist org. It’s like killing the head of a terrorist organization and a head of state. You have to treat it as such and the US has not DIRECTLY engaged in assassinations on that level in decades.’
Given India’s strong relations with both the US and Iran – external affairs minister S Jaishankar visited Tehran in December for a meeting with counterpart Javad Zarif – and the presence of some 8 million Indian expatriates in West Asia, any escalation in tensions could have widespread ramifications for New Delhi, both in terms of foreign policy and economy.
The Indian nationals in the Gulf region account for annual remittances of about $40 billion, and any conflict could not only affect this but also trigger a massive exodus of expatriates.