Qassem Soleimani’s assassination triggered not a whirlwind, but tornadoes of response. Stocks plummeted and oil prices soared. Across the region and beyond, conference rooms and social media began buzzing with activity. Whispers of World War III co-mingled with snorts of derision at the possibility of an armed conflict erupting. Any altercation between two countries with such a tangled history tempts the imagination as much as it brings nightmare visions to mind.
In the first couple of days or so immediately after news of the drone strike near Baghdad airport broke, the immediate question on everyone’s mind was of how Iran would respond. For those who understood what Soleimani meant to an overwhelming majority of Iranians, there was little doubt that a heavy handed response was imminent. Soleimani, seen as the second most powerful man in Iran, the soldier who had Khamenei’s ear, held legendary status. The commander of the Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, he was revered and despised in equal measure. Termed a brilliant strategist by even those who considered him an enemy, he was instrumental in shaping Iran’s forward projection in the Middle East over a period of nearly two decades. This was the man who helped Bashar al Assad stay in power as the latter murdered scores of his own people. But he was also the man who fiercely, and successfully, pushed ISIS back. A soldier with humble beginnings and a spectacular rise to power, Soleimani was slight in build and unassuming in character, shying away from the public eye for most of his career and rejecting displays of adoration; traits which not only added to the myth of the man, but also endeared him to those he commanded and those he fought for.
News of his death was received with great trepidation for its potential for regional destabilization. But for Iran, to have him taken away as he had been, was seen as no less than a declaration of war. Revenge, it was assumed, would be swift and uncompromising. As Soleimani’s coffin was taken across Iran, mourners filled up roads and every block of pavement, an outpouring of grief for a man they idolized. The media rang with responses from both the Iranian leadership and others to the same effect. Supreme Leader Khamenei vowed to retaliate against the “the criminals who stained their impure hands with his blood”. President Rouhani declared that Iran and “the other free nations of the region will take revenge for this gruesome crime from criminal America”. Iranian Foreign Minister Javed Zarif termed the strike an “act of international terrorism”. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah stated that Soleimani’s killing had made fair targets of American bases, warships and soldiers in the region.
While most world leaders, in the region and beyond, almost unanimously urged for calm and the need to reduce tensions, support for the U.S. strike was measured and carefully worded. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab stated that the UK understood America’s reasons for conducting the strike and that the latter “had a right to exercise self-defense”, while calling for Iran to take the diplomatic route. Embattled Netanyahu praised Trump and stated, “Israel stands totally with the U.S. in its just struggle for security, peace and self-defense”; this was before news came out that he had asked his security cabinet not to be dragged into the issue. Saudi Arabia said it had not been consulted by the U.S. prior to the strike and called for defusing tensions. The Europeans stressed the “urgent” need for de-escalation. Russia condemned America’s violation of international law and pointed out that it could aggravate regional stability. China, perhaps the only state to take a less ambiguous position, called on the U.S. to seek resolution “through dialogue instead of abusing force” and stated its willingness to play a constructive role in regional peace and security.
Matters, however, gradually began to simmer down it seemed. A tenuous calm was restored, the markets recovered, and the world kept a wary eye out for what would happen next.
When, several hours ago, Asia woke up to news of the Iranian attack on the U.S. base in Iraq, everyone’s collective breath froze for a while. Speculation went rife and there were two overwhelming camps: one which swore Iran had just begun a new world war because the U.S. would now punch back hard; the other which insisted that Iran had given a contained response, one it could ill afford not to, and that the onus for de-escalation was now on America. When Zarif tweeted that Iran had taken “proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51” of the UN Charter and explicitly stated, “We do not seek escalation or war; but will defend ourselves against any aggression”, it seemed a clear call for de-escalation.
The Iranian attack was not unexpected. While a direct engagement, it was not a hot headed response but a measured, contained one. It was calibrated to address each area of concern: placating Iran’s masses, preserving its self-image in the region and beyond, and leaving enough room to allow its opponent to hold back. However, it must be realized that the Iranian response will not – indeed cannot – be limited to this one strike alone. Proxies across the region will engage to avenge Soleimani’s death, not only for the cause he represented but for what he meant to masses and individuals alike. When asked by Soleimani’s daughter as to who would avenge his killing, President Rouhani replied, “We will all take revenge.”
These words must be taken less like the rhetoric that has been issued by so many over the past few days, and more of an acceptance of what is to come. While a level headed Iranian leadership may well use this as an impetus to accelerate ousting America’s presence from the region, for the many to whom Soleimani represented a just warrior, this is no less than a call to righteous action.