The US assassination of Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s notorious Quds Force and widely regarded as the second most influential figure in the Islamic Republic, has heightened tensions in the Middle East to a level perhaps not seen since immediately prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Twitter was abuzz with doom-laden predictions, one of the most frequently tagged being #WWIII. Another hashtag that trended heavily in the immediate aftermath of the assassination was #FranzFerdinand. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne whose infamous murder in 1914 at the hands of Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, set in motion the wheels of the First World War.
Whilst Donald Trump’s decision to sign off on the execution of Soleimani has understandably enraged the Iranian leadership – not to mention the oblivious Iraqis on whose soil the drone strike took place – predictions of a new global conflict are premature.
In 1914 the conditions in Europe were ripe for war between the great powers, whose possession of international colonies necessitated a translation into a global conflict. Two opposing blocs had formed between the triple entente of Britain, France and Russia, and the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, soon to be joined by the ailing Ottoman empire and Bulgaria. These blocs in turn interfered and took sides in localised conflicts, particularly the incendiary Balkan states. If it had not been Princip’s trigger that toppled the first domino in the path to war it would have been something else.
Iran has vowed revenge for the killing of Soleimani but, even with its allies, it cannot launch a conventional military response to challenge the US. Indeed, such warfare has become increasingly difficult in an interconnected, interdependent world in which nuclear weapons proliferate. The geopolitical landscape has changed significantly since 1914.
True, there are still groups of enemy states backed by localised proxies, competing for regional ascendancy. One of Soleimani’s main qualities – at least according to Ayatollah Khamenei and his devoted followers – was his ability to mobilise proxy groups and states to carry out the bidding of Tehran. But the divisions of the Middle East are so intensely centralised that it is likely that any new ‘traditional’ conflict will be confined to the region.
This is not to say that Soleimani’s death will not have severe consequences. Iran will respond; it has to. Tehran has already further pulled back from its 2015 nuclear accord and is now likely to proceed at full speed towards nuclearisation (something it almost certainly would have done sooner rather than later in any case). It will continue to export terrorism across the Middle East and may potentially consider sponsoring an attack on the American mainland or on the territory of an American ally. Meanwhile the repercussions for Iraq, whose government may choose to expel American troops given this grave violation of its sovereignty, could lead to a new civil war and the resurgence of the Islamic State.
Trump may hold some of the arrogant delusions of his WWI predecessors who, in the words of Christopher Clark, ‘sleepwalked’ into a devastating conflict. Like them, he has proven unwilling to compromise on almost every issue, his scattergun foreign policy both terribly unsettling and fanning the flames of regional tensions whilst alienating allies.
Yet the question must be asked: how long was Iranian impunity going to be allowed to go unchecked? Tehran has exported terror and exacerbated humanitarian crises across the Middle East and further afield, all in the corrupted name of Islam. It has repressed its own people and allowed them to suffer through years of economic sanctions brought about by its rogue behaviour. A state with any moral capital left may choose to allow their anger to subside and issue a restrained response with the buy-in of the international community, the majority of which did not support the American action. This would allow Tehran to regain at least a portion of respect after years of inflammatory activity, whilst further isolating Trump.
The chances of this happening, unfortunately, are zero. We may not be on the verge of World War Three. However, Donald Trump’s clumsy efforts to punish Iran for its diabolical behaviour are likely to precipitate a renewed battleground in the Middle East, where states will be forced to pick sides between the Islamic Republic and its warped Shiite goals, and the US vision of regional security, along with its steadfast backing of a Jewish state and Arab autocracy.
2020 looks set to be a bumpy ride indeed.