On January 2, a car carrying Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Quds Force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, exploded near the Baghdad Airport.
By the morning of January 3, the United States had officially claimed responsibility, with President Donald S. Trump taking to Twitter to note how Soleimani “has killed or badly wounded thousands of Americans.”
The significance of this event is difficult to overstate. Soleimani was an immensely powerful figure within the Iranian government.
The significance of this event is difficult to overstate. Soleimani was an immensely powerful figure within the Iranian government, a decorated military commander who personally directed much of Iran’s foreign policy, and a figure with close personal ties to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
It is likely that Iran will respond to Soleimani’s death. Military action may form a part of the Iranian response. And oil will probably be involved, a possibility reflected by markets, where crude prices jumped as soon as news of Soleimani’s death broke.
Since the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May 2018, tensions between Washington and its allies and Iran have escalated, with increasingly violent consequences for global oil.
In June 2019, Iranian forces began attacking tankers in the Persian Gulf, in response to the British detainment of a tanker carrying Iranian oil near Gibraltar.
And on September 14, Iranian allies carried out a massive attack on the Saudi oil stabilization facility at Abqaiq. The attack shut down 50 percent of Saudi oil production, and while the damage was swiftly repaired and oil markets little affected, the attack was enough to startle the Saudi leadership, which has attempted to de-escalate tensions with Iran since September.
While U.S. officials denounced these attacks and dispatched additional forces to bolster Saudi defenses, the response was rather limited.
In December, an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq launched an attack on a military base in Iraq that killed one American contractor. The U.S. in response launched an air strike against the militia’s base, killing 25. The strike triggered a powerful response, with militiamen storming the U.S. embassy in Iraq.
The strike against Soleimani may have been motivated by these events. While the Quds Force commander has been targeted in the past, U.S. authorities declined to take action, worrying that it would have damaging consequences, given Soleimani’s stature in the Iranian hierarchy.
But now the die is cast. The death of Soleimani by an apparent U.S. strike could potentially escalate tensions past the breaking point, with ramifications for the stability of the Middle East and the security of Persian Gulf oil.
Iran’s leadership denounced the attack on Soleimani as an act of international terrorism and have promised “severe retaliation.” Analysts were quick to warn that the U.S. attack, which appears to have been carried out without consulting allies or notifying Congress, would have uncertain and dangerous consequences.
How will Iran respond? Recent events offer a few clues.
The death of Soleimani occurred in Iraq, a country where Iran has considerable influence. Should Iran seek revenge against the United States, it will likely act inside Iraq, potentially targeted U.S. forces or diplomats.
The United States has already issued a travel advisory warning all U.S. citizens to steer clear of Iraq. While the country’s oil fields continue to operate normally, U.S. citizens working at an ExxonMobil project have been asked to leave.
Further attacks on oil facilities in the Persian Gulf are a possibility.
Further attacks on oil facilities in the Persian Gulf are a possibility. Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, a close ally of President Trump, warned Iran on January 3 that additional strikes against Iranian oil facilities was a possibility in the wake of Soleimani’s death. Iran might pre-empt this threat by carrying out its own strikes, modeled after Abqaiq.
It’s already clear the GCC members like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have little stomach for an actual armed confrontation with Tehran—one in which they would bear the brunt of the costs. An Iranian escalation in the Gulf could push these U.S. allies to encourage reducing tensions.
Iran has frequently threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. Even in the wake of such a provocation, it is unlikely to take such drastic action—not because of the harm it would do to the U.S. or world oil markets, but because China now imports more oil from the Persian Gulf than any other state, and thus far has been the only country willing to purchase large quantities of Iranian oil since U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil exports took effect in 2018.
Closing the Strait would damage Iran’s relationship with China—but other actions, such as attacking shipping or local oil facilities, could very well form part of the Iranian response.
This could be a watershed moment in the history of the Middle East, and alter the course of the simmering U.S.-Iranian conflict. It remains to be seen, however, just how significant the fallout from Soleimani’s death will be.