On 3 January 2020, an American drone, in a targeted strike in Baghdad, Iraq, killed Qassem Soleimani, an Iranian major general in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who had been the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force since 1998. Alongside Soleimani, the deputy head o Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces was also killed. Yesterday, 5 January 2020, Nigeria’s Inspector General of Police placed police formations around the country on red alert following “intelligence report that some domestic interests in Nigeria are planning to embark on massive public disturbances and sabotage” following the killing of Soleimani.
Almost 17 years ago, the United States of America invaded Iraq to get rid of the regime of Saddam Hussein. The ostensible excuse given for this military operation was the search for “weapons of mass destruction”, but the real motivation was the maintenance of American political dominance in the Middle East. Added to this, it appears President George W. Bush, in building on the legacy of his father, President George H.W. Bush, had some old scores to settle with Mr Hussein.
The architects of US policy in the Middle East were criticised at the time for their short-term policy approach. Chief among the grouses of experts and political watchers was the failure to come to terms with the complex ethno-religious composition of Iraq. Iraq is at least 64% Shi’a Muslim, so it was almost certain that a democratic Iraq would be Shi’a dominated. Since Iran is the major Shi’a power in that region as well as a neighbour, it is almost destined to play an influential role in Iraqi politics.
The US mismanaged the post-war occupation of Iraq and did not prepare for the inevitable showdown between the newly empowered Shi’a and the newly disenfranchised Sunnis (Hussein was Sunni) which led to bloody encounters, and for all intents and purposes, a civil war. For Iran, this presented a wonderful opportunity which they duly took advantage of. The US has been looking to exit the Middle East in tandem with Trump’s isolationist foreign policy–Syria, Afghanistan, for example, but also dreaded the vacuum such an exit would create. Recent discourse in American foreign policy circles has been dominated by the tension between the country’s desire to leave Iraq and the reckoning that the investments made since 2001 are far too costly to be inherited by Iran.
There is so much bad blood between the US and Iran that it is difficult for both sides to have a rational conversation. Iran has its own grievances dating back to the American sponsored coup in 1953 that removed the democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh. The US then imposed and supported the unpopular Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi from 1953 to 1979. In 1979, the US was humiliated by a 444-day siege of its embassy in Tehran. In 1983, Iranian proxies in Lebanon destroyed the US Marines barracks in that country, resulting in the deaths of scores of American military personnel. Then in 1988, the USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655, resulting in the deaths of 290 people. Having said that, the US and Iran did cooperate briefly to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan in the early 2000s, and ISIS in Syria and Iraq over the last three years, but these were temporary alliances of convenience, and hardliners on both sides did not like the idea. With the election of Donald Trump, the hardliners on the US side returned to power. Added to this is the fact that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has Mr Trump’s ears.
For the US the strategic calculus is simple; the US will not tolerate an expansion of Iran’s sphere of influence; from Iraq to Syria to Yemen – and in order to do that, would deploy a range of measures, including crippling the Iranian economy with sanctions. For Iran, this is intolerable, and it was inevitable that Iran and its proxies would lash out.
It is within this context that the killing of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful and revered military commander by a US airstrike in Iraq last week should be understood. What is clear is that a cycle of action and reaction has been initiated by this military action. What is not clear is where this ends.
Can the US conceivably effect regime change in Iran? Very unlikely.
Can the US eliminate Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen? Very unlikely as well.
Iran is a fact of life in the Middle East and nothing, short of a full invasion, can eliminate the “Iran threat”. So, while “surgical strikes” might satisfy a certain bloodlust and boost the ratings of American politicians, what matters are the final strategic ends – which are not clear.
Implications for Nigeria
The major short to medium term consequence of this escalation will be increased tension and brinkmanship in the Middle East. The impact on crude oil prices is difficult to predict but is based almost entirely on what course of action Iran pursues. If the Iranians succeed in crippling major oil installations in Saudi Arabia, the impact could be significant for a couple of months, but extra production elsewhere, and there is so much of that now, will make up for the losses. Iran’s daily oil production has dropped to about around 2% of available global supply. This is completely different from the 1970s when they had a much larger share. So the major fears will not be about the loss of Iranian oil supply. The worry is the possibility that a vengeful Iran could target Middle Eastern oil production and shipping systems to effect a brutally costly disruption to the Middle-East oil trade either by gunboat piracy in the Straits of Hormuz or terrorist attacks on facilities belonging to American companies and its allies.
If the Iranians act in this manner, there will be a bump in oil prices that Nigeria will not mind considering its precarious public finances. The bump, however, will not last because as pointed out earlier, the US itself is somewhat insulated from the adverse effects of a price rise because of its newfound energy independence thanks to shale oil production. Nigeria cannot plan based on peak oil prices as a result of this event.
It is important to note that traditional US allies have not been too enthusiastic in their support for US policy on Iran. This may be linked to Trump’s America First policy. If push comes to shove and there is an all-out war (also an unlikely possibility), none of them will be willing to follow the US, except Israel. Australia, a supportive ally is unlikely to enter into the fray pressing domestic priorities – Scott Morrison’s government has come under withering criticism for an initially slow response to that country’s worst bushfire season. Britain’s Johnson has said a major war in the Middle East is not in its interest. France holds a similar position.
The security angle for Nigeria is rather striking because the Nigerian Government is a pro-Sunni one that has been in serious conflict with the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, a Shi’a sect. It is important to remember that in October 2010, an Iranian national said to be a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps was caught in Lagos’ Apapa Port trying to bring thirteen containers of weapons into the country.
It was not entirely clear if the weapons were merely in transit or were meant to be used in Nigeria. The Iranian, Azim Aghajani, was eventually given a five-year jail term along with his Nigerian accomplice. A US Treasury report on the case stated that a certain Esmail Ghaani was the person with financial oversight over the botched import operation as well as other Iranian operations on the African continent. Esmail Ghaani has been named to replace Qassem Solemaini as the new Commander of the Quds Force.
The exact scale and direction of Iran’s operations in Africa is unclear, but the illegal arms shipment that was intercepted is proof that there is a lot of interest from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Nigeria.
The IRGC is closely tied to the Lebanese Shi’a militia Hezbollah and Nigeria hosts a large Lebanese community. In theory, there is the distinct possibility that there could be cells operational or being set up in parts of Nigeria and the country’s lax and poorly-secured environment could provide a tempting choice of soft targets associated with the US. Any attacks could provide an increasingly heavy-handed Nigerian government justification for increased restrictions on the rights of citizens.
In conclusion, Soleimani’s assassination represents another milestone in the evolution of America’s relationship with the Middle East. The big question is whether the US has outlived its usefulness to the Middle East, as the British, Russian and Ottoman empires did before it. In an election year where presidents are reticent to involve the country in any serious military engagement, the optics of the strike might help Trump’s re-election chances by projecting the image of a strong leader, or hurt his chances if it is interpreted as a reckless act by an entitled, self-absorbed leader. The US might have sought to resolve a few questions by killing Soleimani, but for it, Iran, Iraq, the Middle East, Nigeria, and the global economy, the strike may have succeeded in heralding a new chapter of uncertainty and instability.