By Debalina Ghoshal
A few weeks before the US killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) head, Maj Gen. Qassem Soleimani, there were reports that Iran was placing short range missiles in the chaotic Iraq to affirm its strategic position in the region.
Placing of short range missiles would have been a direct threat to US military presence in the Persian Gulf and Middle East in whole. Whether the killing of Soleimani would jeopardise US relations with Iraq and invite an attack by Iranian forces, is surely a matter to contemplate especially amid the Iranian missile presence in Iraq.
It is a known fact that Iran has been vying to gain regional supremacy in Iraq and many other parts of Middle East namely in Yemen. Iran’s major Middle East rival in Iraq had been Saudi Arabia while global rival has been the United States.
Approximately 5000 US troops were stationed in Iraq as of May 2019, and Iran backed militias have been trying their best to ensure that these troops leave the soil of Iraq sooner.
Placing of short range missiles became a tactical move to achieve a strategic aim- that is to make stationing of US troops in Iraq a costly affair for the United States.
President Trump a few months back assured that he did not want a war with Iran and that he was open for a dialogue.
However, with Iran placing its short range missiles in Iraq, there was surely pressure on Trump to deliver and also ensure that the US is able to place its cards well should there be any room for a dialogue.
The killing of Soleimani opens that door for the United States.
The United States was trying its best to make Iraq a “sovereign, independent” Iraq that is free of influence from its neighbours like Iran.
However, by placing missiles in Iraq, Iran was only solidifying its position in the country- a move completely unacceptable by the United States and also a move that the US knows is impossible without the support of IRGC.
By attacking IRGC, which is the main caretaker of Iranian missile forces, the United States is making it clear that it would not allow any military build-up by Iran backed forces in Iraq.
Though the missiles and their specifications were not mentioned, reports suggest that the missiles do have a range of approximately 1000kms that could easily reach US forward forces in the Middle East.
With this, Iran has strongly positioned itself to exploit the anti-government protests in Iraq- a move again that would have not been acceptable to the United States.
In addition, Iran backs the Hezbollah that also runs operations in Iraq. Iran has proliferated missiles to Hezbollah in Iraq operating collectively with factions of Popular Mobilization Forces that are Iran backed.
Should missiles fall into the hands of these factions loyal to Iran, they would ensure that US diplomatic and business missions in Iraq failed completely.
This is a threat the US cannot afford to avoid to deal with.
In fact, this is the reason why not just Soleimani but US killed top Iranian backed militia, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis- the pro-Iranian Shi’ite Kataib Hezbollah militia.
Kataib Hezbollah is backed by IRGC al-Quds Force whose commander was Soleimani.
The Kataib Hezbollah militia group had gained a lot of prominence and if they possessed missiles they would have surely performed deadlier attacks on US military bases in Iraq.
The US was already conducting “precision defensive strikes” that would degrade the ability of the militias to strike at Iraqi bases that were hosting forces of the Operation Inherent Resolve. With long range systems, the militia in future could target US forces in the Persian Gulf.
However, with the command of two crucial forces now gone, it could be difficult for the forces to regain the supremacy and tactical benefits they sought by going after US troops.
Both the leaders had their own charisma and ability to take robust decisions that will be difficult at the moment for any new commander to fulfil.
Does that mean that the US has paved its way to gaining regional supremacy in Iraq?
That question is too early to be answered at the moment.
One has to watch how Iran would respond to this move of the US, or if at all they would respond or just appoint another able commander to suit their needs.
Debalina Ghoshal is a Non Resident Fellow, Council on International Policy, Canada and an Asia Pacific Fellow, EastWest Institute
The featured photo released on August 25, 2010, by the Iranian Defense Ministry, claims to show the launch of the Fateh-110 short-range surface-to-surface missile by Iranian armed forces, at an undisclosed location. (AP Photo/Iranian Defense Ministry,Vahid Reza Alaei, HO)
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