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Situation Update - Iran

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ASSASSINATION OF HIGH-PROFILE IRANIAN GENERAL IN IRAQ ESCALATES US-IRAN TENSIONS ACROSS MIDDLE EAST REGION

  • Iran’s head of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani, killed in a US precision drone strike in Baghdad during the early hours of Friday 03 January 2020.

  • Drone strike ordered by US President Donald Trump aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans according to The Pentagon.

  • Leader of Kataib Hezbollah pro-Iranian militia group also killed during drone strike.

  • Iraq condemns killings, insisting US acted outside of operational terms of agreement.

  • US and UK governments issue updated travel advisories urging citizens to avoid travel to Iraq

  • Pro-Iranian militias based in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen have made threats to avenge the death of General Soleimani.

  • US deploys increased military land, air and sea based assets into the region, amid conflicting reports of further US military air strikes.

  • Iran’s retaliation intentions remain unclear, although direct conventional military action unlikely given limited means and capability.

  • Numerous false reports of further air strikes broadcast over social media.

  • Airlines suspending some flights to and from Iraq.

Iran US conflict
Situation

A key Iranian General responsible for overseeing Iran’s military operations in Iraq and Syria was killed during a US military drone strike on a convoy near to Baghdad Airport in the early hours of Friday morning. General Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force was killed alongside Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the de facto leader of the powerful Hashd al-Shaabi militia Kataib Hezbollah, a close Suleimani associate.

The attack targeting Suleimani’s convoy is reported to have taken place on an access road near to a cargo area on the outskirts of Baghdad Airport during the early hours of Friday 03 January 2020. The general is understood to have been leaving Baghdad Airport when the two vehicle convoy was struck by a number of missiles fired from an MQ-9 Reaper Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) drone.

According to a US government statement, the attack was ordered directly by President Trump on the back of intelligence which the Pentagon claims indicated “General Suleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”

The attack comes days after an American contractor was killed during a pro-Iranian militia led rocket attack on the K1 military base near Kirkuk in northern Iraq. Several US service members were also injured in the attack which the US government blamed on the Iranian backed Shia militia group Kataib Hezbollah (KH). This in turn led to retaliatory US air strikes on KH bases in Iraq and Syria, prompting protests which led to the attempted storming of the US Embassy inside Baghdad’s Green Zone on 31 December.

Analysis

The situation remains extremely unpredictable, particularly given the fractious nature of US-Iran relations, which has continued to deteriorate more rapidly since America’s 2018 withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement on Iran's nuclear program. This also resulted in significant economic sanctions being re-imposed, prohibiting trade within a number of industries.

Prior to Friday’s US drone strike, a number of high profile incidents played out across the Middle East region, further escalating tensions which appear to have culminated with the decision to target General Qassem Soleimani. The Iranian regime has threatened “severe revenge” against those responsible for killing General Soleimani, although exactly what this entails is questionable.

Iraq has strongly condemned the drone strike, even going so far as to call the attack a violation against the bilateral agreement allowing US troops to remain in Iraq bolstering the Iraqi military in the fight against ISIS. Iran’s long term objective of pressuring Iraq into removing the United States military from the country could be ramped up in the aftermath of the attack on Suleimani, particularly given the perceived defeat of their common enemy; ISIS.

Nevertheless, many citizens are more focused on preventing their country from again being at the centre of an American-Iranian military conflict. Politicians on the other hand, are more divided regarding the need for a US military presence in Iraq with the Iranian backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) officials and their political allies calling for legislation allowing Abdul-Mahdi’s government to expel the American military.

With reports Iraqi Shiite militias - formed as part of the PMF in 2014 to fight against the Sunni militant Islamic State (IS) - are increasing their stronghold in Iraq, any reduction of US forces in the country could be exploited by the PMF. This in turn could potentially undermine US assets and interests in Iraq. Large-scale violent protests outside of the US Embassy inside Baghdad’s Green Zone on New Year’s Eve, which led to the compound being breached, demonstrates the capability of the PMF in orchestrating such effective action at very short notice.

How Iran will respond remains in question as well, though its supreme leader warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting" for those who killed Revolutionary Guard Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force, early Friday morning.

Implications

Ayotollah Khamenei has said that revenge would be “forceful”, and a senior IRGC General said 35 US targets had been identified in the region “as well as Tel Aviv”. However, it remains to be seen exactly what retaliatory action Iran will deliver, although direct military action against the US is highly unlikely, given Iran’s conventional military force is limited in terms of equipment and capability. Air capability in particular would be severely outmatched by the US and its close allies, Israel and the Gulf Arab States operating the latest state of the art US-supplied fighter jets.

A prospective indirect attack on US interests is more likely. On previous occasions, proxies and allies in states across the region have been prepared to carry out offensive actions on the behalf of Iran. This includes a potential threat to Israel, a prominent U.S. ally.

Immediately after the assassination of the Iranian Quds Force commander, Israel was placed on high alert for fear of retaliation in areas on the border in particular. This includes the possibility of retaliatory movements being enacted by regional allies including Tehran-backed Lebanese movement Hezbollah to the northern areas of the country, or through Palestinian militant group Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, enacting retaliatory movements.

Furthermore, the US bases and troops deployed in Iran’s neighbouring countries could also be targets; with the Al Udeid Air Base in Doha, Qatar, potentially threatened. Retaliation through the attacking of US economic interests is also of concern; with disruption to shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, or oil production in Saudi Arabia being considered as possibilities for reprisal.
Both tactics have been utilised previously; with the alleged use of Iranian manufactured missiles on oil processing facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia during September 2019 being one of note. On this premise, it is however doubtful that direct attacks on UAE or Saudi assets will take place, with offensives on U.S. bases in these regions a far more favourable option for retaliation.

Both tactics have been utilised previously; with the alleged use of Iranian manufactured missiles on oil processing facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia during September 2019 being one of note. On this premise, it is however doubtful that direct attacks on UAE or Saudi assets will take place, with offensives on U.S. bases in these regions a far more favourable option for retaliation.

Iran's threat to retaliate against the US for killing Qasem Soleimani could also take the form of cyber-attacks aimed at damaging the American economy. Hacking attacks on critical infrastructure sectors; including communications networks, air traffic control systems, banks and healthcare systems represent a particular cause for concern. Sources have indicated that since the Stuxnet attack in 2010, Iran has invested in their cyber-attack capabilities, with the country slowly establishing themselves as formidable cyber opponent to the United States. Incidences of sabotage on U.S. banks has demonstrated their capabilities for a small-scale offensive; however, it remains in question whether they are equipped for a wide scale strike.

Some flight operations to and from Iraq have also been suspended as a result of Friday’s U.S. airstrike at Baghdad International Airport. Gulf Air and Royal Jordanian Airlines has suspended operations to and from Baghdad and Najaf airports until further notice, citing cause for concern over “safety and security issues” and the “unstable security situation in the city and airport” respectively.

Travel advisories have been issued for both the U.S and the UK following the uncertain security situation. U.S. citizens were strongly advised that due to the heightened tensions in Iraq, citizens were advised to heed to the January 2020 Travel Advisory and depart the country immediately. Future travel to the country is also advised against.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has advised British Nationals against all but essential travel to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and against all travel to the rest of Iraq and Iran. There is also the possibility of other members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance to follow suit. Other countries, including the Netherlands and France have also issued similar advice.

These travel advisories could potentially have a negative impact on the validity of travel insurance if journeys to the country prove necessary. A point in particular to note is that in some cases, safe transportation out of the country in question is provided; however, this may be invalidated if the advisory was implemented before travel.

Advice
  • Adhere to all advice issued by the authorities regarding travel to the country. If this proves necessary, ensure robust security measures are employed when transiting and exercise caution against possible reprisals.
  • If travelling within the country, take note of the potential for demonstrations and rallies which are likely to occur over the coming days, and avoid where able.
  • Ensure that all aspects of the relevant travel insurance policy are understood before travel to the country is undertaken. Key elements of the plan may be invalidated if a travel advisory has been implemented.