Thousands attend the funeral ceremony of Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Forces, who was killed in a US drone airstrike in Iraq, in Tehran, Iran, on January 06, 2019. Photo: AFP/Iranian Presidency/Anadolu Agency

On Sunday, when the body of a slain Iranian general reached the Iranian city of Ahvaz, a huge crowd clamored to touch his coffin for a blessing. There were strong feelings of grief mixed with a desire for revenge.

Major-General Qasem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, and Iraqi deputy militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were killed in a US air strike in Iraq on Friday, as reported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Soleimani was on his way back to Iran after visiting Syria and Lebanon. Later, it was learned that US President Donald Trump had ordered the killing of Soleimani. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CNN that it was a well-thought-out action.

The situation in the Middle East has dangerously escalated. Israeli border-security forces are on red alert. The US is withdrawing its civilian embassy staff from many countries, but is rushing more troops to the Middle East.

Trump tweeted that Soleimani was “most hated and feared” in Iran and should have been killed much earlier. He said the attack was launched to stop an imminent attack against the US and warned Iran not to retaliate.

US forces have killed a senior Iranian senior military commander in a sovereign country, Iraq, at the capital’s international airport. Why has the United States suddenly launched such an unprecedented attack against Iran? Here is the reason.

Iran has never hurt US interests in the Middle East or Afghanistan in any meaningful way for the past three decades. Iran cooperated with the US during its engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan for the past two decades. Numerous US think-tanks opine that actually Salafi/Sunni/political Islam were contesting the hegemony of the US worldwide and not Shiite Iran. US president Barack Obama tried to mainstream Iran by negotiating a nuclear deal with Tehran. However, Israel bitterly opposed the move because it saw Iran as the only enemy left in the Middle East that could seriously hurt Israeli interests in the region.

Iran greatly benefited from the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Its arch-rival Saddam Hussein was removed. During 2006, the Israel-Lebanon war, Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, gained political ground, and consequently Iran enjoyed massive influence and power in Lebanon.

When US troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011, at almost the same time, President Bashar al-Assad survived in Syria thanks to Iran’s sustained economic and military support. Iran clearly emerged victorious, and its strategic depth and influence extended manifold to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The land linkages were impressive, and many called it a Shia Crescent.

It is no secret that Israel has subdued everyone in the Middle East – including Saudi Arabia – except Iran. Israel took on isolating and neutralizing the “Iranian assets” in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon for the past many months through military strikes, proxies and other covert activities.

The people of Israel understand that their country is no longer threatened by a hostile neighborhood and therefore, its domestic politics no longer revolve around security issues. The significant problems in the recent and current general elections are economic and social. In less than 12 months, Israel has organized three general elections. In April 2019 and then in September, the most significant political parties could not form a government and opted for yet another election, which is now planned for March 2.

However, there is one thing intriguing. If any of the major political parties, either incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud or Benny Gantz’ Blue and White party had sought the support of Arab Israelis in the Knesset, they could have easily formed a government, but neither chose to do it. Hatred for Muslims is common and widespread in Israel.

In 2019, it was the economy that swayed the polls in Israel and the same trend was likely in the next general election due in March, but now there might be a change. Netanyahu, who has been in the Prime Minister’s Office for more than 11 years, is telling people he is irreplaceable. He is scaring people that even today Israel is threatened by Muslims. In the eyes of many Israelis, Netanyahu is the savior and the strongman of Israel. If there is a semblance of an attack on Israel by Iran due to recent developments, or the situation further deteriorates, Netanyahu wins.

It is no secret that Netanyahu prevailed over Trump to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal despite the best efforts of the other states in the UN Security Council permanent five (P5). Trump, too, has not had it easy since the start of his presidency. First the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched inquiries, and then came the threat of impeachment. He needed the support of the Jewish lobby and its influence. Now, the impeachment process has commenced. It is usually the most embarrassing moment for any US president, but it is more challenging for Trump as it comes amid a re-election campaign.

Trump’s support from the Jewish lobby was encouraging, but he also wanted to do something to deflect public opinion. Trump went for the war trophy, a bigger war trophy then Obama’s. The Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani was the rock star of Iran’s Syria policy who reported directly to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and many countries failed in their attempts force a regime change in Syria.

Iran wants power and influence in the Middle East and its grand strategy is Shia empowerment. Iran enjoys significant political influence in Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Iran is confident of its vast oil reserves, but US sanctions have crippled its economy. The people of Iran have no doubt suffered severely from economic sanctions and expensive military adventures. They are divided over how to balance their foreign policy, and end oppressive US sanctions.

Recently there was a sudden outburst of anger in Iran due to increases in fuel prices and violent protests against the government erupted. The Iranian regime also brutally suppressed the protests by killing more than 300 youth and arresting thousands. The Iranian clergy also needed something to deflect public opinion and tighten their grip over the internal situation. The killing of General Soleimani will be capitalized on by the hardliners.

The United States has attacked an Iranian general in a sovereign country, Iraq, in broad daylight. It is a dangerous trend in international security dimensions, and many others may learn the wrong lessons. It is a clear case of criminal intent and hard to defend on any moral and legal grounds.

The killing of the Iranian general has neither served the cause of deterrence nor made the lives and interests of Americans any safer. It is linked with domestic politics of the United States and Israel, and the similar domestic compulsions of Iran may aggravate the situation even further.

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