Tensions in the Middle East have escalated sharply after the United States assassinated Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Soleimani was killed in a targeted drone strike in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, on January 3. In response, on Wednesday Iran launched more than a dozen missiles at Iraqi air bases hosting United States and allied forces. No casualties have yet been reported.
Why did the US target Soleimani?
In early January, protestors in Baghdad stormed the US embassy. The protests followed a series of US drone strikes in Iraq that targeted a militia group aligned with Iran. US President Donald Trump asked his military chiefs to present him with a “menu” of options with which to respond. Assassinating Soleimani was the most extreme option on the menu, according to The New York Times — and was included only “to make other possibilities appear more palatable”. Trump chose the most extreme option. He has subsequently claimed that Soleimani was in the process of organising some kind of attack on US interests, and that he was killed to save American lives. So far there is little evidence to support this claim.
Why was Soleimani so important?
Soleimani was widely considered to be the second most important figure in Iran’s government. He oversaw Iran’s regional military involvement, especially its relationships with militia groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. He has been repeatedly accused of masterminding atrocities. His death was mourned by huge crowds across Iran, especially in his home town of Kerman, where more than 50 people were killed during a stampede at his funeral.
What will happen next?
The Middle East remains on a knife edge. Although Iran has indicated that Wednesday’s missile attacks are the extent of its official retaliation, analysts expect more attacks from its armed proxies throughout the region. Much depends on what the US does now. A further retaliation could tip the region into all-out war, with Iran threatening to attack Dubai and the Israeli city Haifa if it is further provoked. But Iran’s response may have been carefully calibrated to avoid a further escalation.
As The Guardian’s Michael Safi explained: “Iran will be able to say it took violent revenge for Soleimani’s death and pivot to a campaign of proxy warfare … The US can also step back, shrugging off the retaliation as being of no significant consequence.”
An unusually sombre speech from President Trump on Wednesday evening seems to support this position. He said: “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world. No American or Iraqi lives were lost because of the precautions taken, the dispersal of forces, and an early warning system that worked very well.”
Iran’s leader, Ali Khamenei, said Iran was now focused on the broader goal of expelling the United States from the region. “We just gave [the US] a slap in the face last night,” he said on Wednesday, speaking in the holy city of Qom. “But that is not equivalent to what they did. Military action like this is not sufficient. What is important is ending the corrupting presence of America in the region.”
Is the Ukraine plane crash linked?
On Wednesday morning, a Ukraine International Airlines passenger plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran’s international airport. All 176 crew and passengers were killed. The black box has been recovered, but it is still too early to say what caused the crash, or to make any judgment on whether it was an accident or deliberately brought down.
How will these tensions affect Africa?
Most immediately, the tensions in the Middle East have driven a spike in the price of oil, with Brent Crude rising more than 4% in the immediate aftermath of the Iranian missile attacks on Wednesday. Although the price did drop subsequently, expect the oil market to remain volatile.
“Escalated global tensions have an impact on our economy. For example rising oil prices and other trade related issues. Think!!” Finance Minister Tito Mboweni said on Twitter.
African countries will also be braced for potential violence if Iranian proxy organisations look to retaliate for the death of Soleimani.
“Africa could emerge as a venue for confrontation between the US and Iran as Tehran threatens to retaliate,” reported the Voice of America’s Salem Solomon.
The Telegraph newspaper has previously reported that Iran had links with militants in Sudan, Chad, Ghana, Niger, the Gambia and the Central African Republic.
What is South Africa’s position?
The department of international relations and co-operation has called for calm in Iraq. “It is crucial for all sides to remain calm and desist from taking any further action that will exacerbate the already fragile situation. South Africa emphasises its principled view that conflicts should be resolved through political dialogue rather than resorted to the use of force.”
The ANC issued a statement in which it condemned the assassination of Soleimani and bluntly criticised the US. “We view this latest inhumane episode as an attack on the sovereignty and self-determination of the people of Iran. The ANC rejects this raw aggression against the people and government of Iran, which has the potential to plunge the Middle East and the world into a full-scale war … The ANC and all progressive formations of the world cannot afford to remain silent while the actions of the US appear to be undermining peace and security with impunity.”