Shockwaves went around the world, and outrage spread in the Middle East, as news broke of Trump’s unilateral decision to assassinate Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force and a key Iranian leader. Suleimani had a legendary status, particularly amongst Shias, throughout the Middle East. He was a labourer’s son who had risen to lead the Quds Force and played a key role in defeating ISIS. Amongst those killed alongside Suleimani was Abu Mahdi al-Muhnadis, an important leader of the militias that are now integrated into Iraqi military forces.
It is widely seen as the most significant event in the Middle East since the 2003 US-British led invasion of Iraq because of its potential impact. It represents an attempt to overturn one of the key results of that invasion, namely the strengthening of Iran’s regional power – something which the invasion’s architects totally failed to foresee. Trump’s goal is to try to reverse Iran’s position but, at the same time, avoid another ground war. However, these killings could further destabilise the whole region and lead to further wars.
For a time, the words “Franz Ferdinand” and “World War Three” trended on Twitter, reflecting fears that this assassination could trigger a war in the same way that the 1914 Sarajevo killing did. While a world war is not posed, more regional conflicts, which would heap more misery on the peoples of the Middle East and possibly further afield, are probable. Suleimani was not just a senior military leader, he was a key player in building Iran’s regional position. Therefore these assassinations will not go unanswered by the Iranian regime, although what it actually does may not be immediately clear, as yet.
Trump’s unilateral action shocked the US’ allies. They were all seemingly left completely in the dark, unlike at least two Republican US Senators who were told of the assassination decision a few days before. It bore all the hallmarks of a gangster ordering the ‘taking out’ of an opponent.
But the potential consequences of this are far wider and more destabilising than a gangland killing; this is something that many sections of the ruling classes in the US, and elsewhere, deeply fear. For the European powers this action is seen as a further step in Trump’s assault on the previous policy of attempting to reach some kind of agreement with Iran. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and the imposition of sanctions, undermined the western imperialists’ previous policy of attempting to engage with the Iranian regime.
In ordering this assassination, Trump is making a high stakes gamble in an unstable region where most of the regimes are either currently facing opposition movements or fear that they will.
Obviously, this year’s US presidential election was a factor in Trump’s decision. The death in late December in Iraq of a US “defence contractor” – really a privatised soldier (a mercenary) – was the trigger, along with the protests outside the US embassy in Baghdad. Trump did not want to risk a repeat of the 1979/81 Tehran embassy hostage crisis, and the failed rescue attempts, that led to Jimmy Carter’s defeat in the 1980 presidential election. Trump wanted to give a warning to the Iranian regime, and ordered, in his own words, Suleimani’s “termination”. This was something two of his predecessors, George W Bush and Obama, considered but rejected because of fears of the repercussions.
There is also speculation that this is an attempt by Trump to divert attention away from his impending impeachment trial, similar to the bombing of Iraq that the then President Clinton ordered in December 1998 just before the House was due to vote on his impeachment.
Both within the US and amongst the other western imperialist powers, there are real fears that this action has not been thought through and will open up a Pandora’s Box of retaliation, upheavals and war. There is no objection to the assassination, as such but, as a New York Times editorial put it, “The real question to ask about the American drone attack that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani was not whether it was justified, but whether it was wise.” The German government adopted a similar position saying, “The American action was a reaction to a series of military provocations for which Iran is responsible. We also see with great concern Iran’s activities in the region…[But] we stand before a dangerous escalation.”
Reflecting the fears of a section of the US ruling class that the situation could spiral into widespread conflicts, a former US deputy assistant secretary of defence for the Middle East, Andrew Exum, wrote: “This doesn’t mean war, it will not lead to war, and it doesn’t risk war. None of that. It is war”. These serious doubts and disagreements within the ruling classes reflect the real situation that a chain of events will be set off. While it is not clear where it will lead, the possibility of destabilising conflicts has massively increased. Trump himself attempted to defuse these fears by claiming that Soleimani’s assassination was to “stop a war”, but there is no guarantee of that.
Immediately there will be repercussions in Iraq. The Iraqi government has been facing a renewed wave of mass protests since October and, after resigning last November, is now technically just a caretaker administration. It immediately protested at the Baghdad airport assassinations, something carried out without its prior knowledge or approval, and sought to rally popular support against this unilateral US action.
In his attempts to justify his decision, Trump is trying to opportunistically exploit both last year’s protests in Iraq and also the similar ones that broke out in November in Iran. Both countries saw attempts by military forces to brutally suppress these protests. In Iran, the repression by the state, including the Revolutionary Guards, which Suleimani helped lead, played a role in suppressing the protests. However, in Iraq, the repression, led by forces associated with Muhnadis and Suleimani, did not succeed in crushing the protests.
Suleimani’s key role in organising the counter-measures against the recent movements in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon means he had blood on his hands. Trump hopes this, and Muhnadis’ role in Iraq, will help limit anger at their assassination. This is especially so in Iraq, where some of the targets of popular anger were Iranian institutions since the Iranian regime is seen as backing an unpopular government.
The appeal of Trump’s hypocritical criticism could be limited by anger at the US’ own role in Iraq. Among people in Iran, Trump’s close support for the even more dictatorial Saudi regime will lessen the effect of his criticism of the Iran regime’s repression.
Since the 2003 invasion there has also been bitter opposition in Iraq to the US’ power. The likelihood is that, at least immediately, Iraqi anger will centre on the US rather than against Iran. The question of Iraq’s sovereignty is increasingly posed. The US military simply ignored the Iraqi prime minister’s opposition to the US’ “unilateral decision” when he was told of its planned December 29 bombing raid in retaliation for the death of the “defence contractor” two days earlier.
Demands will grow for an end to the US military doing what it likes in Iraq and the withdrawal of its forces. Significantly, in Iraq, al-Sadr, a key opposition leader opposed to the Iranian regime’s role in Iraq, denounced the assassinations and ordered the “patriotic Iraqi resistance … especially the Mehdi Army, Promised Day Brigade, and all patriotic and disciplined groups to be ready to protect Iraq”.
If the demands for the withdrawal of US and other foreign military from Iraq succeed they could be echoed in other countries.
Internationally these assassinations are also another warning to the working class and oppressed. Repeatedly the ruling classes speak about the need to obey the “rule of law” when they move to limit and suppress opposition movements whether it be strikes or protests.
These assassinations marked a step change. Historically the US, like other states, have carried out, or attempted, assassinations. In 1975, a US Senate committee investigated a series of clandestine CIA assassination attempts, including that of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo and of Cuba’s Fidel Castro. For a brief time this policy was halted. But what is new is that Suleimani, a very senior Iranian leader, was openly killed with a minimal attempt to justify it.
None of the US’s allies have, so far, condemned the Trump administration for summarily executing opponents with no “legal” justification, apart from the unproven claim that this was in “self-defence”. Indeed, similar tactics are used by other governments around the world, often under the claim of “fighting terrorism” or “crime”.
Future of struggle
Mass repression was used in Sudan and Iraq, last year, to try to suppress mass movements. But in both cases they failed. The mass movements of recent months in North Africa and the Middle East show the potential force of the working class and poor to change society. In Iraq and, especially, Lebanon, these non-sectarian movements sought to overcome religious and national differences in a unified struggle against the regimes and for real change.
The challenge in each country is to build upon these struggles and create democratic organisations of working people, youth and the poor. Such organisations can both lead the struggle for change and also be the basis for a government that breaks the power of the ruling class and breaks with both imperialism and capitalism, thereby creating the basis for a genuinely socialist transformation of society.
Such is the situation in North Africa and the Middle East that this kind of development in any single country would have a rapid international impact. Today the struggle against imperialist interventions like Trump’s assassinations needs to go hand in hand with helping to build the forces for socialist change as the only way to break out of the cycle of wars and repression and liberate the vast majority.