Friday, 3 January 2020

A very unhappy start to the New Year, thanks to Trump

I am fascinated, confused and terrified in equal parts by the Middle East:  a cradle of ancient civilizations, but also a source of  seemingly permanent enmity between peoples.

The overnight news of the remote assassination at Baghdad international airport by a US drone of the second most important political figure in Iran appears both astonishingly brazen and geo-politically very risky.

I do not have the expertise to analyse the differing ramifications of this extra-judicial murder ordered by the US President. My guess is he has stirred - very violently - a hornets' nest yet again, in the world's most unstable region.

I have pasted several articles below that helped me understand what is going on.

Firstly, LBC radio - based in London- uploaded several  tweets made by Donald J Trump, when he was a mere very rich businessmen, at a time when  Barack Obama was  US President, speculating on the political motivations for  an American President provoking a war with Iran during a Presidential election year, (which 2020 is).

Trump repeatedly accused Obama of starting a war with Iran to win the US election

3 January 2020, 08:46 | Updated: 3 January 2020, 08:50
Donald Trump's old tweets have come back to haunt him Donald Trump's old tweets have come back to haunt him. Picture: PA / Twitter

Donald Trump has been accused of hypocrisy after tweets emerged from him saying Barack Obama was trying to start a war in Iran to boost his chances of winning the US election.
The President ordered an airstrike on Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in response to the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad.
However, tweets from nine years ago have emerged in which Mr Trump claimed Obama would target the Middle Eastern country to boost his popularity at home.
In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 29, 2011
I always said @BarackObama will attack Iran, in some form, prior to the election.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 16, 2012
Don't let Obama play the Iran card in order to start a war in order to get elected--be careful Republicans!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 22, 2012
I predict that President Obama will at some point attack Iran in order to save face!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 16, 2013
President Obama spent two terms in office and did not order any military attack on Iran.

Here is an article from POLITICO middle east specialists:

The Pentagon on Thursday confirmed the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, in Iraq.


Politico, 1/3/20, 4:39 AM CET

U.S. President Donald Trump | Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump’s killing of one of Iran’s top military commanders means the elimination of a dangerous U.S. foe — but it also represents a risky escalation in a volatile feud that could backfire on U.S. personnel and allies in the Middle East and beyond.

The Pentagon confirmed Thursday that Qassem Soleimani, who leads Iran’s elite Quds force, was killed in what it termed a “defensive action.” Iraqi and other media said Soleimani died in an airstrike at Baghdad’s international airport. Some media accounts described the airstrike as coming from a U.S. drone, but the Pentagon did not specify.

“At the direction of the president, the U.S. military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S. personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization,” the Pentagon said.

“General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region,” it added, blaming him for recent attacks on U.S. troops and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. “This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans.”

Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, accused the U.S. of “international terrorism” and said it “bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”

“There’s no chance in hell Iran won’t respond,” — Afshon Ostovar

Even the possibility that the U.S. had directly targeted Soleimani – especially on Iraqi soil – sent shockwaves around the globe, spiking oil prices and leading to instant assessments of the potential fallout. U.S. officials have long depicted Soleimani as a paramilitary and terrorist mastermind, deemed responsible for attacks on American troops in Iraq and against U.S. interests all over the world.

“It is hard to overstate the significance,” said retired Gen. David Petraeus, who oversaw the “surge” of American troops in Iraq in the violent years after the 2003 U.S. invasion. “But there will be responses in Iraq and likely Syria and the region.”

Some current and former U.S. officials, as well as veteran Iran observers, said the killing was an escalatory move far beyond what they had ever expected.

“There’s no chance in hell Iran won’t respond,” said Afshon Ostovar, an expert on Soleimani and author of “Vanguard of the Imam” a book about Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The strike also reportedly killed Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was traveling in the same convoy as Soleimani. It astonished even some members of the Trump administration who said killing the Iranian general had not been seriously considered — at least not recently.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeatedly singled out Soleimani for criticism as part of the Trump team’s broader anti-Iran “maximum pressure” campaign | Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

“I can’t believe it,” one U.S. official said. “The immediate concern for me is: What’s the next step from Iran? Is this the beginning of a regional conflagration?”

A former U.S. official who dealt with the Middle East said the strike was especially notable because it targeted the leader of a state apparatus, as opposed to a non-state actor.

“We need to be prepared that we’re now at war,” he said.

A Middle Eastern official said that a retaliation by Iran – known for its own assassinations abroad – could occur anywhere.

“It could be targets in Africa, it could be in Latin America, it could be in the Gulf, it could be anything,” the official said. “I don’t think they’re going to take the assassination of one of their key guys and just turn the other cheek.”

Soleimani had been leading the Quds Force, a unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that is behind much of Iran’s military actions outside its borders. He was a hugely popular figure in Iran, and a frequent rhetorical target of President Donald Trump and his aides.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for instance, repeatedly singled out Soleimani for criticism as part of the Trump team’s broader anti-Iran “maximum pressure” campaign. Part of that campaign included designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization.

The killing of Soleimani was a shocking development, even considering how tense U.S.-Iran relations have grown under Trump.

Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign has intensified in recent months, as the U.S. has clashed with Iran and its proxies. Just days ago, an American contractor died in Iraq after an attack by an Iraqi militia allied with Iran. The U.S. responded by bombing sites held by the group, killing some two dozen militiamen.

Within days, protesters believed to be linked to the Iran-backed militia breached parts of the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad. The Iraqi government, meanwhile, condemned the U.S. airstrikes, noting that the militia had ties to its own security forces.

In comments Thursday that may have foreshadowed the strike, Esper warned that the U.S. reserved the right to strike preemptively in Iraq or the region. “If we get word of attacks, we will take preemptive action as well to protect American forces, protect American lives,” the defense secretary told reporters at the Pentagon. “The game has changed.”

But the killing of Soleimani was a shocking development, even considering how tense U.S.-Iran relations have grown under Trump. The president has heaped economic sanctions on Iran’s Islamist regime and at times threatened Tehran with military action.

Trump also pulled the United States out of the internationally negotiated nuclear deal with Iran, saying it was too narrow and should have curbed Iran’s non-nuclear aggressions in the region as well as its nuclear program.

The two countries nearly came to a direct military clash earlier this year after Iran was blamed in a string of attacks on international oil tankers. The U.S. and Iran even downed each other’s drones, but Trump backed down at the last minute from staging a military strike directly on Iran.

Though he has sent thousands more troops to the region, Trump has said repeatedly that he doesn’t want to engage in a new war in the Middle East. But the possibility that Iran will feel compelled to respond with escalatory actions of its own could embroil the president in a politically risky confrontation in the middle of an election year.

The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani | STR/AFP via Getty Images

Democrats reacted cautiously to Soleimani’s killing, but immediately raised questions about its legality, even as Republicans hailed it as an unalloyed triumph.

“Soleimani was an enemy of the United States. That’s not a question,” tweeted Senator Chris Murphy (Democrat-Connecticut). "The question is this – as reports suggest, did America just assassinate, without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?”

The death of Soleimani is also likely to have deep implications in Iraq and other countries in the region, where Iran has powerful political allies and proxy forces.

The most immediate shock waves are likely to be felt in Iraq, which for years has been a battleground for influence between Washington and Tehran. One of Iran’s longstanding foreign policy goals has been to push U.S. troops out of Iraq, where they’ve maintained a presence since the 2003 invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

Many Iraqis are sick of Iranian influence in their country. Recent widespread demonstrations have featured chants against Tehran and the Shiite clerics who largely run its religion-infused regime.

But Iraq also wants to avoid becoming ground zero for a U.S.-Iran war, while keeping up friendly relations with Iran to help its own economy.

“It is only fair for Iraq to strive to achieve this balance but given the ‘beef’ between Iran and the U.S. it’s a lost effort,” a former Iraqi diplomat told POLITICO. The “Trump administration is on a zero-sum mission vis a vis Iran, and expects Iraq to pick one side only.”

While Soleimani’s death is no doubt a major loss for the Iranian regime, it is unlikely the ruling clerics and their military aides were entirely unprepared for it.

Trump’s hard line toward Iran has earned applause from other Middle Eastern countries, notably Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which consider Iran an implacable enemy bent on manipulating the region in its favor.

Still, Saudi and UAE diplomats in recent months have tried to cool tensions with Iran. And while they’re likely to shed few tears for Soleimani, they may worry about the blowback Iran and its allies are capable of creating in their own countries.

The Pentagon had considered striking Soleimani before, during the height of U.S. involvement in Iraq, when the Quds Force was supplying bombs and other weapons to Iraqi Shiite militia groups that the military estimated killed over 600 U.S. troops.

In 2006, according to an Army study of the Iraq War that was eventually declassified, the U.S. military headquarters in Iraq “prepared a plan to kill or capture Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, who had made his way into Iraq for at least the second time” that year, the next time he visited the country.

But U.S. commanders “ultimately refrained from taking action against Soleimani, allowing the Iranian general to enter and exit Iraq unhindered,” says the study. It does not explain why the military did not act on the proposal or whether it was considered at higher levels, such as at the military’s Central Command or the Pentagon.

U.S. commandos in Iraq did detain some of Soleimani’s Quds Force associates during raids later in 2006 and 2007, though, after the Bush administration granted expanded authorities for the elite troops to go after Iranian targets in the country.

Those captures proved controversial with the Iraqi government, which often granted Quds Force members diplomatic immunity and insisted on their release.

While Soleimani’s death is no doubt a major loss for the Iranian regime, it is unlikely the ruling clerics and their military aides were entirely unprepared for it.

Ostovar, the Soleimani and IRGC expert, said in all likelihood Iran will name a successor soon because its systematic approach to their rule is “really strong.”

“He was really just sort of the forward or outside face of the Islamic Republic,” Ostovar said. “He was the face of their strategy, but their strategy goes beyond him.”

And here are two articles from publications in the middle east, one in Middle East Eye from a more Arab/ Persian perspective, the other from  Israel's leading liberal daily newspaper published in English, Ha'aretz. This includes a link to an article speculating that Iranian-backed 'sleeper' terror cells in the west could now be activated in revenge...

Iraqis express joy and fear at news


In Iraq, Azhar al-Rubaie is speaking to Iraqis who are both happy to hear of Soleimani’s death and wary of its consequences.

For Mohammed al-Alwan, a 24-year-old from Basra, Soleimani’s assassination is “not only a victory for Iraqis, but also for the international community”.

“I was so happy when I heard that the world's biggest criminal had been killed, as he killed many Iraqis once he intervened Iraq’s affairs and sent his militias to the country,” Alwan says.

Alwan says he feels the same way about Soleimani’s death as he did when he heard Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been killed. But, he warns, Soleimani’s death will not end Iranian influence in Iraq.

“We also have to get rid of his hands in Iraq. If we do not, they will grow and replace him with a new figure to continue Soleimani’s objectives in the country,” he says.

عاجل ❗#الان

فرحة شباب الحرية بمقتل قاسم سليماني

— Firas W. Alsarray - فراس السراي (@firasalsarrai) January 3, 2020

Another Basra-based Iraqi, Haider Laith, says: “I have two moods, I am happy and sad at the same time.”

“Firstly, I am happy that we are taking our first steps towards curbing Iranian influence in Iraq. Secondly, I am sad that Iran will respond to the US in Iraq, and use it as a war and conflict zone again,” the 22-year-old says.

Laith, like hundreds of thousands of other Iraqis, has for months been in the streets protesting against the government, corruption and Iranian influence. Several hundreds of protesters have been killed in a crackdown by Iran-backed militias and Iraqi security forces.

“Iran also will try to take revenge upon the protesters, who were happy after receiving the news on this historic day.”

'Terrified of what is to come'

54 minutes ago

Jenan Moussa, a prominent journalist in the region, is among many to take to social media today and express her concern for what is to come.

It's one of these days again in the Middle East.

You wake up.

You read the news.

And you are terrified of what is to come.

— Jenan Moussa (@jenanmoussa) January 3, 2020

Syrian journalist Danny Makki took to Twitter to outline just how important a figure Soleimani is for Iran.

Qassem Suleimani was more than just a General or a military leader, he was Iran's ultimate symbol of power, strength & influence in the Middle East, rushing between Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, his assassination is not just an escalation, its effectively a declaration of war.

— Danny Makki (@Dannymakkisyria) January 3, 2020

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, shared a widely circulated video purportedly showing Iraqis celebrating the Iranian's death - a reminder that he was as reviled as admired across the region.

Iraqis — Iraqis — dancing in the street for freedom; thankful that General Soleimani is no more.

— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) January 3, 2020

And Donald Trump? Well the man who ordered the strike has been noticeably silent, except for a low-resolution image of the US flag he shared on Twitter soon after the assassination.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2020

Sadr reactivates Mahdi Army

1 hour ago

Moqtada al-Sadr, the cleric-turned-politician who fought US troops in the tumultuous years following the Iraq war, has announced he is reforming his Mahdi Army militia.

Taking to Twitter, Sadr ordered "fighters, particularly those from the Mahdi Army, to be ready" following the assassination, and eulogised Soleimani. The Mahdi Army disbanded in 2008 following years of bloody conflict with US troops.

— مقتدى السيد محمد الصدر (@Mu_AlSadr) December 30, 2019

These days Sadr stands at the head of the Iraqi parliament's largest bloc, and with his votes combined with the Hashd al-Shaabi militia's political bloc we could see a law being passed ordering US forces' expulsion from the country.

Iran and allies vow revenge

1 hour ago

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khameini, who was close to Soleimani, has vowed "severe revenge" awaits the general's killers.

"Severe revenge awaits the criminals whose dirty hands were tainted with his blood and the blood of all the martyrs of last night's incident," he said, announcing three days of mourning.

"The martyr, Soleimani, was an international resistance figure, and all those who loved him are calling for revenge for his blood."


Javad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, called the assassination an "act of international terrorism".

"The US' act of international terrorism, targeting & assassinating General Soleimani-THE most effective force fighting Daesh [Islamic State], Al Nusrah, Al Qaeda et al-is extremely dangerous & a foolish escalation," Zarif said.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said: "Meting out the appropriate punishment to these criminal assassins... will be the responsibility and task of all resistance fighters worldwide."

Meanwhile a Syrian foreign ministry spokesperson said the killing was "a serious escalation of the situation" in the Middle East and likened the US' methods to those "of criminal gangs".

Qassem Soleimani killed in US strike

1 hour ago

Good morning and welcome to Middle East Eye's liveblog tracking all the reactions and latest updates following the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the powerful leader of Iran's Quds force.

Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy leader of Iraq's Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi militia grouping, were hit by a missile strike on Baghdad airport overnight.

The assassinations are likely to have a profound effect on the region, where Soleimani has helped spread Iranian influence with bloody results.

Here's our news wrap of the latest events:




The Four Critical Questions After the Assassination of Iran's Soleimani

Haaretz - Israel News Friday, January 03, 2020.


It’s impossible to exaggerate the repercussions of this event, and even Trump’s most steadfast supporters should be regretting the absence of a seasoned national-security staff around him

Anshel Pfeffer

The United States just took out the most important symbol of Iranian power and its most effective operational tool in the region. It’s impossible to exaggerate the influence wielded by Qassem Soleimani in the 22 years he commanded the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.

There was the power he had over governments and fighting forces across the region and his ability to shape events – from his physical presence on the front lines, which over the years took on an almost mythic quality, to his quiet diplomacy, coupled always with intimidation and bribery behind the scenes. His loss to the Iranian Islamic revolutionary regime, especially to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is a crushing blow, and on an operational and intelligence-gathering level, a major coup for the Trump administration.

For many countries across the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq, where Soleimani was directly responsible for spreading so much death and destruction, as well as for Iranian dissidents, it will be a moment for grim satisfaction, even jubilation. Iran will have no choice but to retaliate with massive force and try to extract painful retribution from the United States and its allies in the region.

This is the most fateful action by the Trump administration in the Middle East in the past three years – the blatant assassination of effectively the second-most powerful man in his country and over the past two decades the most powerful in the region.

It’s impossible to exaggerate the repercussions of this event, and even Donald Trump’s most steadfast supporters should be regretting the absence of a seasoned national-security staff around him, capable of challenging his decisions and assumptions. For the past 22 years, Soleimani was a constant if bitter foe; without him, matters become a lot less predictable.

There are now two critical questions to ask of Iran and two of the United States.

abandon its caution?

Ever since it was forced to accept a humiliating stalemate at the end of its bloody war with Iraq in the ‘80s, the Iranian leadership has refrained from meeting its adversaries head on, instead developing asymmetrical warfare and proxy management to an art. The million-plus deaths in the Iran-Iraq War and the recognition that Iran lacked the firepower and resources to fight another direct war were the constant factors in Soleimani’s grand strategy. Now both his absence from the leadership discussions and the enormous anger at his assassination may affect Iran’s innate caution.

There are a range of targets for Iran to strike back at. U.S. forces in the region, Western oil tankers in the Gulf, America’s main allies – the Saudis and Israel. And does Iran now strike, as usual, using proxies like the Yemeni Houthis and Hezbollah? Or does avenging Soleimani necessitate his own Quds force spearheading the counterattack?

Whatever the course of action, Iran will need to be able to contain the escalation to ensure it can prevent a spillover into its own territory, at it has largely achieved since the end of the Iran-Iraq War. But the man in charge of that strategy is no longer there.

How will Soleimani’s loss affect Iranian power?

It’s no coincidence that Soleimani held on as Quds force commander for 22 years and was mentioned even as a possible heir to the supreme leader (though that was almost certainly an exaggeration). No one could hold in his hand all the loose strands of the shifting regional power play and manipulate them like puppet strings as he did.

Soleimani played the key role in destabilizing Iraq after the American invasion. He transformed Hezbollah from a medium-sized militia into an army-sized force and the main power broker in Lebanon. And then came his greatest achievement, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of deaths: Without him Bashar Assad would not have remained president of Syria in his Damascus palace – even if Soleimani had his share of failures as well.

He had trusted, able and experienced lieutenants, but none have his range of contacts across the Middle East and beyond, and more crucially, none inspire anything near the respect and fear that just the mention of “Haji Qassem” had in cabinet rooms and command centers in half a dozen countries.

His loss will have an effect within the Tehran power structure as well. Soleimani’s power was such that despite the setbacks in Syria in the last three years, when Israel stymied many of Soleimani’s plans to establish long-term military bases there, and as both the faction around President Hassan Rohani and protesters on Iran’s streets called for investing resources at home instead of exporting the Islamic revolution abroad, Khamenei continued to support Soleimani.

Without Soleimani to lead the campaign, Iran could now, for once, drastically misjudge its response and lead to an all-out war. But if the fallout is contained, there is the hope that without Soleimani, Iran could start curbing its regional aspirations.

What was Trump trying to achieve?

After a year of what seemed like dithering on the Iranian front, Trump appealed for a high-level meeting with Rohani and was rebuffed. He failed to respond to attacks on shipping in the Gulf, to the shooting down of an American drone and to missiles launched at Saudi oil installations.

And most crucially perhaps, after a year when Trump almost gave Iran the most glittering prize in the shape of a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, he has suddenly pivoted 180 degrees to a full-on confrontation, with airstrikes on Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, the immediate deployment of combat troops and now the assassination of Soleimani.

Ostensibly, the reason for the airstrikes was the death of an American citizen in an attack by Iranian-backed militias in northern Iraq, and the killing of Soleimani was part of a wider move to prevent further attacks on American personnel and bases. And yet, killing a figure like Soleimani is a strategic move. Did Trump have a broader objective or was the temptation to exploit an opportunity to take out such a prominent figure, someone even Trump would have been acquainted with from his very short daily intelligence briefings, simply too great?

The United States has had similar opportunities to strike Soleimani in the past. But the potential backlash was judged as too great. Besides, at various points over the past two decades, the United States had indirectly cooperated with him in the hope that this could stabilize Iraq and help fight Al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

Whether Trump gave the order this time on an impulse, as part of a wider campaign against Iran, and who knows, in the hopes that it could boost his prospects entering the election year, will have a major effect on what comes next.

Does anyone in the administration have a plan?

Four months ago, Trump still had a team of dedicated Iran hawks in the National Security Council. But John Bolton is gone, an implacable enemy, and Trump has publicly repudiated Bolton’s visions of regime change in Iran. That may well be a good thing, but with the hollowing out of the NSC and the upper echelons of the State Department, there’s barely a skeleton of a professional staff of advisers around Trump, but instead a group of sycophantic hangers on. He still has the largest, most professional and best-equipped armed forces and intelligence community in the world, but no one really in charge of strategic thinking.

Trump could be blundering into a ferocious war with Iran without a plan. And even if he doesn’t go to war, extricating the United States from this escalation could inflict damage both on America’s interests and on its allies. The U.S. is a thousand times more powerful, but Iran, since the revolution of 1979, has proved itself more than capable of exploiting every moment of hesitation, every misjudgment and every temporary vacuum provided by U.S. administrations.

And these are uncharted waters whose direction no one can predict. A venal and vainglorious president in the White House and an Iranian leadership that has just lost its wisest member – both fighting for survival at home – are now facing off while standing on the brink.

Anshel Pfeffer


Anshel Pfeffer!/image/2101626624.jpg_gen/derivatives/headline_1200x630/2101626624.jpg



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