Killing of Top Iranian General May Raise Risk for Mideast Shipping

Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, center, 2017 (file image)

Published Jan 3, 2020 4:08 PM by The Maritime Executive

Forces with U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) have killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, a leading Iranian political figure and the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. A JSOC-operated drone destroyed a convoy carrying Soleimani and several Iranian-backed militia leaders as they departed Baghdad International Airport early on Friday morning, killing the general and nine others. 

According to the Trump administration, the strike was intended to head off Iranian-backed actions against American citizens. The Pentagon said Friday that Soleimani "was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” 

In addition, the Pentagon accused Soleimani of approving violent protests at the American embassy in Baghdad. On December 27, a rocket strike from an Iranian-backed militia killed an American civilian contractor and injured several U.S. servicemembers at the K1 military base near Kirkuk. The U.S. military conducted retaliatory airstrikes on the militia positions responsible for the rockets; these retaliatory airstrikes prompted violent protests by Iranian militia members at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Soleimani was involved in authorizing the embassy protests. 

Soleimani ran Iran's covert operations activity in the Middle East for two decades, including foreign-influence operations in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Most of the activity his force has directed - like Iran's support for anti-Israeli militant group Hezbollah, its backing for the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, and its support for the rebel Houthi movement in Yemen - ran counter to American interests. He has been a U.S.-designated terrorist leader since 2011 and is believed to be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers. 

Soleimani was also top figure in Iranian foreign policy and political circles, and he was personally close to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Some U.S. analysts believe that given Soleimani's position, the attack is effectively a declaration of war - a view shared by Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht Ravanchi. “Last night, they started a military war by assassinating, by an act of terror, one of our top generals,” said Ravanchi in an interview on CNN Friday. “We cannot just remain silent. We have to act and we will act.”

In a statement Friday, Ayatollah Khamenei vowed a "forceful revenge" on the "criminals who have [Soleimani's] blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands." 

The form that this "revenge" may take is not yet known. Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, appointed Friday to replace Soleimani as head of the Quds Force, suggested that it would be extreme. "Everyone should be patient a little to see the bodies of American soldiers all over the Middle East," he said, according to Al Jazeera. 

The Department of State has advised all U.S. citizens to depart Iraq as soon as possible, and the Pentagon is deploying about 4,000 droops from the 82nd Airborne Division's Global Response Force to Kuwait as a precautionary measure.

According to USNI News, the administration has also diverted the amphib USS Bataan and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) from a prescheduled exercise off Morocco to redeploy to the Middle East. The 26th MEU's ground combat element includes about 1,200 Marines and sailors, backed by embarked air combat and logistics elements. 

Implications for regional and maritime security

Security consultancy Dryad Global suggested that Iran is likely to take a more moderate course than its rhetoric suggests - at most hitting soft targets. "It is . . . a realistic possibility that Iran could repeat its attacks Saudi oil facilities, as was observed in the attack on an oil processing facility in Abqaiq," Dryad wrote. "Attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure are a highly effective method of targeting US interests within the region, without directly targeting US personnel. Reports have also suggested that the IRGC has ‘threatened’ US bases in the Middle East. Whilst less likely, this remains a possibility."

In recent standoffs with Saudi Arabia and the UK, Iran has also targeted unprotected merchant shipping in the Gulf of Oman and Strait of Hormuz, and comparable attacks are possible. "Dryad assess that the [existing] high threat to vessels within the region remains primarily focused on US and Saudi-flagged vessels. Dryad further assesses that there is an additional threat to vessels carrying US cargos or assets or are seen to be linked to US economic interests," the consultancy wrote. "Marshall Islands-flagged vessels, for example, which come under US protection as a US associated state, are also at a heightened risk. There is a latent but similarly high risk to vessels belonging to states that support [U.S. Operation Sentinel]."

Any disruption to shipping in the region could have implications for the oil markets; Brent crude futures rose by 3.5 percent Friday after the attack. "Tehran's reprisal, whenever it occurs, may threaten global oil supplies, including in the Strait of Hormuz, through which around 20 percent of global oil supplies pass daily," cautioned Elizabeth Rosenberg, director of energy and economics at the Center for a New American Security. "Oil prices have already spiked on this threat in early trading today. The market is still sensitive to the constraint on supply from the Iranian attack on Saudi Aramco facilities in September."