At 1 AM on 3 January, an American drone strike killed the head of Iran’s Quds Force, the division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) charged with exporting the Islamic revolution, and his Iraqi deputy, Jamal al-Ibrahimi (Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis). Sulaymani was the strategic driver of Iran’s expansionist policy in the Middle East, as well as the orchestrator of its terrorism and assassinations further afield. Unlike with the killing of Al-Qaeda’s Usama bin Laden in 2011 or the Islamic State’s Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi) in October, where the dynamics shifted little, Sulaymani’s death opens up questions about the direction in which the Middle East will now move.
U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and restoring the sanctions regime against Iran on 8 May 2018. However, for a year the waivers were left in place for China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey to trade in oil with the Iranian theocracy. There has been an escalating series of attacks by Iran against U.S. interests in the region since May 2019, when the sanctions waivers were cancelled and the Trump administration declared its intention to “bring Iran’s oil exports to zero”.
Soon afterwards, Iran began staging provocations against international shipping in the Gulf, to which the U.S. did not respond. Iran shot down an American drone in June and Trump declined the Pentagon options for retaliation. Finally, in September, the Iranians attacked the oil supply for the U.S.-led world order at the ARAMCO facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais in Saudi Arabia, crossing the reddest of red lines, and still there was no U.S. reply. The United Arab Emirates had already begun reconciliation with Iran and its proxy regime in Damascus led by Bashar al-Asad, and after the ARAMCO attack the Saudis did the same.
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