The world waits anxiously for Iran’s response to the US killing of General Qasem Soleimani on Friday. Iran’s leaders wasted little time vowing revenge against the United States, and punctuating those words with symbolic acts designed to inflame the passions of the Iranian people, and of Muslims worldwide. Today, Iran raised a red flag over the Holy Dome Jamkarān Mosque as a representation of a severe battle to come. At this point Iran is almost entirely obligated to retaliate, and Tehran understands this. Soleimani was a senior member of the regime, and largely responsible for the expansion of Iranian influence across the Middle East. His death cannot go unanswered.
As Iran considers its next move, the US intelligence community, and the Pentagon are trying to locate clues which might give a hint about what is coming, when, and where. Iran’s fiery rhetoric in the last 24 hours makes it clear emotions are running high. Statements about striking vital US targets have filled the airwaves, and world wide web. Tehran’s first instinct has likely been to strike a high-value, high-visibility US target in the region. An attack that will put the United States, and the world on notice, as well as showcase Iran’s capabilities.
Unfortunately for the regime in Tehran, its eyes are bigger than its stomach. If it wants to challenge the US militarily in the Persian Gulf region, the fight will be brief and the end result not in Iran’s favor. Since late spring, the US has been quietly building up its forces in the region in dribs and drabs. A handful of fighters here, a battery of Patriots there. The media has been so obsessed with the impeachment soap opera in Washington that it has barely noticed the movement of forces. Suffice to say, the US has enough hardware on hand around the Persian Gulf to fulfill a host of offensive, and defensive operations should Iran decide to respond militarily, and on a large scale.
On Friday, Iran declared a three-day public mourning period for Soleimani’s death. Once it draws to an close, Iran probably will not waste much time before retaliating. Until then, the waiting game goes on.
With 2020 just around the corner, the time has come to look ahead and consider what the new year might have in store. 2019 is coming to an end and there’s a large amount of geopolitical uncertainty in the air. Some of the usual-suspect hotspots are simmering, domestic politics in a handful of European nations are causing headaches for the European Union, and a few areas of the world regional powers are making diplomatic, economic, and military moves that can only be described as being hegemonic.
At first glance, the geopolitical situation appears to be quite similar to what it was one year ago on this day. However, there are a number of variables lurking just beneath the surface which can potentially turn a given hotspot into a raging conflagration with the right amount of coaxing, or neglect. North Korea and Iran are the two examples that immediately come to mind but there are others.
2020 could also be the year when the great-power competition shifts into high gear. The US, Russia, India, and China have all been positioning themselves, and making respective preparations in anticipation of a point in the future when moves will be made. Syria is one place where the ambitions of multiple powers have clashed to create a fast-moving conflict with ill-defined goals. Now it seems Libya is on the verge of becoming a smaller version of Syria.
Over the weekend and through Christmas Day we’ll evaluate a handful of potential 2020 flashpoints, and then break out the crystal ball to forecast what might occur over the coming 12 months in areas such as the Eastern Mediterranean, North Korea, the Persian Gulf, and South America.
Iraq continues to deteriorate as the anti-government protests that have plagued the nation since October threaten to turn into a full-scale uprising. As if this were not enough to contend with, the government is now facing a full-blown political crisis that could potentially unravel the central government at the worst possible moment. On Thursday security forces opened fire on a group of protesters in Nasiriyah killing 24 and wounding over 200. Protesters were also killed in Baghdad, and Najaf. On Friday, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi announced his resignation, resulting in a cautious optimism among protesters. Mahdi leaving office is a start, but there is still much work to be done.
The protesters in Iraq are seeking a reform of the government, and an end to Iranian influence in Baghdad. The resignation of one man alone will not be enough to satisfy them. Too much blood has been shed in the streets. Too many promises have been left unfulfilled by the leaders in Baghdad. When Mahdi’s resignation is approved by parliament, the search for his successor will begin. This will likely be a long-term process. In the meantime, Mahdi’s cabinet could stay in power as a caretaker government. The protesters may not respond kindly to this scenario if it becomes reality. Their battle against an entrenched and corrupt political class will continue, and as it does, the post-Saddam Iraq constructed by the United States hangs in the balance.
When US troops completed their withdrawal in 2011, the hope was that the new Iraqi government’s foundation would be strong enough to withstand the coming challenges. As it turned out, this wasn’t the case. Without US support the foundation rapidly transformed to quicksand. Corruption, and nepotism swept through the public sector. Sectarianism became endemic. These factors, coupled with the removal of American forces created a vacuum in Iraq that its neighbor to the east swiftly moved to fill. Iranian actions, and influence have helped to bring the Iraqi system to the verge of a permanent breakdown.
The Iraqi parliament will have 15 days to name a new successor. Yet, as I mentioned above, it has historically taken much longer to name a new leader in post-Saddam Iraq. The clock is running though. If a leader who appeals to all major factions cannot be agreed upon, Iraq could be plunged into a full-fledged civil war.
Today the Pentagon, and US intelligence community continue to monitor the Middle East for indications that Iran is preparing to retaliate against Israel for its recent strikes against Iranian weapons facilities in Syria and Iraq. Israel also struck targets in Lebanon and Gaza in the last few days, escalating its campaign to deny Iran the ability to establish forward bases in close proximity to Israeli territory. With the attacks over, Israel, the United States, and the rest of the world have been waiting ever since for the Iranian response. It has yet to come though there is little doubt it will eventually.
The latest Israeli attacks differed from previous ones made against Iranian targets in Syria, and other areas. In the past, Israel has been covert regarding these efforts. This time, it was quite open about them. Some analysts believe the change has come at the behest of the United States, which has intensified pressure on Iran in recent months. Whether this is the case or not, it does not appear Iran is ready to confront Israel militarily. Tehran would be more likely to respond through its surrogates in Syria and Lebanon, most prominently Hezbollah.
Hezbollah has blamed Israel for a drone attack in a Beirut neighborhood early Sunday morning. One of the helicopter-type devices crashed and was recovered by Hezbollah members. The problem with the claim is that the physical characteristics of the recovered drone do not look like any type that Israel operates. This has led to much speculation about the origin of the drone. A number of military analysts around the world have suggested the drone is actually Iranian, leading to the assumption Sunday’s attack was a less-than-elaborate ruse on the part of Hezbollah and Iran.
If this is the case, it seems clear Iran and Hezbollah are either attempting to establish a faux justification for future hostilities against Israel, or simply building an equally as deceptive public relations campaign against their enemies in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
In either case, expect there to be more activity in the region over the coming weekend.
New threats by Iran against US troops in Iraq have prompted a very public surge of US forces to the Persian Gulf region. On Sunday evening, the White House and Pentagon announced that the USS. Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group, and a USAF bomber force would be moving into the Persian Gulf area immediately. The decision to expedite the movement of these forces came after new intelligence made the possibility of hostile action against US forces in the near future seem imminent. There’s also been concern about Iranian maritime activity in the Strait of Hormuz, and Persian Gulf over the weekend and it’s probable this concern also helped to prompt the US military movements. National Security Adviser John Bolton summarized the threats as “a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings.”
Additional reports from the region on Monday appear to indicate the current standoff between the United States and Iran could very well be escalating soon. Reports from Iranian state media have suggested that Tehran intends to announce a reduction in its compliance with the 2015 Nuclear Agreement. An announcement could come as early as Wednesday which, ironically enough, marks one-year anniversary of the American withdrawal from the nuclear deal. This particular detail makes Iran’s intentions questionable. Will Iran reduce its commitment to the nuclear deal, or is this move simply a response to the latest US moves?
Scrutiny will be fixed upon the Strait of Hormuz in the coming days as the already-jittery global markets watch for any signs that Iran could be moving to restrict movement through the strategically-important strait, or possibly close it entirely.