Sunday 26 January 2020

Con Coughlin: 'Death of the poster boy of the revolution tells Tehran it can no longer threaten US'

Qasem Soleimani. Photo: IRIB TV/AFP via Getty Images
Qasem Soleimani. Photo: IRIB TV/AFP via Getty Images

Con Coughlin

The assassination of Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani by an air strike in the early hours of yesterday sends an unequivocal message to Tehran that it can no longer threaten the US and its allies with impunity.

As the head of the elite Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, responsible for conducting Iran's overseas military operations, Soleimani first came to prominence following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

At that time, he was in charge of the Iran-sponsored Shia militias in southern Iraq that carried out a series of attacks against British troops based in Basra.

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His actions led to the deaths of several British soldiers, with many more suffering serious injury, as the militias waged a brutal terrorist campaign against British forces.

At one point during the Iraq campaign, an elite SAS team was dispatched to assassinate Soleimani.

But the operation was called off by the then Labour foreign secretary David Miliband who told the British military chiefs that his preference was to open negotiations with the Iranian commander, not to kill him.

Since then, the 62-year-old poster boy of Iran's Islamic Revolution has overseen the rapid expansion of Iranian meddling in the Middle East.

At the height of his powers, he easily eclipsed al-Qa'ida leader Osama bin Laden as a threat to Western interests in the region.

Washington has noted a sharp increase in Quds Force activity since Iran signed the controversial nuclear deal with Barack Obama in 2015.

Instead of spending the tens of billions of dollars it received as a result of the sanctions being lifted on rebuilding the Iranian economy, the ayatollahs instead spent the money building a new network of military bases throughout the Middle East.

It was to halt the spread of what Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, has described as Iran's "malign influence" in the Middle East that the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal, imposing fresh sanctions against Tehran.

This, in turn, has resulted in a dramatic increase in Iranian attacks against the West and its allies in recent months as the ayatollahs have sought to distract attention away from their woeful handling of the Iranian economy, which has resulted in nationwide anti-government protests.

Moreover, after Donald Trump failed to respond when the Revolutionary Guard shot down a US navy drone over the Gulf in the summer, and only made a lukewarm response after Iran attacked Saudi Arabia's Aramco oil facilities in September, Tehran wrongly concluded that it could maintain its aggressive stance with impunity.

For Soleimani, this proved to be a fatal miscalculation.

For decades, the Iranian regime has operated on the basis that it can undertake provocative actions against the West without being held accountable.

From the hostage crisis in Lebanon in the 1980s, to more recent attacks, such as the downing of a US navy drone over the Gulf in the summer, Tehran has been able to carry out hostile acts without having to face the consequences.

But, with the assassination of Soleimani, the US has demonstrated forcefully that it is no longer prepared to tolerate Iran's campaign of aggression against the West and its allies, and that Tehran will pay a heavy price for any further aggressive acts.

The Soleimani assassination is also likely to have profound implications for neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Iran's main rival for supremacy in the Gulf.

Western intelligence officials believe that Soleimani was personally involved in planning last September's devastating attack on the Aramco complex, which briefly reduced the country's oil production by a third, while Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have regularly launched missile attacks across the border into Saudi Arabia.

Adel Al-Jubair, a Saudi minister of state, warned in the aftermath of the Aramco attack that Riyadh would do "whatever it takes" to counter further acts of Iranian aggression, and the US has deployed an extra 3,000 troops, fighter aircraft and missile defence systems to defend Saudi territory. Consequently, any further Iranian attempts to attack the Saudis are likely to be met with a robust response.

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