On 3 January 2020, the US killed General Soleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in a drone strike. He was listed as a terrorist by the US and was widely thought to be the leading military adviser to the government of Iran and its Supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. He was credited with initiating the strategy of a “ring of fire”, assembling forces and allies against the US and Israel in an arc of countries.
The ring of fire stretches from Iraq through Syria to Lebanon into Gaza and in the south to Yemen. In Iraq the general worked with the Popular Mobilisation Units, in Syria with government forces loyal to Assad, in Lebanon with Hezbollah. In Palestine he worked with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and in Yemen with the Houthis. General Soleimani was said to be the master of asymmetric warfare, training bands to fire rockets and disrupt activities in Israel, to damage other allies and bases of the US. His state funeral was marked by crowd problems and by an Iranian rocket attack on US installations in Iraq.
This is relevant again today
Tehran has recently denied reports that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard said the Hamas attack on Israeli civilians in October was revenge for the assassination of their former military leader, after such a statement had been reported. The Iranian state did in the past threaten revenge for his death and they have long memories. Hamas has been trying to make clear they acted independently of the Iranian state. It was, however, a reminder that Iran has trained many terrorist groups and helped state militaries in the area that are loyal to the Shia cause and to an informal anti-US alliance. It works with Russia.
John Bolton, a former US National Security Adviser to President Donald Trump, has drawn attention to the Iranian threat in a recent article. He reminds us that there have been 14 attacks on cargo ships in the last month by the Houthis in Yemen into the Red Sea. There has been a missile attack on a ship in the Indian Ocean, which the US identified on 23 December as coming from Iran, though Iran denies it.
There have been 100 attacks on US personnel in Iraq and Syria by Shia militias. Hezbollah is regularly launching rockets against Israel forcing people out of the border lands. John Bolton has always been a hawk in these matters and resigned from the Trump Administration in disagreement with his policy. He now thinks Biden’s policy is too weak and will encourage Iran to take more risks and disrupt trade and Israel more.
The US will hope it can continue with proxy wars at worst.
Our base case continues to assume President Biden will wish to avoid a new war in election year and is in no mood to initiate direct military exchanges against Iran. He runs the risk that Iran will overreach in its various proxy wars in Gaza, in Yemen and on the West Bank. So far, the US-led naval coalition has managed to intercept a lot of the errant missiles aimed at Western shipping in the Red Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean. Several navies are joining Operation Prosperity Guardian to take action to try to protect the Suez Canal route for cargo ships. It is important for world trade that the Suez route remains open and usable by enough ships. The US carrier Gerald Ford is returning home after an extension of its duty – but the Eisenhower carrier group remains in the region.
The US will hope it can continue with proxy wars at worst, keep the threats to trade and US personnel under control – and ease the participants in the local wars towards ceasefires and negotiations. President Biden’s abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan damaged US power in the region and tipped the balance against the US in another large Middle Eastern country. He has also cooled the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, leading to the kingdom doing more with the enlarged BRIC grouping and with OPEC Plus including Russia.
All this means the world remains dangerous – and we need to be vigilant for any further deterioration. So far, it looks as if the US strategy of avoiding direct military engagement with ground forces is working, but the next phase must be talks. The attacks on Western shipping are a concern if they draw its forces into action. Neither Russia nor Hamas and its related forces in Gaza seem ready to make the compromises and offer the security guarantees it would take to bring about a settlement. Iran will be working away to create greater instability in the Middle East through its allies and trained gangs.
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