The Aftermath of Soleimani’s Assassination and the Challenge of the EU Foreign Policy

“The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.”

 

What happened?

Early in the morning of 3 January, near Baghdad International Airport, a United States drone targeted and killed Major General Qasem Soleimani, Commander in Chief of Qods Force, a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC); and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, deputy chief of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Force (PMF). Iraq condemned the surprise airstrike on its soil as a “flagrant violation” of conditions under which US forces are present in Iraq, and called it “a dangerous escalation that might ignite a devastating war in Iraq, the region and the world.”[1] Iraq’s U.N. Ambassador Mohammed Hussein Bahr Aluloom called on the UN Security Council to condemn the US airstrike and “assassination”.

For its part, Iran urged the UN Security Council to condemn what it called “a criminal act” of “state terrorism” by the US that led to “the horrific assassination” of the country’s top military commander[2]. Iranian Supreme Leader promised an act of “severe revenge”. It took Iran only 5 days to respond. On 8 January, Iran operated its promised revenge and Iran’s IRGC launched allegedly “tens” of ballistic missiles at the Ayn al-Asad airbase in Al Anbar Governorate, Western Iraq, as well as another airbase in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Shortly after, Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif tweeted: “Iran took and concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched.“

Interestingly, the US also justified the killing of Soleimani in Baghdad under Article 51 of the UN Charter, saying “the United States is prepared to take additional actions in the region as necessary to continue to protect US personnel and interests.”[3]

After Iran’s response, both countries stated they are not seeking escalation to war. Nonetheless, the US drone strike operation, described by politicians domestically and internationally as “illegal”, “reckless”, “unnecessary escalation”, has changed the established rules of the game, and would seemingly continue to have dire consequences for international security and peace in the Middle East, Europe, and globally.

The United States’ “War on Terror”

The US drone strike operation has brought the war on terror into a new realm of inter-state level. The war on terror was declared by the Bush administration after the September 11 attacks to target terrorism globally. Although from the beginning, the use of lethal force by targeted killing of individuals independent of the conventional military engagement has been part of this war, for the first time since 2001, the use of lethal force is implemented targeting the individuals with formal military positions in their country, with which the US is not in a state of war. This change has been justified by the Trump administration as a preventative of “an imminent attack” on Americans. Later, President Trump disregarded the existence of such a threat and expressed that the attacks were made in order “to stop the war”[4]. While both justifications have been domestically and internationally opposed and criticized, this new development in the US war on terror blurs the established lines of international law between war and peace and could entail dire consequences for international peace and security.

The US-led Coalition’s Presence in Iraq

Two days after the US operation in Iraq during an extraordinary session, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution and called for the government to cancel the request for assistance from the US-led international coalition in fighting against the Islamic State (IS) “due to the end of military operations in Iraq and the achievement of victory.”[5] The resolution, being non-binding in nature by the government, was supported by Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi. Being initially said that the coalition will suspend its operation, it appeared that it goes in line with President Trump’s presidential promise to extract the US from costly conflicts and bring the US troops back home, especially after Iraq approved it received a letter from the US military confirming its withdrawal. Nonetheless, the later denial and new statements from US officials threatening to impose sanctions against Iraq as well as shutting down its access to the government accounts at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, produced ambiguity and confusion over the US strategy on its presence in Iraq.

Regardless of the reason behind the change seen by the Trump administration, the coalition’s refusal to respect Iraq’s sovereignty would be in violation of international law, as it would turn the coalition’s lawful presence in the country into a military occupation. The US drone strike operation in Iraq also endangered around 3,000 troops from 19 EU member states contributing to the anti-IS coalition, since Washington did not inform its European allies about the operation. So far, Germany along with some other EU member states have announced that they will plan to scale down and withdraw troops from Iraq in response to Iraq’s request.

The EU foreign policy challenge

Any new conflict in the Middle East or escalation of the current ones may potentially put Europe at grave risk, as it is geopolitically more vulnerable to Middle East conflicts than the US. The recent escalation comes as the latest in the series of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, which started with the US unilateral withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal and reimposition of sanctions in May 2018 despite the other parties’ disagreement. Since then, the EU has tried to preserve the deal and to keep Iran abiding by its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), without delivering on its own obligations thereunto or later ones such as operationalizing the promised Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) with Iran, as Iran expects.

While the US is following its “maximum pressure” policy and Iran is responding with maximum resistance, the risk of escalation is constantly increasing. Tehran recently announced its “fifth and final remedial step” in suspending the restrictions on its nuclear program expressing it would be “reversible upon effective implementation of reciprocal obligations” under the JCPOA, as Foreign Minister Zarif tweeted.  Later on, the E3, made up of the United Kingdom, France, and Germany triggered the JCPOA dispute resolution mechanism. This technically means that if after 65 days the issue in question is not resolved in joint commissions between the remaining parties to the JCPOA, the case would be referred to the UN Security Council, with the possibility of the reimposition of the UN Security Sanctions on Iran with a single vote, in an exceptional “reverse veto” procedure predicted in the JCPOA. This, as Foreign Minister Zarif announced, would push Iran to respond with quitting The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).

Now, it seems that the US is extending its “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran to the EU, as President Trump expressed on 8 January that Europe must “break away from the remnants” of the deal after he announced new sanctions against the regime following Iran’s missile attacks to the US bases in Iraq. Still, no sign of an EU initiative or role to mediate between the two antagonists has appeared. It turned out that the E3 decision to trigger the JCPOA dispute resolution mechanism, what was called by Iran’s foreign minister Zarif “baseless from legal point of view and strategic mistake from a political point of view”, was made after President Trump threatened to impose 25% tariffs on European cars, as the German defense minister confirmed[6].

What will come next?

Yet, Iran has not shown any sign of revising its policy of “no war, no negotiation”[7] or shown any interest in renegotiating the Iran Nuclear Deal, its missile program, or regional activities, as President Trump hoped would come of his maximum pressure tactics. After the Soleimani’s assassination and the E3 decision to trigger the JCPOA dispute resolution mechanism, Iran understands, more than ever, the limitations of Europeans to live up to their promises. From the Iranian perspective, the EU has become a marginal player on the conflict between the US and Iran, though still not completely irrelevant.

Despite the fact that the US policy on Iran is becoming more aggressive and is increasing the pressure day by day, it has not been able to communicate its objectives clearly, even to its European allies. From Iran’s point of view, it is no longer about a change of technical importance in its nuclear program; rather it has targeted the entirety of the regime, without mentioning regime change. Amid historical mistrust between the two countries and living in a state of hostility for decades, Iran receives the campaign’s message as making it surrender to the pressures and bring it to its knees. What is at stake for Iran, is everything; the achievements in its peaceful nuclear activities, defensive missile program, and strategic regional presence. Soleimani’s assassination only strengthened this view and left less hope for de-escalation.

Even so, it is not too late for diplomacy. There are at least two months of the JCPOA negotiations before it officially dies. The failure of the JCPOA is not Iran’s choice as it has shown a commitment to it so far; however, Iran expects to benefit from the financial advantages as well. The collapse of the JCPOA, nonetheless, is a failure of the EU ‘effective multilateralism’ and the biggest achievement it has ever obtained. Also, considering that “few vital interests of the US continue to be at stake in the Middle East”[8], the US foreign policy on Iran may cost the EU more than ever. The time has come for the EU to take the initiative and use its diplomatic capacity. Nonetheless, this remains to be a big challenge to the ‘EU foreign policy’, not because the EU does not recognize the problem or possible solutions, rather because formulating an independent policy for the EU requires a resolute political will as well as preparedness to pay the costs.

 

Sources

[1] AP (07.01.2020) Iraq seeks Security Council condemnation of US. Retrieved from: https://apnews.com/c4edd3820a971b78394df101952383f1

[2] AP (04.01.2020) Iran urges UN to condemn ‘criminal act’ by US. Retrieved from: https://apnews.com/ad99e858a16e31a089a9135aa4100851

[3] New York Times (04.01.2020) The Killing of Gen. Qassim Suleimani: What We Know Since the U.S. Airstrike. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/03/world/middleeast/iranian-general-qassem-soleimani-killed.html

[4] Jennifer Rubin (05.01.2020) Why lying about an ‘imminent’ attack would matter. The Washington Post. Retrieved from:  https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/01/05/why-lying-about-an-imminent-attack-matters/

[5] Reuters (05.01.2020) Iraqi parliament passes resolution to end foreign troop presenceRetrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/article/iraq-security-parliament-resolution/iraqi-parliament-passes-resolution-to-end-foreign-troop-presence-idUSD5N27G00U

[6] The Guardian (16.01.2020) Germany confirms Trump made trade threat to Europe over Iran policy. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/16/iran-says-it-is-enriching-more-uranium-than-before-nuclear-deal

[7] Khamenei.ir (14.05.2019) There will be no negotiations and no war. Retrieved from: http://english.khamenei.ir/news/6715/There-will-be-no-negotiations-and-no-war

[8] Martin Indyk (17.01.202) The Middle East Isn’t Worth It Anymore. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-middle-east-isnt-worth-it-anymore-11579277317

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Mostafa Bostani is an MPP candidate at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He earned his LL.B and LL.M in international economic and trade law from the University of Tehran and spent the next four years working as a lawyer in both public and private sectors in Iran. His areas of interest include international politics, foreign policy analysis, and the EU-Middle East relations.