General Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, was recently killed in a drone attack. This sudden incident has not only broken down relations between the US and Iran, but has also pitched the entire Middle East into uncertainty. This may lead to serious conflict. Soleimani was not just an army officer or general. He was the second most powerful leader of Iran and immensely popular among the people. There has naturally been extremely sharp response to his killing.
General Soleimani played a leading role in creating a sphere of influence for Iran in the outside world, particularly in the Middle East. Justifying the killing of Soleimani, the US said he was planning a massive anti-US operation and it was imperative for them to prevent this. However, they could give no support to their assertion.
Iran has reacted strongly. From their top political level they have declared revenge for this incident. In response, US president Trump tweeted that if Iran undertakes any such action, they would attack 52 identified Iranian targets including cultural sites. In the meantime, Iran’s attack on US bases within Iraq shows that Iran means business.
Over the past few years, a militia force loyal to Iran has been created over the Middle East. This includes Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi force in Yemen, various groups in Syria, and the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq. We are also aware that Iran is skilled in asymmetric warfare. They may well use these forces to launch arracks on US bases all over the Middle East. They also have the capacity for cyber attacks in the US. And they may launch attacks on America’s allies in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Israel.
Also, with Iran’s full concentration on Soleimani killing, the militant IS may take advantage of this security vacuum to raise its head. This could be a threat to the entire world.
Iran has strongly controlled and suppressed IS. Geopolitically, Iran is in a very crucial position. This position gives them full control over the Hormuz Strait. One third of the world’s oil tankers have to pass through this strait. If Iran blocks this strait, the global energy market will face an acute crisis. They can also obstruct the movement of any shipping vessels here. Iran, though, has said their revenge is focused on military targets. The US and the other countries of the region are at unease and the next step lies with Iran. Iran has said they will coordinate the time and place of their action in their strategic interests.
The fallout of Soleimani’s killing has naturally taken on multilateral dimensions. When the US withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018, bilateral relations between the two countries deteriorated further. And after the killing of Soleimani, Iran has declared it no longer will abide by the conditions of the deal. They have declared that they will accelerate their uranium enrichment programme. There is an overall concern that these steps may be leading to Iran manufacturing nuclear weapons.
There has been fresh political polarisation in the region. Not too long ago an anti-Iran movement had started in Iraq and the Iranian consulate had been set on fire in the Shiite area of Najaf. But after the killing of Soleimani, things have taken a complete U-turn.
In a special session of its parliament, Iraq has declared all US and foreign troops must leave the country. The US army had strong footing in Iraq after the war during which around 4480 soldiers had been killed and about USD 2.3 trillion had been spent. They now stand to lose that foothold. President Trump has threatened stern sanctions against Iraq if they take such a decision.
The US is losing its friends in the region. Even the US allies in Europe have not supported Trump’s decision. France and Germany have protested against the action, albeit mildly. Along with the UK, they have called for constraint and for the tensions to be defused.
The youth in Iran over the past few years have been calling for democracy. But their movement has taken a different direction after the killing of Soleimani. The people in general are now in favour of the government and against the US.
If the present unrest in the Middle East takes on proportions of conflict, this will be a cause of concern for Bangladesh. It will impact Bangladesh in many ways. There are about 6 million Bangladeshi expatriate workers in the Middle East. In the case of conflict, their lives and livelihood will come under threat. They may need to be relocated for which planning in advance is required. And if employment in the Middle East falters, this will drastically cut down on remittance of foreign exchange. This will affect the national revenue, and the families dependent on this remittance will be shattered. This will lead to economic and social fallout and we must assess this now.
The international fossil fuel market will become unstable too. Escalating oil prices will hit Bangladesh hard, as an oil importing nation. Sea routes will become risky for vessel movement and this will hamper imports and exports. Conflict insurance costs will go up, making imports and exports costly. There will also be an adverse impact on air travel and cargo. We need to make due calculations and assessments in advance.
No specialised institution has been established regarding political and geopolitical issues of the Middle East. We must learn from the Iran conflict and immediately set up a specialised institute in this regard.
The new challenge must be tackled diplomatically too. After all, the main two countries of conflict are friendly states of Bangladesh. It is a difficult task to determine our diplomatic stance in such circumstances. We must astutely deal with the tensions arising within the Islamic ummah caused by differences among the Islamic states. Above all, we must keenly keep watch on the unfolding events so that we do not suddenly face any untoward situation completely off guard and unprepared.
* ANM Muniruzzaman is the president of the Dhaka-based Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS). This column appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten here in English by Ayesha Kabir