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Silence before the storm

The targeted assassination of General Soleimani by US has far-reaching consequences going beyond the Middle East, involving even India in its ambit of chaos

Silence before the storm

Friday, January 3, 2020, will remain a dark day for Iran and all its allies in the Middle East following the killing of charismatic and iconic Iranian General, Major Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was fatally targeted by an aerial missile attack carried out by the US forces at the Baghdad International Airport. Soleimani had just sat in his car, after arriving from Syria, when the missile struck him. With him, perished Abu Mehndi al Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilisation Force ( PMF) of Iraq which was active as a militia and was under the complete operational control of General Soleimani.

Acting under express instructions of President Trump, Soleimani's extermination by the American troops has brought a pall of gloom in Iran and amongst the Shiite factions in Iraq and adjoining countries. The slain Iranian General was a very popular figure and head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC ), leading the most coveted Quds Force and overseeing Iranian military and strategic interests in the Middle East. He was also the principal coordinator for Hezbollah and Hamas and was suspected of being responsible for the most recent siege of the US Embassy in Baghdad and targeting US interests in the region. It is believed that was the immediate provocation for Trump to order his killing. Trump also stated after the killing that Soleimani should have been eliminated long back as his terror network had already taken a heavy toll in London, in New Delhi and beyond.

Security experts are a little surprised as to why Trump mentioned New Delhi in his outburst. Possibly, he is insinuating the February 2013 incident when an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi was allegedly targeted by an Iranian terror network operating in India. Analysts are also not ruling out the possibility of Trump resorting to diversionary tactics in view of the upcoming Presidential elections. That aside, there is a strong assessment that is currently gaining currency that the Jewish or the Pro Israel lobbies have mounted pressure on Trump to act against Iran. Similarly, the security establishment within the US has been wanting punitive action against Iran and in particular against Soleimani. Likewise, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, fearful of Iran's military prowess and effective intervention in the Yemen conflict, called for the US to target Iran.

Iran is struggling to come to terms with the loss of its most popular general who was more like an icon to the Iranians who always looked up to him as the ultimate saviour of the ordinary Iranian in case of a US military onslaught. Soleimani's popularity was very high and he directly reported to the Ayatollah. A section of the Iranian intelligentsia also feels that the murdered General had plans to contest the elections as the President of Iran.

A master strategist and military tactician, Soleimani was often credited for being the brains behind the ouster of the ISIS from Iraq. That's precisely why Shiites in Iraq have been vehemently critical of the US killing of the Iranian General. His untimely demise has united all the Shia factions, evoking sympathy for Iran. His outreach was wide and decisive, so he will be missed though adversaries of Iran have reason to celebrate and heave a sigh of relief. Soleimani's replacement, Brigadier Gen. Esmail will have a tough task ahead to follow the roadmap and a high bar set by his worthy predecessor. New York-based think tank Century Foundation, reacting to the killing, has described the slain General as being more powerful than the Iranian President.

Meanwhile, as warned by Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran would seek to exact harsh revenge for the General's assassination which is seen as cold-blooded, brutal murder. Iran is known for its self-esteem and resolute will in taking on the mighty US. The 1979 hostage crisis arising out of the US Embassy following the Islamic revolution is a grim reminder and Iran is expected to hit back at the US facilities in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, etc. Striking at oil tankers remains a strong first response possibility.

The ominous signs of turbulence and dark clouds are already on the horizon. It is only a question of time when Iran makes the first move. Having said this, the US is also not likely to sit idle, particularly when it's in midst of the election year. Trump has to do a tight rope

walk with this issue in play. He can't afford to ignore the anti-Iran lobbies within and outside the US and at the same time, he is not in a position to engage Iran in a full-time war. A slew of military skirmishes of limited nature seems possible.

In a linked development, US Secretary of State, Pompeo held a telephonic chat with Pakistani Army Chief, Gen. Bajwa soon after the Soleimani killing and both sides called for restraint. Perhaps this calls for in-depth thinking as to what transpired during the talk other than exercising restraint. Prima facie, it looks like there is more than what meets the eye.

In the meantime, oil prices in the region are already showing an upward trend. Amid an escalated environ, with no signs of any de-escalation or olive branches, the cauldron remains on the boil. A small spark will be sufficient to ignite the region causing devastation of titanic proportions.

India has a sizeable Shia population who hate the US and have sentimental allegiance towards Iran. General Soleimani's exit has saddened them and heightened their animus for the US. India, so far, has reacted to the killing with abundant caution. Shia sentiments in India merit attention, especially when contentious internal issues are already brewing. Indo-Iran ties have been historic and perhaps call for a steady status quo. Oil is equally a practical feature to be factored while making a fresh evaluation of the bilateral relations.

There are millions of Indians engaged in the Middle East and the General 's killing has upset the political and military landscape, threatening more problems in the coming times. The whole region is extremely volatile and imperilled with multiple flashpoints.

Shantanu Mukharji is a retired IPS officer, a security analyst and a former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister of Mauritius. Views expressed are strictly personal

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