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The President's Take

The Ripple Effects of the Latest U.S.-Iran Escalation

In his introduction to this month’s edition of CrisisWatch, Crisis Group’s conflict tracker, our President Robert Malley reflects on the consequences of President Trump’s decision to kill Qassem Soleimani, Head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force.

As has been the case so many times over the past year, the crisis between the U.S. and Iran seems to have crowded out all else this month. President Trump’s decision to kill Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force, is by far the most serious and dangerous escalatory step so far.

Its ripple effects are only beginning to be felt. The massive popular outpouring of grief and anger in Iran and Iraq will help the Iranian regime refocus attention on the fight against the U.S. Iran’s allies are mobilising across the region. Soleimani’s killing, alongside that of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces, has thrown the U.S. presence in Iraq and the counter-ISIS campaign into serious doubt. Tehran has announced it will further walk away from its commitments under the nuclear deal. For the time being, perhaps, Iran might sit back and seek to maximise political and diplomatic gains, putting off any direct retaliation that could prove enormously risky and costly. But for how long?

Iran will almost certainly feel the need to respond at some point, lest the message it conveys to the U.S. be one of weakness, and lest it convinces President Trump that he can get away with anything. Iran will have to decide how far it goes: will its response be direct or indirect? Will it opt for a military, cyber or other form of attack? Will it ramp up its nuclear program in ways that raise serious alarm bells or hold its fire?

Between now and whenever then might be, the U.S. will have to guard against any possible retaliation. More broadly, fear of a U.S.-Iran escalation and of further violence in the Middle East is likely to consume everyone’s attention, which will give myriad state and non-state parties around the globe an opportunity to take advantage of the situation. Those opportunities, as this month’s CrisisWatch amply illustrates, are legion: in Venezuela, where the government manoeuvred to solidify its control by engineering the replacement of the National Assembly president; in North Korea, where Kim Jong-un is threatening further steps; in Libya, where the fight between the internationally-recognised government and Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army has intensified and where foreign intervention (from Russia and Turkey) is growing.

For more on these and other conflicts, please refer to our 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2020. Unfortunately, the New Year was barely a few days old before several of our predictions took shape.

As the year begins, our colleague and North East Asia adviser, Michael Kovrig remains arbitrarily detained in China. No matter what is happening elsewhere, we will not forget him. We will not rest until he is home.