Members of Congress and the media have fixated on the death of General Qassem Soleimani as the provocation Iran needs to conduct further strikes against the United States, its allies and interests in the Middle East. General Soleimani was the defacto number two leader of Iran, and he was the key to their terror activities within the region; terror activities that were generally carried out through their network of proxy terror organizations. Inside Iran, he was a key figure in subjugating the Iranian population. Despite what might see on the news, only a few in Iran who benefitted from his atrocities are mourning his death.
There is a lot of talk in the news media about what Soleimani’s death means for the balance of power in the Middle East. This is an important discussion, but doesn’t take into account the whole picture. The real news that no one seems to be talking about is to ask what calculus is going on in the minds of President Putin in Moscow and General Secretary Xi in Beijing?
Little reported outside of national security and foreign policy publications such as American Military News, Iran, China, and Russia held four days of joint naval exercises during the last week of 2019. This was the first time that Iran held naval exercises with two other nations, and signaled to the world a growing strategic relationship between the three countries.
The death of General Soleimani will certainly upset this burgeoning relationship at a critical time. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or as President Donald Trump calls it, the Iran Nuclear Deal), signed in 2015, was not being fully observed by Iran for the past year – some would say that Iran never fully complied (and it is not a treaty, as some in the news media wrongly state; it is an agreement and was never ratified). After the death last week of General Soleimani, Iran declared that it would not comply with the provisions of the deal concerning the enrichment of uranium that could be used to build nuclear weapons.
For China, a voracious consumer of fossil fuels, this opened the very real possibility that they could begin to purchase Iranian oil. The joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean can be seen as an anticipatory step in this direction. It allowed the Chinese to establish working relationships with the Iranians at an operational level, become familiar with Iranian port facilities, and observe U.S. and allied naval operations operating in the region.
China also has an interest in keeping the United States military focused on the Middle East and Iran rather than on the building and fortification of the “islands” they claim in the South China Sea (some of which are claimed by other countries). It also distracts the United States from events in Africa and Latin America, regions in which the Chinese are actively working to expand their influence – often in a way that negatively impacts the long-term interests of the United States.
Russia is increasingly cozy with elements in the Middle East that are no friend of the United States, whether it is President Assad of Syria or any of the proliferating number of terror groups funded by Iran through General Soleimani. Russia likely is happy that the Chinese will have to buy oil from them rather than Iran, but Russia also operates not as a force for good in the world, but rather looks for ways to muck up U.S. interests. They are focused on selling weapons and weapon systems as a means to sow chaos and to earn money for their struggling economy. The Middle East and North Africa are therefore important markets for them.
The death of General Soleimani and the (so far) anemic and ineffective response from Iran has upset the apple cart of cooperation between Iran, China, and Russia. Rather than condemnation coming from China and Russia in the wake of Soleimani’s death, they have been quiet. In my view, this means that they are trying to calculate what his death means for them, the proxy terror groups he supported, and the question of Syria. It may also mean that the three country’s intelligence services were working more cooperatively than is generally known, and they’re trying to determine what we know.
Given General Soleimani’s active involvement in funding, training and planning terror attacks in the Middle East, his death is certainly a blow to the proxies that Iran has relied upon to date. President Trump’s clear statement that direct retaliation by Iran against U.S. personnel, installations or interests – extended to our allies as well – will be met with swift and certain military strikes against a whole host of targets, including, perhaps, Iranian command and control personnel, seem to have given Iran pause. Let’s all hope that remains the case.
One could argue that the death of General Soleimani may not only put on pause a growing alignment between Iran, China, and Russia, but may also be the impetus for a fresh round of negotiations with Iran with respect to it’s nuclear program. If that is indeed the case, then the death of General Soleimani will in time be seen as the first step toward regional peace.
Michael Krull is President & CEO of CRA, Inc., and an adjunct professor teaching politics and public policy at Georgetown University. He also participates as a lecturer for the Georgetown Global Education Institute, which brings senior government leaders from the Pacific Rim to the United States for short-term study tours.
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