US Airstrike Kills Soleimani: What Does India Stand to Lose?

A Gulf war or something similar could have devastating consequences for the Indian diaspora across Saudi peninsula.

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Kashmiri Shiite Muslims shout anti American and anti Israel slogans during a protest against US airstrike in Iraq that killed Qassem Soleimani. Image used for representational purposes.
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What is the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, all about? And what will be its consequences for the region and India? Can it even be termed an ‘assassination’? Or is it a ‘targeted killing’ – the type through which the US has killed scores of terrorists, but also hundreds of innocent people through drone strikes. The difference is not just word play – since, officially at least, there is a self-imposed ban in carrying out assassinations of foreign leaders in the US.

As a result of the Church Committee hearings on the attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, President Gerald Ford passed the Executive Order 11905 in 1976, which prohibited the US government from conspiring or engaging in any political assassination anywhere in the world. The current version of the ban is Executive Order 12333 of 1981, which simply bans US governmental role in assassination.

How US Killed Soleimani

Being the warlike nation that it is, the ban, which was imposed in a fit of very American ‘morality’, has been contested within and undermined through subsequent presidential orders based on various legal interpretations which remain secret. The Global War on Terror (GWOT) eventually led the US to throw out all the old rules of war. Terrorism was declared outside the pale of civilised conduct, and an ‘everything goes’ approach was adopted, which has led to the US fighting two wars, many smaller campaigns, and the killing of numerous terrorists like Osama bin Laden, and the incarceration-without-trial of scores of people in the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Soleimani was killed when an American airstrike took out his car convoy on its way to the Baghdad airport; along with him died Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Commander of the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units. This was just days after their forces stormed the US Embassy compound and burned some of its outlying buildings on New Year’s Day.

A President like Trump may be committed to bringing the US troops back home and resisting foreign entanglements, but in the case of Iran, he has taken a different tack. Not only did he take the US out of the Iran Nuclear Agreement – also known as the JCPOA – in May 2018, he also played an active role in shaping the informal Israel-Saudi Arabia and UAE coalition to roll back Iranian influence in the region. He also re-imposed draconian sanctions on Iran with a view to bringing it to its knees.

The US has charged that, with the use of the Quds Force, the Iranians have been expanding their influence across the region.

It says that in recent months, rockets have been fired at US bases in Iraq and in Syria; Iran had built a new base called Imam Ali on the border with Iraq. And, of course, in Yemen, they have been backing the Houthi militia against Saudi Arabia and UAE.

18 Months of Tension in the Gulf

The last eighteen months have seen constant tension in the Gulf, threatening oil shipments. In April 2019, the US declared the IRGC, which is the principal Iranian military force, as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO).

The reason, the US said, was that the organisation operating through its Quds Force and associates like Hezbollah in Lebanon, was involved in attacks on US forces and interests.

In May 2019, four commercial ships, including two Saudi tankers, were damaged in the Gulf of Oman. The US began to talk about redeploying significant force in the region. In June 2019, things went from bad to worse when the Iranians shot down a US drone over the Gulf of Hormuz. Following the attack, Trump ordered a retaliatory military strike, but then withdrew the order. Later that month, Trump ratcheted up the sanctions, targeting the senior officers of the IRGC, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. He maintained his hands-off posture even after the drone attack on Saudi Arabian company Aramco’s principal facilities in September 2019, knocking off half of the kingdom’s oil supply. By this time, his hawkish National Security Advisor, John Bolton – who had been advocating a tough response on Iran – had resigned and left.

The immediate crisis that led to Soleimani’s assassination was the rocket attack on an Iraqi base that was hosting American soldiers.

The attack of 27 December killed a US contractor and wounded many others. The US blamed Kata'ib Hezbollah headed by al-Muhandis for the attack. On 29 December, the US conducted airstrikes against Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria, killing 25 Kata'ib Hezbollah fighters. The attack on the US embassy was revenge for that attack. In turn, 48 hours later, came the American response in killing Soleimani and al-Muhandis.

Soleimani’s Killing: Implications for India & the Region

It is difficult to forecast what will happen now. Soleimani’s death will definitely be a setback to the Iranians and their Iraqi allies. Given the history of the region, you can be sure that there will be some military response. The IRGC has a wide network of allies in the region and are also militarily capable of executing complex attacks, as was done in the case of the drone attack on the Aramco terminal in September. But, given the American power, Iran will certainly think hard before it acts.

Equally, of course, the US and its allies will ensure that they do not do anything to precipitate. Iranian forces are well equipped with missiles, and geography gives them an advantage in the Gulf. An outbreak of war could see the blockage of oil supply through Hormuz, and the prosperous cities of America’s allies coming under Iranian missile attack.

New Delhi was forced to cut all trade – including that of oil – with Iran as a result of US pressure.

It has also dampened its enthusiasm for the Chabahar project. The net result of this is that Tehran has been drifting closer to China and Pakistan. Two-thirds of the 80 percent of oil we import, as well as half of India’s LNG, comes through the Straits of Hormuz.

War in the Region Wreak Havoc on Indian Diaspora Across Saudi Peninsula

In 2018 -2019 India is expected to spend USD 115 billion on oil imports alone – this is a growth of 30 percent over the 2017-2018 when we spent USD 88 billion. A USD 1 increase in prices hikes the import bill by Rs 3,000 crore. And if the exchange rate rises by Rs 1 to a dollar, the net import bill will be up Rs 2473 crore. Oil prices surged near USD 70 a barrel following the Soleimani assassination. Should things deteriorate, they could go up to USD 100 as well.

Since June 2019, Indian naval vessels have been keeping an eye on things in the Gulf, though they are not part of the American coalition patrolling the area.

War or something akin to it could have devastating consequences for the Indian diaspora spread across the Saudi peninsula.

These are the people who are India’s biggest source of foreign remittances. India may actually find itself having to carry out emergency evacuation of its nationals who number in the millions from the region.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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