The attack raises so many difficult questions. It points to the US capacity to have reliable intelligence on the movements of key figures, implying leaks in Iraqi government agencies and perhaps a level of collusion. This puts the Iraqi government in an impossible situation as it needs US commitment for reconstruction as well as Iranian friendship based on religious, cultural and historical links between the two countries.
For a short time it appeared that US, Iran and Iraq experienced a congruence of interests as Islamic State threatened all. Soleimani, a commander in the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, played a key role in the push-back against IS by Iraqi Kurds, while the US pounded IS bases from the air. This allowed Baghdad to maintain good relations with Tehran and Washington. But the Iraqi government can no longer avoid this strategic decision and choose its camp.
The Baghdad airport attack has injected an enormous amount of heat in Iran-US relations. The Iranians have been dealing with crippling US sanctions, and watching with concern the US naval build-up in the Persian Gulf (aided by some US allies, including Australia).
Relations were already very tense as the US blamed Iran for sponsoring terrorist organisations, including Houthis in Yemen who have proven to be an unrelenting threat to Saudi Arabia. Now the US threat has hit at the heart of the Iranian leadership.
It’s difficult to see how Iran could respond with anything less than commensurate with the killing of Soleimani. Even before this event, the Iranian hardliners had cornered Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for being weak in the face of US bullying. Rouhani has been criticised in Iran for seeking diplomatic solutions when faced with a clear and present threat in the Persian Gulf. Now the gloves are off.
For his critics, including the Revolutionary Guards, Rouhani has been a failure and part of the problem. The Guards have made clear on many occasions that the US only understands the language of might – not diplomacy. The Iranian Supreme Leader and head of state has also said as much.
Soleimani’s killing will be seen as a declaration of war, an act of aggression against the state requiring a firm response. Stakes have been raised.
The Baghdad airport killing of Soleimani heralds a new chapter. The war of words seems to be replaced with simply war. Rouhani, even if he manages to hold on to his own office, is in no position to hold the Revolutionary Guards in check.