Qasem Soleimani: How will Europe respond?
Updated: Jan 11
On the 3rd of January 2020, Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US air strike in Iraq, ordered by President Donald Trump. Soleimani, a major general in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and from 1998 commander of its Quds Force, was perceived by many to be the second most powerful man in Iran.
On one level, this marks a culmination of rising enmity between the US and Iran in recent years, on the other it signifies the start of heightened tension and violence, with implications not just for the US and Iran, but for other powers across the globe.
A Senior Commander of Quds told The Times ‘Our forces will retaliate and target US troops in the Middle East without any concern for killing its allies…we request the UK…and other Western allies including the NATO alliance, to not stand with this Trump regime’.
Europe has long been entangled in this conflict, and how they respond to this recent threat is extremely important. First and foremost, European powers have made it clear they want peace. On Sunday, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson released a joint statement which highlighted ‘an urgent need for de-escalation’, and stated they ‘stand ready to continue [their] engagement with all sides, in order to contribute to defuse tensions and restore stability in the region’.
For Europe, there are two key things at stake, firstly the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015, and secondly the International Coalition of troops in Iraq, formally known as The Combined Joint Task Force- Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR).
In 2015, Iran, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC): China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States; Germany and the European Union, signed JCPOA. This deal set out a series of constraints on Iran’s nuclear programme, and in return, guaranteed Iran relief from crippling economic sanctions imposed by the UNSC and the EU.
However, in 2018 the Trump administration pulled the US out of the deal. Since then, Iran has breached a number of key constraints in the deal, despite efforts of the European powers and other signatories who have remained committed to the deal.
Following Soleimani’s death, Iran announced it would no longer observe the terms of the agreement. Most significantly, it renounced commitment to constraints on enrichment, which as highlighted by defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus, would significantly reduce the amount of time it would take for Iran to create a nuclear bomb.
For Europe, like the rest of the world, this seems extremely threatening. In the joint statement released by Merkel, Macron and Johnson, they state ‘we specifically call on Iran to refrain from further violent action or proliferation, and urge Iran to reverse all measures inconsistent with the JCPOA’.
Furthermore, Josep Borrell, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, discussed the matter with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Borrell reaffirmed the EU’s dedication to JCPOA, which the EU states is a ‘corner stone of the global nuclear non-proliferation architecture and instrumental for the security of the region and the world’. Reassuringly, Borrell and Zarif agreed on the importance of preserving JCPOA.
Also at stake for Europe, are the thousands of troops they have stationed in Iraq, as part of the US-led International Coalition. Formally known as The Combined Joint Task Force- Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), the coalition aims to ‘degrade and destroy' the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and restore peace in the region. Currently involved are troops from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK.
In response to Soleimani’s death, and other US actions, the Iraqi government have passed a non-binding resolution to expel all foreign troops from Iraq. In the resolution, the Prime Minister of Iraq, Adel Abdul Mahdi, called on the Iraqi government to:
1. Revoke its request for assistance from the International Coalition.
2. End the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil and prohibit them from using its land, airspace or water for any reason.
3. To file a formal complaint to the UN against the US for its ‘serious violations and breaches of Iraqi sovereignty and security’.
This move is significant as it reflects a shift in Iraq’s allegiance, from being an ally of both the US and Iran, to siding more closely to Iran. A major reason for this is likely to be because an Iraqi was also killed in the airstrike, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, commander of the Kata’ib Hezbollah group. Furthermore, Iraq ultimately view the airstrike as a violation of the terms of the coalitions presence, and as a neighbour of Iran, are standing in their defence.
This is problematic for European powers as they are allied to the US, which means Iraq’s stance against the US, is concomitantly a stance against Europe. Indeed, Iraq are showing support of Qasem Soleimani and the Iranian army’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which he once led. The IRGC, whilst sharing the International Coalitions aim to destroy ISIL, have a wider agenda to protect the Islamic political system in Iran and expand it throughout the Middle East. Simultaneously, the IRGC seek to prevent foreign especially ‘Western’ interference. Thus, European troops are currently stationed in a region with a heightened agenda against their presence and their ideological values.
The European response has been cautious, whilst they have shown support for the US, they have somewhat distanced themselves from Trumps position, and have reiterated their ambition to restore peace in the region.
The Trump administration have warned that any revenge attack on its citizens or assets would be met with American retaliation, and have clarified America has no plans to pull its troops out of Iraq. On one level, European powers have supported this, Merkel, Macron and Johnson’s statement condemns recent attacks on coalition forces in Iraq, and states they ‘are gravely concerned by the negative role Iran has played in the region, including through the IRGC and the Al-Quds force under the command of General Soleimani’.
On another level, distinct from America, they underscore their commitment ‘to the sovereignty and security of Iraq’ and point that ‘another crisis risks jeopardising years of efforts to stabilise Iraq’. They also highlight their commitment to fighting against ISIL, and urge the Iraqi government to continue to support the coalition in their mission.
Moreover, European powers are showing more of a readiness to remove troops from Iraq than the US. The Times reported this morning that the British Ministry of Defence are devising contingency plans to evacuate troops and civilians from Iraq, and have dispatched around 20 military planners and liaison officers to Baghdad.
Lastly, the joint statement reiterates the resounding message across Europe, that they are ‘ready to continue [their] engagement with all sides in order to contribute to defuse tensions and restore stability in the region’.
This message is reflected in Borrell’s conversation with Zarif, where he offered his full engagement to contribute to de-escalation, stressed that a regional political solution was the only way forward, and argued the EU was ready to support this. Indeed, this message has also been delivered by Pope Francis who has called for dialogue and restraint. Francis said that in many parts of the world ‘the terrible air of tension is felt’, ‘war only brings death and destruction’, and ‘I call on all sides to keep the flame of dialogue and self-restraint alight’.
Photograph courtesy of mehrnews.com
At the time of writing Olivia Mair is a Politics BA graduate from Newcastle University. Areas which interest her the
most are international affairs in Asia and the Middle East, and European politics.