by William Newland
One will recall the airstrike launched by the United States military that killed Major General Qassem Soleimani in early January 2020. Initially, the response around the world was one of shock but this sentiment quickly shifted to fear as critics warned that the attack could trigger all-out war with Iran. In a press conference the next day, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the European response, stating that ‘what the American did, saved lives in Europe’ and Soleimani’s death ‘was a good thing for the entire world.’ While this assessment might prove to be correct for the immediate security of a small number of American and European troops, this piece argues that the security of European states has effectively decreased in the short- and long-term. Now, with a few months between us and the incident, it is time to take another look.
In the short-term, European security decreased for primarily two reasons. Firstly, Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes have already threatened the security of European and U.S. soldiers in military bases across the Middle East. It was sheer luck that only Iraqi soldiers were killed, preventing further escalation by the U.S. However, it is likely that Iran and its regional Shi’ite allies will continue to use their political influence to remove U.S. and allied presence from the region. In fact, only a few days after the attack, the Iraqi parliament chose to expel U.S. forces from Iraqi territory in a symbolic vote.
Secondly, Soleimani, in his role as commander of the Quds Force – subsidiary of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – was seen as an adversary by the West because of his role in training Hezbollah in Lebanon and using Shi’ite forces to attack U.S. soldiers during the Iraq War. Soleimani’s position also meant that he had a close relationship with Shi’ite militia groups such as the Popular Mobilisation Force, so much so that he became known to them as a ‘living martyr.’ Iran’s proxy forces have been among the loudest in calling for strong retaliation against the U.S. and its allies. Despite Iran’s close ties with these groups, the state’s lack of complete control over their actions creates the potential for a more dangerous, disproportionate, and prolonged response against allied forces in countries like Iraq.
European leaders have taken both these threats very seriously. Germany ordered the removal of thirty-five service members from Iraq, whilst other NATO member states have moved 500 of their personnel to safer areas in and around Iraq. Although these moves are certainly important for the immediate safety of European troops, they could enable the resurgence of the Islamic State which, in turn, would likely re-spark concerns of significant plans for terror attacks in Europe. If such fears bear fruit, then the consequences of the Trump Administration’s actions would have significantly contributed to European insecurity.
In the longer term, however, two other factors could further decrease the security of European states. The first is that of international law and norms which the US has prided itself on creating and upholding for over seventy years. Yet, for the international order to be effective and adhered to by others, it needs to be ‘visibly observed’ by its ‘principle and most powerful’ advocate. Here, the Trump administration has struggled to prove that the killing of Soleimani was a response to an “imminent” threat to US personnel, raising serious concerns as to whether it complied with international law. The fact that this killing was carried out by the US and that its legality is ambiguous casts doubts over the legitimacy of those laws and norms that undergird the liberal international order. Furthermore, the airstrike endangers European security because by targeting a high-ranking military official, the US has potentially set a new precedent that allows enemy states to engage in similar activity free from normative constraints. Simply put, adversaries now have an argument for targeting Western officials. We need only look at Russia’s justification for its invasion of Georgia in 2008 to show that states will point to US precedents to support their own actions. If the rules protecting states officials have changed, then the security of European officials has diminished.
The second point is that the Iranians have, in all but name, abandoned their compliance with the nuclear restrictions imposed by the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran has stated that it will no longer adhere to the limits on the number of centrifuges it can install to enrich uranium or the level to which it enriches that heavy metal. This essentially brings Europe and the rest of the world back to the same place that they were ten years ago. Iran can now produce weapons-grade nuclear material and rather than the one-year warning period guaranteed by the JCPOA, the US, Europe, and the rest of the world could have as little as a few months warning of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
The very fact that Iran can once again produce its own nuclear weapons means that European guarantees of security have decreased, but that in itself is not the biggest worry. The greatest source of European insecurity would be caused by a US-Iran war. Despite the fact that both states have indicated a desire for de-escalation, tensions preceding the Soleimani’s death remain high and will only be compounded by the US becoming warier of Iranian nuclear proliferation going forward. Increased tension can increase the chance of the potential flashpoints in Syria, the Golan Heights, Iraq, or Yemen. Each of these separate boiling points can potentially trigger a larger military conflict that could see European citizens fighting alongside the US.
In conclusion, Secretary Pompeo may have been correct in his assertation that a small number of European lives were saved by the killing of Major General Soleimani. However, in the short term, there is an increased threat to NATO troops from proxy forces and an increased chance of a resurgent ISIS that could target European citizens. In the long-term, the US’s actions negatively impact the legitimacy of the international norms and set a dangerous precedent for states such as Russia whilst also increasing the chances of Iranian nuclear proliferation and the potential for a US-Iranian conflict in the future.
William Newland is a Master’s student in National Security Studies at King’s College London. His research focuses on grand strategy, national security, and great power competition, particularly on China’s rise, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, and the potential security implications for the United States, Europe, and NATO.