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A Look At The Effects Qassem Soleimani's Death Will Have Throughout The Middle East


Iran has promised to seek revenge for the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani, the powerful Iranian commander. So what might that look like? In trying to answer that question, it is important to remember that Iran has extensive influence throughout the Middle East. It's involved in proxy battles across the region from Iraq to Yemen to Syria. Naysan Rafati is an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group. He joins me now to sort through all of this.


NAYSAN RAFATI: Good to be with you, Ailsa.

CHANG: So for months, your group has been warning about what you call a 1914 moment in the Middle East. You're referring back to the start of World War I. Could this be the 1914 moment that you have been concerned about?

RAFATI: It very well could be, Ailsa. We've, for the past couple of months, been trying to sound the alarm over the fact that the U.S. and Iran have been basically on a collision course. Washington has been adopting this policy of maximum pressure against Iran, especially through the utilization of unilateral U.S. sanctions. And the goal of this has been to get Iran to capitulate to a series of U.S. demands over its nuclear program, its ballistic missile program, its regional activity.

In Iran's case, it's responded with what it calls maximum resistance. And over the past several months, we've seen across the region a series of escalatory incidents, along with incremental breaches of the 2015 nuclear agreement. And as you mentioned upfront, the reality is that a direct U.S.-Iran confrontation could reverberate much further than the two antagonists. And even in the past few days, we've seen Iraq caught up in the crossfire.

CHANG: And this moment now - I mean, what kind of response do you expect to see from Iran? Because Iran's military is certainly not as large or as powerful as the U.S. military is, so what are Iran's military options for responding right now?

RAFATI: Well, if Iran decides to respond - and certainly, the rhetoric coming out of Tehran over the past 24 hours has certainly indicated that it will - Iran's conventional strength is no match for the U.S. But what it does have is an assortment of local allies, local proxies stretching from Yemen to Iraq to Syria to Lebanon to Afghanistan. And even in the past few hours, U.S. officials have been saying on background that the attack against Soleimani came as a result of a potential imminent attack against U.S. diplomats and servicemen in several of those countries. So the question now is, has the assassination of Soleimani dissuaded the Iranians from carrying out these kind of actions, or will it lead them to double down?

CHANG: It has been a day since the strike. The world is waiting for Iran to respond. There has been a lot of rhetoric, as you say, that there will indeed be a response. Is it typical for the Iranian government to take its time before deciding on a response?

RAFATI: Well, the Iranian government on major decisions in foreign and domestic policy has an equivalent to the National Security Council, the Supreme National Security Council of Tehran, which met today. That doesn't necessarily mean that the response is going to be imminent. But one thing to keep an eye on as well is that, on Monday, Iran is scheduled to carry out the next set in a series of breaches of the 2015 nuclear agreement. And I think that a lot of the efforts that have been made by Europeans, by the other members of the Security Council who are part of the deal to try to salvage the accord, are going to face a significantly higher hurdle trying to get the two sides off of the escalatory ladder that they're on right now.

CHANG: I want to return to Iran's proxy war strategy that you were mentioning before. Soleimani was the architect of Iran's proxy war strategy in the Middle East. With him gone, what is your sense of whether Iran can still retain a strong influence in the region?

RAFATI: Well, I think that Soleimani is - you know, since the 1990s, he's been leading the Quds Force. And I think that his outsized influence and role is one of the reasons why the U.S. and a lot of regional allies viewed him in particular as enemy No. 1. But I think the fact also is that, at least in the short term, a lot of these relationships go deeper and are considerably more institutional than just the one person in the - of Qassem Soleimani. And his replacement who was announced today was - has been his deputy and served in the Quds Force as well for several years. So it may be a blow, but it's not necessarily a blow that will see Iran's regional influence networks crumble altogether.

CHANG: Naysan Rafati is an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

RAFATI: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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