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Qasem Soleimani receives an award from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in early 2019 [Khamenei's office].

▲ Qasem Soleimani receives an award from Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in early 2019 [Khamenei's Office].

COMMENTARY* / Salvador Sánchez Tapia

The death in Iraq of General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Quds Force, at the hands of a US drone is yet another link in the process of increasing deterioration of the already bad relations between the US and Iran, the latest chapter of which began in 2018, when President Trump decided to break the so-called "agreement nuclear agreement" (JCPOA) signed with Iran in 2015 by the Obama administration and the other members of the G5+1.

subject The attack on Soleimani, executed in retaliation for the death of an American contractor in an attack reportedly launched by the Iraqi Shiite militia Kataib Hezbollah on the US K1 base in Kirkuk on 27 December, marked a qualitative change in the US response to incidents of this nature subject as, for the first time, the goal was a senior Iranian military officer manager .

Immediately after the assassination, during the funeral for the dead general, Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, announced in somewhat apocalyptic terms that the attack would not go unanswered, and that it would come directly from Iranian hands, not through proxies. It did indeed come on the night of 8 January in the form of a massive missile attack on two US military sites in western Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, instructions . Contradicting Iranian claims that the bombings had resulted in some 80 US deaths, the US administration hastened to assure that no US casualties had been reported leave .

In the wake of this new attack, the world held its breath, expecting Washington to escalate. However, President Trump's statements on 8 January appeared to defuse the tension, arguing that the absence of US casualties was indicative of an Iranian attempt to de-escalate. The US will not respond militarily, although it announced its intention to tighten the economic sanctions regime until Iran changes its attitude. The risk of open war in the region thus appears to be averted, at least momentarily.

Are we affected by the tension between the US and Iran?

Evidently, yes, and in several ways. First, we cannot ignore the fact that several European countries, including Spain, have large military contingents deployed in the region, operating within the frameworks of NATO, the United Nations and the European Union in missions such as "Inherent Resolve" in Iraq, "Resolute Support" in Afghanistan, UNIFIL in Lebanon, "Active Fence" in Turkey, or "Atalanta" in the Horn of Africa.

In the cases of Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, Spanish troops deployed in the aforementioned missions work closely partnership with other NATO allies, including the United States. Although in principle Spanish soldiers - or, for that matter, those of other NATO nations - are not targeted by Iranian responses directed specifically against the United States and its interests, there is no doubt that any Iranian attack on US units could collaterally affect the contingents of other nations operating with them, if only as a matter of geographic proximity.

It is less likely that Iran would attempt a response against a non-US contingent through one of its proxies in the region. This would be the case, for example, of Hezbollah in Lebanon, a country where Spain maintains an important contingent whose security could be affected if this group, either on its own initiative or at Iran's behest, attempted to attack a UNIFIL unit or facility. This option, as we have said, is considered unlikely because of the negative impact it would have on the international community in general, and because of the proximity of UNIFIL's deployment to Israel.

The escalation has led to an increase in the level of alert and a reinforcement of US troops in the region. If the increase in tension continues, it is not out of the question that Washington could articulate some kind of direct military response to Iran, which could call on the support of its partners and allies, either with troops or resources, subject . It is difficult to determine when and under what conditions such a response might take place application, with what aim and, very importantly, what Europe's response would be, bearing in mind the concern with which the Old Continent is observing an escalation in which it has no interest, and the relatively cool state of relations between the United States and Europe.

As a consequence of the assassination, Iran has made public its intention to fully disengage from the clauses of the nuclear agreement that it still observed. In other words, it says it feels free to continue with its nuclear programme. Undoubtedly, this last nail in the coffin of the JCPOA could lead to an open nuclear degree program in the region with negative consequences for regional security, but also for European security. The increase of the issue of nuclear powers is, in itself and from our point of view, bad news.

Finally, and as a side effect of the escalation, the price of a barrel of oil is beginning to show a worrying upward trend. If there are no corrective measures by way of increased production in other countries, the trend could continue. There is no need to dwell on what the rise in oil prices means for the European Economics and, of course, for the national one.

Russia and China in the crisis

Russia is making efforts to replace the US as the leading power in the region and to portray America as an unreliable partner , abandoning its allies in trouble. The escalating crisis may have a negative impact on this effort, slowing it down or, in the worst case, ending it if the US eventually reverses its policy of gradual withdrawal of the Middle East on the grounds of increased tension with Iran. Russian rhetoric will run counter to Washington. In the end, however, it will do nothing to increase US-Iranian tensions, but will probably keep them within tolerable levels or decrease them.

Russia is not so much a staunch ally of Iran as one of convenience. Iran is a competitor to Russia for influence in the region - particularly in Syria - and may seek to negatively influence Islamism in Russia. On the other hand, Russia is not enthusiastic about the idea of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

China's position is conditioned by its heavy dependence on the steady flow of oil from the Middle East. For this reason, it has no interest in the instability brought about by this increased tension. It is likely to act as an element moderator, seeking to use the crisis as an opportunity to increase its influence in the region. China is not interested per se in becoming the arbiter of security in the region, but it is interested in a stable, trade-friendly region.

The project "One Belt, One Road" is another reason why China will try to keep the crisis within manageable limits. The Middle East is an element core topic in China's project to recreate a sort of new Silk Road. An open war between the US and Iran could negatively affect this project.

At summary, neither Russia nor China is interested in an escalation between the US and Iran that could lead to an open war between the two nations that would jeopardise oil supplies in the case of China, and Russia's establishment as the leading international power in the region. Both will try to temper the Iranian response, even if, at the statement level, they speak out against Soleimani's assassination.


* This text extends a previous commentary by the author to El Confidencial Digital.

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