The Trump administration escalated its standoff with Iran to a whole new level on Friday by ordering a targeted assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force. The Iranian general was blown up along with 11 other people, including a senior commander of an Iraqi militia backed by Tehran, when their motorcade was hit by US guided missiles just outside Baghdad International Airport.

The attack marks a dramatic and extremely dangerous change in US policies vis-à-vis Iran, Middle East-based journalist and writer Ali Rizk told RT.

Trump previously had resorted to what was termed as a ‘maximum pressure campaign’ .. based on economic sanctions trying to choke Iran economically. That policy appears to have failed… Now Trump has resorted to a new policy of targeted assassinations.

Washington claims it was justified in killing Soleimani because the Iranian general was planning attacks on American citizens. As the commander of the commando branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), he was directly involved in coordinating the activities of various militia groups in Iraq and Syria. The militias played an essential part in fighting against the terrorist group Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) in both countries, boosting Iranian regional influence and Soleimani’s personal popularity.

The American government, which formally designated the IRGC a terrorist organization amid last year’s growing hostility towards Iran, appears to see no difference between Soleimani and IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in a US raid last October. But, with Soleimani being a senior figure and “part of a state apparatus,” this was a dangerous delusion, Rizk believes, adding that the precedent in turn will put crosshairs on every US official.

Iran cannot let the attack simply slide and has already declared it an act of international terrorism. When Washington put the IRGC on its terrorist list, Tehran did the same for the US Central Command (CENTCOM), which seemed like a symbolic gesture at the time. But Iran could now feel justified in targeting any American service member in the Middle East, regardless of his or her rank.

“If [Iran] doesn’t retaliate, it will lose face, it will appear as a very weak player in the Middle East, which allows its senior officials to be assassinated,” said political analyst and filmmaker Andre Vitchek. “If it does retaliate, the US will reserve the right to even annihilate the country, as we saw in the past.”

Trump’s entire policy towards Iran was to put the screws on it without starting an actual shooting war, with the presumable goal of signing a deal better than the Obama-era nuclear multilateral agreement that he had scrapped in 2018. So far both countries have steered away from any direct military engagement, save for a few lost drones.

There were several incidents, such as attacks on oil tankers and Saudi Arabian refinery, which Washington blamed on the IRGC. Iranian militias in Syria also absorbed dozens of attacks, mainly by US ally Israel, which sees the presence of the Tehran-backed fighters there as a threat to its national security.

The killing of Soleimani is unlikely to get much support internationally, with the obvious exceptions of Israel and Saudi Arabia, Rizk said. Depending on how far Tehran goes to avenge its general, it may even leave Trump with little choice but to declare a full-scale war against Iran, an outcome that he tried to avoid but which some in his government, as well as others in Tel Aviv and Riyadh, have been dreaming about. 

More importantly, it sets a dangerous precedent that other nations will be looking at, not least those that the US designates as rivals.“It was like a killing of the joint chief of staff of a country,” Rizk said. “America later on could say: we have the right to target Russian or Chinese military officials. It’s very important for a major power not to let this issue pass.”

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