The targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's Quds Force, an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and the deputy chief of Hashd al-Shaabi forces in Iraq, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandisi, is a game-changer for Middle Eastern politics. Immediately after the attack that killed Soleimani, Iranian leadership threatened the U.S. and its allies in the region. Iran fired missiles at two American bases in Iraq in retaliation to the assassination of Soleimani. No casualties were declared in Iran's retaliatory attacks. Leaders of both countries escalated the tension, but they were careful not to let the crisis get out of control.
The killing of Qasem Soleimani and his close associates in an American airstrike in Baghdad Thursday night was without question one of the most significant developments in the Middle East over the last several years – significant in terms of the profile of its target as well as the unexpectedness of such an attack.
Saudi Arabia's Aramco, one of the biggest companies in the world, was hit by armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones. A total of 18 drones and seven missiles were launched against the Saudi infrastructure. The attack was the worst on Middle Eastern oil facilities since Saddam Hussein set fire to Kuwait's oil wells in 1990. The attack knocked out 5% of the world's oil supply, and oil prices increased almost 20% as a result. Even though the attacks were claimed by Houthi rebels, Saudi Arabian officials blamed Iran, at least for providing weapons to the Houthis. Some officials even claimed that Iran was directly involved in the attacks.
This week's attack on the facilities of Aramco, Saudi Arabia's national oil company, was no mere skirmish among proxies. Iran has allegedly fired missiles, loaded on drones, to strike at the heart of the Saudi oil industry. Although Yemen's Houthi rebels claimed the attack, already some fingers are pointing to Tehran. Hence a series of questions: have tensions in the Gulf, which have been escalating since May 2018, already spun out of control? Is the policy of "maximum pressure" on Iran giving way to war? Why did U.S. President Donald Trump escalate tensions right after sacking John Bolton, his hawkish national security adviser? What will be the Trump administration's military response to an attack that it considers a casus belli? As world leaders pack their bags for the United Nations General Assembly's opening session, the world is still trying to answer those questions.