Where do Middle East tensions leave global businesses?

With the recent assassination of Iranian General Qaseem Soleimani, global organizations wait for more fallout

Over the past year there has been a major escalation in incidents involving Iranian forces including the alleged bombing of ships within the Arabian Gulf, support for Houthi rebels in Yemen and the alleged drone attack on the Aramco oil refinery at Abqaiq; the chance that Soleimani was not involved would appear to be slim.
Over the past year there has been a major escalation in incidents involving Iranian forces including the alleged bombing of ships within the Arabian Gulf, support for Houthi rebels in Yemen and the alleged drone attack on the Aramco oil refinery at Abqaiq; the chance that Soleimani was not involved would appear to be slim.
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The recent killing of Qaseem Soleimani has sent shock waves throughout the Middle East and the wider world. Irrespective of thoughts about the merits of the killing, the impacts are likely to be felt for some time to come. This column explains a bit of the history and examines potential implications for international organizations operating in the Middle East.

Who Was Soleimani?

Many argue that after Iran’s Supreme Leader, Soleimani was the second most powerful person in the country. As a Major-General in the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) and the leader of the Quds Force (a division within the IRGC), he was responsible for the orchestration and delivery of clandestine operations internally and internationally.

Soleimani, the Quds Force, and the IRGC were all designated by the USA and others as terrorist organizations or terrorists through association.

Why Was He Viewed As Being a Danger?

For decades Soleimani and the Quds Force have orchestrated attacks and destabilization tactics across the Middle East either directly or using proxies such as Hezbollah and militant groups in Syria and Iraq. There have been international incidents involving the Quds in Germany, U.S., Lebanon and India where clandestine operations such as surveillance and targeting of ‘enemies’ of Iran have taken place.

As the leader of the Quds, he was until his death directly involved in assisting both the Syrian and Iraqi governments through the creation and orchestration of militias and through logistical, intelligence and strategic support.

Over the past year, there has been a major escalation in incidents involving Iranian forces including the alleged bombing of ships within the Arabian Gulf, support for Houthi rebels in Yemen and the alleged drone attack on the Aramco oil refinery at Abqaiq; the chance that Soleimani was not involved would appear to be slim.

Therefore, with control of militias within both Syria and Iraq, and the high level of influence that Soleimani personally had with Presidents Assad and Abdul-Mahdi, the ability for attacks to be directed against third-party forces within these countries could not be ruled out. This was highlighted by the rocket attack by Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia that resulted in the death of a U.S. contractor. This led to retaliatory airstrikes against the militia which in turn resulted in the attack and damage of the US embassy in Baghdad; an orchestrated act that is unlikely not to have been approved at the highest levels; Soleimani.

 What Is The Potential Fallout?

This is difficult to say. While the media is showing pictures of many mourners out on the street crying, “Death to the USA," there are equally those from the Sunni Muslim and minority communities who are jubilant at his demise as they have suffered at the hands of militias controlled by him/Quds.

On January 7th, rockets were fired from Iran at an airbase in Erbil and the Al-Assad airbase in Iraq. There are U.S. military resources located at both locations and this appears to be a clear retaliatory action against U.S. interests. However, as with many things in the Middle East, things are not what they necessarily appear to be. Iran can claim to its people that retaliatory action was taken against the 'American Terrorists' and as such, demonstrate that it is willing and capable of attacking American forces. They can claim the death of U.S. military personnel and any media from the West saying that there were no casualties is just propaganda.

The fact that no casualties were reported by U.S. officials and there has been no military response directly against Iran would seem to support this fact.

That then leaves a window of opportunity where the Iranian government can save face and the U.S. government does not have to escalate things further due to the loss of US military lives, hopefully resulting in a de-escalation of tensions from all sides.

Is that the end of things?

Unfortunately, not. It is assessed that the threat to the U.S. and potentially other western interests will remain, either through Iranian governmental action around the flow of oil in the Straits of Hormuz or, and more likely, using proxy forces and militias across the region.

It is not assessed that direct action will be taken outside the region other than through cyber-attacks and disruptions.

The whole region will remain on high alert due to the unpredictability of some of the actors involved, but it is felt that space has potentially been created to reduce the tension and, as has been suggested,  "draw a line under the matter;" we can only hope.

What Other Challenges Remain?

It is believed that it is far more likely that incidents targeting and disrupting the flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz will occur (oil prices have already increased sharply). There may be an increased number of regional attacks, destabilization tactics and escalations of tension caused by the Quds (their new leader Esmail Ghanni may wish to demonstrate a hardline approach), or more likely using third-party proxies as a retaliation for the killing. The dangers with this are that many of the regional countries who are opposed to Iran have ongoing defensive agreements with the U.S. and any direct action could backfire with regional players, supported by the U.S. taking direct action against Iran.

The risk to U.S. commercial interests may be mixed. There may be very little change in the Sunni dominated countries; especially as protests, etc. are tightly controlled. However, in those Shia dominated countries where there already exists instability and dangers, the risks are far higher. In these countries, U.S.-flagged commercial interests could very well be targeted through protests, damage, or even attacks on personnel.

There is the potential for the killing to be used as an excuse to attack other nations’ interests across the region, but this very much depends on how far Iran is willing to escalate the situation, and whether it would be in its own best interests to do so. It isn’t believed that it would, but it can never be ruled out and therefore natural allies of the U.S. could also have their diplomatic and commercial interests targeted (in many cases, ‘softer targets’ than U.S. interests).

What Should International Organizations Be Considering?

In many cases, it depends on where organizations and their personnel are and what activities they are involved in. The first thing that an organization should remember is that they have a duty of care under a wide range of international laws (as well as moral obligations) not to expose staff to unnecessary dangers. Similarly, governments have a duty of care to their citizens and, as such, provide travel advice, warnings and alerts for countries; this advice and guidance should be followed, and in many cases insurance, flights, etc. is/are directly linked to it. With regards to Iran and Iraq, most advice is to avoid ‘ALL’, or ‘all but essential’ to these countries. If you ignore your national travel advice, you may not be supported by your own government and increase personal and organizational risks.

Things should be kept in perspective and there should not be a knee-jerk reaction to the incident (although it is a significant spike), as regional tensions have been building for an extended period and international organizations should already have their emergency and crisis management strategies up to date and at hand.

Unfortunately, I know too many international organizations that do not have any such strategies in place or have even considered the “WHAT IF?” question. These types of organizations are unnecessarily exposing their staff and operations to unnecessary risks, not least the liability aspects if something goes wrong, and should address them as a matter of urgency.

International organizations should be reviewing their operations and emergency plans, ensuring that details are up to date, and trigger points for strategic actions that are clearly identified and understood at HQ and in-country. Consider whether it is appropriate to scale back non-essential personnel or families. Is it necessary for staff to travel to the region or can it be delayed? In many cases, as pointed out earlier, much would depend on where they are and what they are doing. For example, would I consider withdrawing families from Iran? Yes. Would I consider withdrawing families from the UAE or Saudi Arabia, not at this time; but I would monitor the situation very closely. Would I evaluate the need for staff to visit the region? Yes, based on operational necessity and risk exposure.

If emergency plans have not been tested in a while, organizations should consider exercising and testing them; to ensure that they remain fit for purpose. I have unfortunately seen situations where international organizations have created the emergency and crisis management plans that work on paper but have not considered local situations and availability of resources, resulting in gaps and vulnerabilities being created. Remember, time spent testing and reviewing plans is never wasted.

If future evacuation of personnel is not necessary or appropriate, are there other actions that can be taken that would continue operations and keep staff safe? Can work be transferred to other offices? Can staff work from home? Can security personnel be deployed? These are all legitimate questions that an organization can and should be asking itself.

It is always appropriate to speak with your legal team/counsel and your insurers. They may advise you of ‘red-lines’ that you are not aware of or clarify where ‘red-lines’ exist; either way, organizations are better able to make informed decisions if they are aware of the facts that can directly impact them.

Finally, if an organization is unprepared and wishes to seek professional advice and guidance on emergency planning or crisis management, don’t check the telephone book. Select individuals or organizations that have the necessary skills and experience to support you, especially within the Middle East and internationally. Insurers may be able to point you in the right direction (or may have it included within your policy), as can professional bodies, and don’t forget personal recommendations.

Concluding Thoughts

The fallout from the killing of Soleimani will be felt across the region; spiking in the short term, but with ramifications over the years to come. However, it does not mean that ‘World War III’ is going to break out! (Although it doesn’t mean it can’t be the trigger for significant conflict.)

In some parts of the Middle East, life and operations will continue as normal without any disruption caused by the incident or its potential fallout.

However, it does mean that tensions within the Middle East region are probably at their highest levels for a very long time and that organizations either operating in or planning to operate in the region, should consider the levels of risks that exist and how prepared they are to deal with them.

Organizational emergency and crisis management plans should be seen as an essential part of operating within the region, and the ability to respond in an appropriate manner to protect staff, operations and organizational reputation may depend upon them working. If help is needed, seek it!

About the Author:  

Mr. Andy Davis, MSc, CPP, CSyP, FSyI serves as Regional Director for TAL Global and Principal at Trident Manor. He is a former diplomat with extensive experience in the Middle East. 

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