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Jordan feels Soleimani side effects

The assassination of Iran’s top commander, Qasem Soleimani, has raised concerns in Jordan, with analysts fearing retaliation against US military assets in the kingdom.

AMMAN, Jordan — Just one year ago, King Abdullah II met Iraqi President Barham Salih, marking the first royal Jordanian trip to Iraq in more than a decade.

On the agenda were plans to include Jordan in the economic benefits of Iraq's post-Islamic State (IS) future, including the building of a 1,700-kilometer (1,056-mile) pipeline linking the oil-rich Basra governorate to Jordan's Red Sea port of Aqaba. 

Technocrats accompanying Abdullah brought blueprints for a plan for Iraq to import around 300 megawatts of electricity from Jordan to help Baghdad ease its chronic power shortages.

The sudden advance of IS toward Baghdad in 2014 with fighting continuing until the liberation of Mosul three years later had kept the Karama-Trebil border closed for two full years

But with the border's reopening in August 2017, trade volume began ticking up, increasing by 27% in 2018.

Now, the assassination of iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, and his deputy in Baghdad, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, leader of Iraq's Kataib Hezbollah, adds to the already intense strategic pressure on Jordan.

The kingdom is still coping with the ongoing war in Syria and new tension with Israel, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moves toward annexing the West Bank borderlands of the Jordan Valley. 

“Jordan has a significant American presence — civilian and military — and it needs to upgrade the level of threat and readiness to react to it. That is because American presence in Jordan could be a potential target for Iranian retribution,” said Barik Mhadeen, a senior researcher at the West Asia-North Africa Institute, an Amman-based policy think tank.

US Embassy staff in Baghdad — which until last weekend hosted the largest US diplomatic presence in the Middle East — was evacuated to Jordan after the Jan. 3 drone strike that killed Soleimani.

Al-Tanf US military base within 24 kilometers (14 miles) of the Jordan-Syria border served as a refueling stop for some 20 C-17A Globemasters deployed to Iraq over the weekend.

“Depending on where Iran will be retaliating, Jordan is now facing the urgency of developing scenarios to contain possible spillovers from Tehran's retribution, and those possibilities extend to its proxies in neighboring Syria, Iraq and Lebanon,” Mhadeen told Al-Monitor.

On Jan. 8, Americans in Amman woke to an electronic alert advising US government personnel to avoid nonessential movements, including keeping children home from school. 

In the wake of Soleimani's assassination, increased tensions between Hezbollah and Israel only serve to put Jordan even more on edge.

“It transformed him (Soleimani) in the hearts and minds of many from a war criminal to an anti-imperialist who fell prey to fighting against the US. His assassination will be utilized to strengthen the victimhood narrative of Iranian proxies like Hezbollah,” Mhadeen added.

Omar al-Raddad, a retired officer from Jordan's General Intelligence Directorate, agrees that the threat is real.

“Jordan is one of the most active players with the US in counterterrorism efforts,” said Raddad, adding, “It was proven on many occasions that Jordan is susceptible to being targeted by the IRGC and their Quds force."

The Jordanian intelligence officer shares a common assessment here that “Soleimani was the real governor of Iraq” who schemed to undermine the participation of the 200,000 strong Iraqi immigrant community in Amman as well as Jordanian firms in Baghdad's reconstruction efforts.

“But the key thing is that our government preempted many planned Iranian operations that Tehran hoped to stage on our soil targeting Jordanian national security,” Raddad revealed to Al-Monitor.

Despite the continued threats from Iraq, he believes that Soleimani’s absence from the theater will weaken the Iranian role in nearby Syria.

“The outcomes of the Iranian-Russian conflict inside the formal Syrian institutions will be in favor of Russia,” said Raddad, as Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks Jan. 7 with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Syrian army commanders briefed both leaders at a Damascus command center.

“Even before the death of Soleimani, there was a decrease in the Iranian role in Syria. Now, it's more likely that the Iranian role and presence in Syria will decline,” added Raddad.

Russia has long been at pains to reduce Israeli airstrikes on the IRGC, Hezbollah and Shiite Iraqi targets inside Syria, and a series of Israeli attacks on IRGC positions this past autumn has been said even to unnerve the Americans.

“It is possible that the assassination of Soleimani held a message to the US allies in the region that they can't confront Iran without the American support,” observed Raddad.

Jordan worries that it remains in Tehran's sights after Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a televised speech Jan. 8, "The corrupt presence of the US in this region should come to an end."

“The Iranian-controlled militias always constituted a serious challenge for Jordanian security, especially when Soleimani directed its 76 militia that works through 10 political parties to pressure Jordan inside the Iraqi parliament and in the Iraqi government,” said Nabil al-Otoom, an independent Iran analyst in Amman. “It's well-known that the Iraqi government was encouraged by the Iranians not to activate understandings between the two countries, especially the economic agreements,” Otoom added.

 Laith Fakhri Ajlouni contributed to this report.