Assassination may prove inadvertent US favour to Iran

January 12, 2020

What kind of strategic reset shall Iran seek after US aggression?

By assassinating the powerful and popular Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, who led the battle against Daesh, the US administration claims it has seriously undermined Iran’s capacity to undertake ‘terrorist’ operations in the region. Yet, the events unfolding since Soleimani’s death at Baghdad airport suggest, that Donald Trump may have helped Iran claim greater strategic space on the national, regional and international fronts.

Trump is facing a barrage of criticism at home; for risking Iranian retaliation; putting US citizens and assets in harm’s way; and pushing the region to the brink of another war. Trump’s critics, including some Republicans and members of his national security team, have been harsh. While Americans across the political spectrum saw the Al-Quds commander as detrimental to US interests in the region – if not a terrorist – few saw any strategic advantage in killing him through a drone strike, in a third country.

Attacking Iraqi territory without taking its government in confidence also earned the US administration the ire of the Iraqi government and people. Considered an aggressor country and subsequently an occupying state; the US has been unpopular among the Iraqis, but the hostility against it had been somewhat dormant. However, the January 3 assassinations have activated Iraqi hostility against American presence, despite, temporarily ridding Iraqis of the growing fissures among different militia groups, politicians and the army. Iraqi reservations over the larger-than-life Iranian presence, have now largely been overshadowed by acute resentment over the drone attack, especially since Iraqi hero and deputy leader of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), Abu-Mahdi Al-Muhandis was also killed in the attack.

Soleimani was a powerful general, viewed widely in the region as the principal indigenous factor behind Daesh’s demolition – a fact that his critics also acknowledge. He was the brain behind Iran’s military strategy to also counter the US and its regional allies’ influence in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and the Palestinian territories.

Even if he was deeply feared by his regional detractors – especially those who view Iran as an expansionist power – Soleimani’s loss has been resented by all. He was clearly the hitman against Daesh. What his demise will mean for Daesh’s revival, is a question being raised, even in Washington.

Trump has found few buyers in Washington for the ‘pre-emptive strike’ justification he rolled out for killing the Iranian general. The intelligence briefing for US lawmakers was found to be remarkably lacking in substantive evidence to support Trump’s claim that Soleimani was planning to kill Americans in the region.

The democrats have meanwhile produced a charge sheet against Trump and his overall Iran policy. Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice has penned this in an article for The New York Times titled, The Dire Consequences of Trump’s Soleimani’s Decision. Rice argues– like many others in Washington – against Trump’s decision to pull out of the nuclear deal. In a damning paragraph Rice states, “the escalatory cycle began in May 2018, when President Trump recklessly ignored the advice of his national security team and the opposition of our allies in unilaterally withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal — despite Iran’s full adherence to its terms and its efficacy in rolling back Iran’s nuclear program.” Perhaps a more complimentary article for Iran’s commitment to the nuclear deal, few others could have written!

Beyond the US, Trump’s two major allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel, have both refrained from publicly rejoicing the killing of a widely dreaded al-Quds commander. Israeli PM Netanyahu is reported to have expressed concern over the likely fallout of such a move. Israel’s cantankerous words and deep animosity against Iran notwithstanding, Tel Aviv does not want to face the ire of the Iranian military.

How far will Tehran succeed in gaining ground in these various areas will depend on multiple factors, not least of all, Trump’s antics. Hemmed between his possible impeachment and desire to win a second term, Trump’s moves can be highly unpredictable.

Saudi Arabia has not only distanced itself from the US action, but also publicly stated that it knew nothing of it, that it was not consulted, and that de-escalation and dialogue was the way forward for peace in the region. Most important was the statement made by the Iraqi PM in parliament about Soleimani carrying a special message from his country for the Saudi government. He was coming to deliver it to the Iraqi PM, when the American attack prevented him.

Saudis, like others in the region, know that a war or even an outbreak of proxy war will mean disaster for the region. No country, ever wants war – conventional or proxy – in its territory. The US sits at a comfortable distance. However, any escalation could disrupt oil supplies across the Strait of Hormuz, leading to chaos in oil-importing countries. Similarly China and Russia, while calling for de-escalation, have also been critical of the US act of aggression.

Of all the stakeholders – direct and indirect – Iran ironically finds itself best placed to attempt a strategic re-set in the region. Finally, the regime has found a relatively comfortable space. At home a gigantic, unifying nationalist-wave seems to have swept away recently surfacing political fissures. Additionally, instead of rash retaliation, Tehran’s carefully measured response to its top general’s assassination has been viewed as proportionate and ‘tolerable’ by its foes and friends alike. Iran framed its retaliatory attack on the US bases as an act of self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter. Further contrasting it with the US assassination; in complete violation of the UN charter.

Rouhani’s government, has been given some credit – even if begrudgingly – for averting major conflict in a region already divided and in disarray. An unintended consequence of US aggression against Iran is that Tehran appears to have gained space for greater diplomatic maneuverability.

Using the increased space, Tehran will likely pursue three related objectives, all leading to its increased influence in the security-architecture of the region. Firstly, to extricate the Iraqi security apparatus from US control including shutting down US bases in Iraq. Iraqis are already asking the Americans to leave, and Trump himself is pursuing opposite objectives on Middle East security. While calling on NATO allies to get more involved in Middle East security, his administration has dispatched 18,000 personnel to the region.

Secondly, to end the current state of Saudi-Irani antagonism. Tehran will have to engage the Saudis and start by seeking a settlement on Yemen. Without Saudi-Iran détente, the region will continue to function as the current insecure zone; occupied by proxies and militias, with the strong possibility of Daesh’s revival.

Thirdly – relating to the out-of-region states – Tehran would seek to re-open dialogue with the P5-plus-1 to re-engage them on the nuclear question.

How far will Tehran succeed in gaining ground in these various areas will depend on multiple factors, not least of all, Trump’s antics. Hemmed between his possible impeachment and desire to win a second term, Trump’s moves can be highly unpredictable.

Juxtaposed with Trump’s rash and hazardous politics, Iran with its mature political leadership and deft diplomacy could be better positioned to lead a security re-set in the region. For that, however, Tehran will have to go the extra mile to engage the Saudis.

And for this Pakistan’s relations with the Saudis, could be of significant value for the Iranians.

The writer is a national security specialist and author of From Kargil to the Coup

Qassem Soleimani's assassination may prove inadvertent US favour to Iran