Qassem Soleimani- Predictable Surprises

The targeted assassination of Qassem Soleimani will continue to reverberate from Teheran to Washington. What will be the unintended consequences of this action?

Background

Television screens beamed powerful images showing an impassioned sea of humanity bidding farewell to Qassem Soleimani and furiously baying for revenge.  The world waited with bated breath for the worst. 

Ayatollah Al Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, called Soleimani as the "international face of resistance” and swore, "a harsh retaliation is waiting". Trump warned that US retaliation would come on 52 'significant sites, including cultural.'  With the globally acknowledged, Iranian embodiment of the spirit of martyrdom or 'Shahadat',  it was feared that a full and vengeful response was but a matter of time, plunging West Asia into another round of conflict and impacting upon the economic future of the globe.

The Iranian retaliation came on 8th Jan in an operation code-named 'Operation Martyr Soleimani.'  The ballistic missile attack was in two waves about an hour apart and symbolically near the time when Soleimani was targeted.  The Iraqi military said that between 1.45 am and 2.15 am, 17 missiles were fired towards the Ayn Al Asad base and five at Erbil. Fateh-313 and Qiam ballistic missiles fitted with cluster warhead were reported used.  

Initially claiming that over 80 Americans had been killed in the strikes, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei called the attack  "a slap in the face" for the US and called for an end to the US presence in the Middle East. Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Foreign Minister, called the bases as the launchpad for the drone which killed Soleimani.  

Trump twitted “ all is well”. US denied any casualties and only recently in a press release the US DoD has said that 34 soldiers had been diagnosed with brain trauma.

Iran had warned the Iraqi PM before the start of the missile attack, and the US had adequate time to shift their troops or get them under hardened shelter, leaving the bare minimum exposed.

Later, Trump gave a muted response, saying that ‘Iran appears to be standing down" and did not mention any new military riposte. He, however, promised that new 'punishing' economic sanctions would be immediately imposed. Iran also scaled down its rhetoric and tragically it may be, but the downing of the Ukrainian airliner acted as a dampener on the ongoing war of words.

Analysis

Clearly, so far, the outcomes have belied the fears, and both sides have acted with restraint. With conciliatory statements being issued at the highest level, for the present, the tension seems to have de-escalated considerably. 

The US, with scant support in the congress or domestically for a new war in the Middle East, has little appetite for a full-blown conflict.  Similarly, Iran suffering from crippling economic sanctions is fully stretched in its vast involvements in the region.

However, the core of the conflict, Iran's nuclear ambitions and the threat it poses to Israel show no sign of abatement.  Also, there is this larger quest to seek Shiite hegemony and perpetuate the Shia Crescent- stretching from Beirut to Bahrain.

The Obama administration had worked hard to strike the nuclear deal with Iran, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)  was the outcome.  Obama had labeled it as the most significant achievement of his presidency. This agreement signed in 2015 between Iran and the P5 +1 (Germany) was endorsed by the UNSC. A detailed and comprehensive compliance plan was charted, which was being implemented under international supervision. In 2018 Trump walked out of the deal and reinstated nuclear sanctions on Iran.  Since then, the situation has only been worsening with Iran and its proxies targeting interests of the US and its allies all over the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, consistently raising tensions and spooking global markets.

The Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would not observe the nuclear deal's restriction on fuel enrichment, on the size of enriched nuclear stockpile and on its nuclear R&D.  However, Iran has conveyed that it remains open to discussions with Europeans signatories.  It has also assured the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN monitoring agency that it will continue to cooperate. As per IAEA, while Iran does not have weapons-grade levels of 90% enriched uranium if it is given one year 'breakout time”, it may cross this last hurdle too.

The positive sign is that despite the US spurring other signatories to walk out of the nuclear deal, they have not yet renounced the deal. Behind the scene talks, especially with Germany, which has close economic relations with Iran, the indications are that Iran would be willing to re-start the JCPOA if the strangling economic sanctions would be somewhat relaxed.

Another issue is the spread of Shiite influence in the Middle East with Iran being its driving force. In fact, the Quds Force named after "Jerusalem" has the ultimate mission to "liberate Muslim lands.” Iran will never allow the dilution or compromise on its commitment to the Shiite ideology. Its passion for Shias worldwide goes beyond politics- it is a deeply embedded psychic makeup of an average Iranian imbibed with the spirit of Shahadat for the cause anywhere in the world. Benjamin Disraeli has famously said, “Assassination has never changed the history of the world”.  The Quds Force has a new commander and will continue with its mission, although Esmail Ghaani lacks the charisma and the personal access and relationship with top leaders in the Middle East which Soleimani had developed over the last 30 years.

Iran has a careful and calibrated approach to conflict within its system. While the Iranian Army defends the national border, the IRGC carries forward its interest beyond the borders and this distinction is carefully maintained to prevent the IRCG meddling too much in internal matters.  

Before the assassination, there were frequent youth-led protests in dozens of cities.  The Iranians elections scheduled in Feb were being debated with some interest. However, if anything, the US strike has apparently united the country against a common threat.  Soleimani's death has reinforced the core belief of Shiite Islam—martyrdom by the weak against the mighty. The fury, which was on display during his funeral and resulted in almost 56 deaths, will unite disparate elements of Iranian society. Although the accidental shooting of the Ukrainian jetliner again brought youth out on the streets against the government for hiding the facts, it was a spontaneous outburst in grief for the mindless loss of 176 passengers including 82 Iranians and less of a political statement.

Lastly, the US presence in Iraq is a thorn on the sides of Iran and its proxies. The Iraqi parliament resolution asking all foreign forces to leave Iraq may have been music to Iranian ears, but the US is unlikely to comply. While Trump may have won his first term on promises of getting out of mindless wars, US presence in Iraq has many dimensions, and the US has shown no inclination to quit its hard-earned position in the center of the Middle East. In fact, it has warned Iraq with crippling repatriations and sanctions if any such move is initiated or allowed to gather pace.

India View

India has oil interests in Iran although, since the rise of tensions in 2018, it has been diversifying its sourcing in preparation for US retaliation. Chabad port development, which India views as a counter to Chinese entry in Gwadar, may also be impacted

War clouds in the Gulf Region scare the expatriate community and lead to an exodus.  Indian economy gets US $ 78 billion remittances which form nearly 2 % of GDP. Out of these, nearly 50% come from the Persian Gulf, and therefore, any outbreak of conflict will directly affect the Indian economy apart from the obvious spike in oil prices.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian Foreign Minister in Raisina Dialogue, spoke of diplomacy 'but not with US’-there is, therefore, a message - Iran is ready to talk through a third party with influence in Washington and Europe. India has this opportunity to play the role of an interlocutor.

Assessment

  • Iran follows the balance of proportionality and manages its response to ensure conflict does not cross the all-out conflagration stage.  In the present circumstance, too, a new strategic balance has been created between the two adversaries- till the next imbalance.
  • The biggest benefactor of the ongoing tensions will be ISIS. With both its sworn enemies locked in conflict, the 14 to 18 thousand ISIS cadre lurking in Syria and Iran will get a new lease of life and regroup.
  • A nation-state will follow the path of national interest and cannot be deflected from this path by a mere assassination. Therefore, irrespective of who commands Quds Force, there is not going to be any reduction of Iran's involvement in its ongoing expeditions in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon or Iraq and the pressure it generates on Israel.
  • Iran's goal remains the removal of US power from Iraq, and there are no signs that it has given up on this goal. Iraq claims that Soleimani has come to Baghdad to initiate talks with Saudi Arabia for reconciliation and that is the reason he was targeted now, even though he had been in American sights for long. The current turmoil in Iraq has weakened the US position.
  • Therefore, the fear remains that Iraq may become the major battlefield of the 21st Century with its religious schism and fissures in the polity being stoked by external powers. The US presence is the umbrella that has subsumed the Shia Sunni divide and kept uneasy peace. 
  • In case the pressure on the US to exit Iraq becomes unbearable, there is a possibility that along with its European allies it may look for a division of Iraq which will have space for an independent Kurdistan too.  The US military presence may then shift to that part which is more amenable to its presence. However, this is only a theoretical assumption at this stage as it has wide-ranging implications with other countries like Turkey, not on the same page.
  • Trump while he can stun and surprise he is also known to cut a deal. In the case of North Korea, he lambasted Kim publicly and yet went ahead and held two summits with him. So future talks between the US and Iran are not ruled out, which may even trigger some movement in the deadlocked nuclear talks.

 

Image Courtesy:The New York Times

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