Qassem Soleimani And America: Collaborators And EnemiesBloombergQuintOpinion
The impact of Major General Qassem Soleimani’s killing in a U.S. drone attack was immediate on global stock markets and the price of oil. For India, the worry extends beyond that, to six million-plus diaspora in the Gulf whose lives and livelihoods can be seriously affected by the U.S.-Iran confrontation exacerbating. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei vowed revenge, as did crowds in Iranian cities. Soleimani was popular and seen as the carrier of Shia influence abroad.
Together After 9/11, Split After Iraq War
The U.S. had dealt with Soleimani in the past, whenever U.S.-Iranian interests converged. After Sept. 11, 2001, as the U.S. prepared to go after Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran provided intelligence and assistance as, along with India, it was one of the main supporters of the Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Masood. But this tactical convergence did not last long. On Jan. 29, 2002, U.S. President George W Bush included Iran in the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address. After 2003, as America’s focus shifted to Iraq to the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime, U.S.-Iran relations took a turn for the worse once details began emerging of Iran’s clandestine nuclear enrichment programme.
That is where Soleimani’s confrontation with the U.S. commenced. Through the Quds Force, he created a network of militias to undermine the U.S. military in Iraq so that it remained tied-down and unable to rally against Iran. Iran also opened channels to the Taliban for similar reasons.
A Common Foe In ISIS
The next convergence of interests between Iran and the U.S. occurred over the sudden rise and spread of ISIS, which captured Mosul and northern Iraq literally overnight in June 2014. The Islamic Caliphate threatened Shia interests in Iraq, Syria and eventually Lebanon.
U.S. President Barak Obama, unwilling to commence a fresh war in West Asia, strategically accepted that ISIS could not be countered without unshackling Iran.
The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action or JCPOA, the ungainly name of the nuclear deal between the P-5 plus Germany and Iran, became condition precedent to Iran reverting to normal engagement with the west and U.S. Soleimani, thereafter, created a powerful counterforce to the ISIS, welding disparate elements like militias of Shia fighters gleaned from Afghanistan, Iraq, etc, Iranian officers as leaders and Iranian arms and equipment, besides direct help from battle-hardened Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.
Russia jumped in, sensing an opportunity to revive influence in the region, providing intelligence, air cover and equipment. Soleimani delivered on his mandate by bolstering an almost toppled Assad government in Syria, eliminating ISIS from Iraq and in combination with a resuscitated Syrian army and Kurdish Peshmerga pushed back surviving ISIS fighters into a narrow enclave in northern Syria.
Escalation Under Trump
The advent of President Donald Trump led to a complete reversal of the Obama strategy. The nuclear deal was rejected, the U.S. alliance with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia was restored and sanctions imposed on Iran.
While the U.S. brandished a long list of pre-conditions to a normalisation of relations with Iran, the two fundamental issues are:
- a new and more stringent nuclear deal, and
- rolling back of Iranian strategic influence in the region.
Skirmishing between the U.S. and Iran had so far been conducted through surrogates. The popular protests in Iraq, the destabilisation of a pro-Iran government and the effect of sanctions on Iranian domestic cohesion led first to the attack on some ships ferrying oil, and then the Saudi oil-handling nerve centre. The immediate escalation began with the killing of an American contractor, allegedly by an Iran-controlled militia. The U.S. retaliated by killing dozens of militia members. In response, more militiamen invaded the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which is a veritable citadel. the killing of Soleimani is the next escalatory-step signalling a more risk-prone U.S. president as he enters an election year and his impeachment moves to the Senate.
International reaction has been along predictable lines.
- Russia was the most direct in condemning U.S. action.
- China more indirect by calling on the U.S. not to escalate.
- The Indian statement was anodyne, preaching peace and stability, without taking sides.
- The U.K. and Israel threw their weight behind the U.S.
What Happens Next?
Essentially the ball is now in Iran’s court. They can seek real or symbolic revenge, depending on how much escalation they are willing to risk. The Iranian establishment may calculate that not reacting in kind would diminish its standing in the region and at home. They may also believe that a U.S. president cannot afford bloodletting of troops in an election year; but nor can he be seen as weak.
There are two competing narratives in Iran on relations with the U.S. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has been pro-dialogue, but the unwillingness of the U.S. to relax sanctions tied his hands in getting the Supreme Leader to back him. He was recently in Tokyo, where Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rang up U.S. President Trump while Rouhani was visiting. The peace-making has been overtaken by the events of the last week.
It is possible that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps escalated the confrontation in Iraq to stymie Rouhani’s outreach. It could also be that Soleimani had become too independent and a threat to other factions of the Iranian regime.
Soleimani’s name was being mentioned for the presidency next year. Someone with his antecedents and charisma may have been unacceptable even to the Supreme Leader. But be that as it may, now the passion play is public and Iranian regime, and especially IRGC, has its reputation to defend.
The U.S. seems to have concluded that Soleimani was critical to the web of alliances with disparate elements that IRGC had woven in the region to advance Iranian strategic interests and influence. The next few days or weeks will show what choices Iranian leadership makes. Martyrdom has a long history in Shia Islam and resonates with the common citizen. But Iranians can also be pragmatic and decide to obtain revenge in time on their own terms. India meanwhile needs to be prepared for either outcome.
KC Singh is a former Indian Ambassador to Iran, and a strategic affairs expert.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.