The US drone strike on January 3 killing the Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, was a watershed event. The politics of West Asia changed course. And the consequences are going to be lasting. A new phase of tensions and proxy wars is erupting in India’s ‘extended neighbourhood’, which will inevitably impact our vital interests and core concerns. The prognosis doesn’t look good. We seem to be slowly moving towards a military conflict.
The salience of January 3 is that the US unilaterally changed the rules of the game in its standoff with Iran. The four-decade-old US-Iranian rivalry has had its low and high tides: tensions subsiding in melancholy, long, withdrawing retreat and then returning after recess with a grating roar flinging waves up the high strand.
Clearly, the US-Iran hostilities are entering uncharted waters. Tehran understands that the agenda of the Trump administration is nothing less than ‘regime change’.
However, through that tremulous cadence, there was an eternal note, namely, neither side ever sought out the enemy and executed him on sight. Soleimani’s killing in cold blood shocked Tehran and the entire region. Unless something gives way between now and the end of the year, of which not even incipient signs appear on the horizon, there isn’t going to be any certitude of peace.
Clearly, the US-Iran hostilities are entering uncharted waters. Tehran understands that the agenda of the Trump administration is nothing less than ‘regime change’. Iraq was Tehran’s Maginot Line, a Mesopotamian labyrinth of fortifications and obstacles and weapon installations that would deter the US and compel it into a long battle of attrition. Soleimani was the craftsman of the deterrence, while Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (killed alongside by the US drone) was its supervisor and manager acting as the deputy head of the Popular Mobilisation Committee (PMC) comprising the Iraqi militia network. By eliminating the two key commanders, US expects that the PMC will be thrown into disarray, which in turn would make possible the rollback of Iran’s predominant influence in Iraq — and debilitate its capacity to be the mainstay of the Assad regime in Syria — aside disorienting Tehran’s resistance politics as such.
The heart of the matter is that the US-Iran crisis is about the future of West Asia.
The heart of the matter is that the US-Iran crisis is about the future of West Asia. The US’ exit from the 2015 nuclear deal was itself prompted not by Tehran’s non-compliance with the agreement but rooted in the geopolitical assessment that there was nothing stopping Iran’s surge as a regional power. The Trump administration concluded, egged on by its regional allies, that a revamped containment strategy against Iran was needed.
Tehran, on the other hand, saw this (rightly so) as an existential struggle where the containment strategy against it cannot be countered without confronting the existing regional order imposed through American hegemony with the Saudi-Israeli underpinning.
Paradoxically, Iran gets besieged without an expansion of its regional influence. The way out of this logjam lies in offering to Tehran a full integration with the world economy and a ‘grand bargain’ to make it a stakeholder in regional security, which it has been keenly seeking. But then, Iran is a rich country and robustly independent, and its surge would render archaic the US hegemony in Muslim West Asia.
Thus, the Trump administration has preferred unilateral pressure to diplomacy and is demanding that Tehran should renounce all its regional ambitions and strategy — plainly put, ‘capitulate’. But the bleak scenario was mitigated by Trump’s stated aversion to new West Asian wars. However, Trump is now systematically expanding the troop and fighter presence in Saudi Arabia. A report in the Military Times last week said, “The return of US forces to Prince Sultan Air Base is one of the more dramatic signs of America’s decision to beef up troops in the Middle East.” The report quoted the US’ top commander for the Middle East, Gen Frank McKenzie as saying that any possible future conflict with Iran, “is not going to be a ground manoeuvre war, it’s going to be a war of fires, it’s going to be a war of ballistic missiles, a war of unmanned aerial systems and cruise missiles.”
The US has sought permission from Baghdad for deployment of Patriot missiles in Iraq. The intention is to deny Iran any strategic depth and defang it from retaliating against any US attack.
From the Indian perspective, it is indeed a horrifying prospect that Saudi Arabia and other petrodollar Gulf states, where around nine million Indians live, could become the theatre of any US-Iran conflict. As things stand, the question is not whether but when a conflict can be expected — that is, assuming Trump gets re-elected in November.
Iran’s strategic patience is legion, historically speaking, and it is playing the long game.
Iran’s strategic patience is legion, historically speaking, and it is playing the long game. Iran’s resistance to the US’ containment strategy will continue and diplomacy with the US seems remote while Trump is in office, but talks may begin, conceivably, once he leaves the White House.
Meanwhile, a flashpoint can arise over Iran’s nuclear activities in the coming months. A legal loophole recently came to light whereby Washington can still force the reimposition of UN sanctions set to expire next year under Resolution 2331. The point is, although Washington walked out of the 2015 nuclear deal, R-2331 was never amended to reflect its withdrawal.
Iran has forewarned that it will kick out international nuclear inspectors, resume additional nuclear activities and quit the NPT in the event of a ‘snapback’ of UN sanctions. In short, the Trump administration is in a position to manufacture a crisis and to seize the moment to hit the previously announced 52 targets in Iran. Trump may even consider it politically expedient to do so as a display of ‘decisive leadership’ in the middle of his re-election bid.
Cover photo: The Iranian navy’s Kaman-class fast attack craft Gorz fires a Mehrab missile during the Velayat-90 naval war games in the Strait of Hormuz in southern Iran, January 1, 2012. The country’s military and Revolutionary Guards have since improved their defensive capabilities in spite of warnings from the U.S. and its regional allies.
Via Tribune India