After Soleimani, US-Iran Tensions in the Middle East: Where is it heading to?

 By Dr. Manjari Singh
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On 3 January, the United States officially accepted to have conducted targeted drone strikes at the Baghdad airport which killed Iranian Quds Forces Commander, Major General Qassem Soleimani. As pointed out by both Pentagon and the White House, the attack that was carried out on the orders of President Donald Trump also resulted in the killing of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Deputy Chief of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an Iraqi based force against Islamic State (IS). He was also the commander of Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah militia group, an Iraqi based Hezbollah military wing. General Soleimani was alleged to be the architect of Hezbollah and had been allegedly involved in many planned attacks against the Americans, Arabs and Israelis. He was seen as a perpetrator of conflicts in the region since 2003; yet, he was not designated a terrorist by the US. Muhandis and his organisation Kata’ib Hezbollah, on the other hand, were branded as a terrorist led outfit by the US and other international actors since 2009.[1]

The US airstrikes were in retaliation to alleged Iranian hands in attacking the US embassy in Baghdad. According to the US, it was Soleimani who along with Muhandis and others planned the embassy attack of 31 December. The two were accused by the US to have been actively involved in the 27 December attack on K1 military base in Kirkuk city in Iraq which killed an American military “contractor” and wounded several others.[2]

As per the US administration, these airstrikes were a “defensive action to protect American forces and American citizens in Iraq,” and also to deter Iran and especially General Soleimani from plotting several other attacks on US diplomats and citizens in the region. Similarly another round of drone strike killed five key Iraqi militia leaders. However it is, the killing of General Soleimani that is to be seen as a major blow to the Iranians by the Trump administration. For, it is the Quds commander’s death that has all the potential to change the course of Middle East.[3]

Assassinations and targeted killings to gain political and military superiority or leverage are not uncommon in the new age of hybrid warfare and is a common phenomenon in the Middle East. If so, then what is it that makes Soleimani’s death a special case? General Soleimani was one of the most powerful military personalities not just in Iran or its allies in the region but for the entire Middle East. Considered only next to Ayatollah Khamenei in terms of power; some regarded him as best suited for presidential candidature. To be honest, “Soleimani was not just a military commander but also a major actor in the Iranian forces and his death could bring the anti-America factions in Iran and Iraq closer to each other.”[4]

The General was involved in major Iranian operations in Iraq since 2003, that is, post US invasion of Iraq and ouster of Saddam Hussein. He oversaw Shia militia operations against America which allegedly claimed many American lives following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Soleimani was also called the architect of Hezbollah in Lebanon since 2006 and is said to have played key role in strengthening the organisation against Israel. He was also involved in building the “land-bridge” through Iraq till Gaza to make the Shia crescent a reality. In that context, he is said to have trained and strengthened many militant groups right from Gaza in Israel, Golan Heights in Syria, Southern Lebanon, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Iran, northern Yemen and western Afghanistan to form a Shia crescent. The Iranian General was indeed a tall figure in the Iranian military and politics. He was viewed as the mastermind for Iranian regional security strategy, and thus played a major role in Iranian revisionist and expansionist policy.

His importance to Iran is reflected in the way his funeral was conducted in the holy city of Qoms. The love and respect for a slain leader in the Middle East can be well assessed by the way their funeral is arranged. Many tall leaders’ funeral ceremony in the region such as King Hussein of Jordan, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and others saw huge gatherings and mourning for several days. Similarly, thousands of General Soleimani’s supporters gathered in Qoms to pay their homage during the funeral procession. For the first time in Iranian history red religious flags were unfurled to mark the death of Iran’s top general and Iraqi militant leaders. These flags are only to be taken down once the “death is avenged”. Hanging at the top of the oldest Shia mosque in Qom, the red religious flag signifies a warning call for the US to avenge the death of slain leaders and is indicative of a “severe battle to come”.[5]

However, will these tensions between the US and Iran lead to a “severe battle” or an all-out war is questionable. Though, on social media highly irresponsible posts and memes have been circulated which tout the escalations as a starting point of World War III. However, the trajectories have shown that owing to many constraints at both the ends, an all-out war is out of question. However, a full-blown proxy with heightened escalation from both sides cannot be ruled out! Persian Iran is mourning! But, one cannot ignore that martyrdom is the basic tenet of Shia Islam and vengeance in that context is taken seriously by the followers. The flag slogan “O, Avengers of Hussein” signifies that the death of Soleimani has been equated with that of Hussein, the son of Prophet Ali and Grandson of Prophet Mohammad.[6] In International politics, optics and symbolisms matters!

While the developments in the region are still unfolding, nevertheless, what are the likely scenarios that could build? If escalations happen, what will be the reaction of regional and global actors? What will make the developments in the Gulf and the Middle East more complex? Since the tensions have taken place in Iraqi territory and that the Iraqi militia leader Hadi al-Ameri, the head of Paramilitary Badr Organisation has promised to avenge the deaths, Baghdad will probably remain the hotspot for some time. The allegedly “unauthorised” US airstrikes have already affected Iraq-US relations and the incumbent Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi has called US strikes an attack on his country’s sovereign territory. Iraqi parliament in Baghdad discussed the American strikes and unanimously voted to expel US forces form its soil. Iraq, therefore, is officially involved in trying to deescalate the conflict as there is likelihood that the war will start from its territory and it cannot afford a war in present circumstances.

One may recall that the US President Donald Trump until recently, was hell-bent to disassociate from the Middle East and had called back American troops from Syria on the pretext of “not fighting others wars”. The President believed that the US has been investing heavily in other’s wars and its high time that the regional players “own up to their own mess”. Now, that the US has refocused its attention in the region with another 3,000 American troops authorised by the White House to enter the region; Israel and Saudi led coalition will most probably be called to prove their allegiance!

Last year saw attacks on American allies in the region; especially on Saudi Aramco’s  two most strategically protected sites in the world. Thus, further evoking Iranian fury, threatens the strategic assets of American allies in the region. Post September attacks, Saudi Arabia was wary of protecting its water supplies which if hit can cause acute water crisis in major parts of the country. This is the reason why these countries wish to control the situation through negotiation. Benjamin Netanyahu too has outrightly disassociated himself and his country’s involvement in the airstrikes. Even though, he applauded American airstrikes that killed Soleimani.[7]

Iran, on the other hand, will mostly seek help from its friends Russia and China! Both the countries have all the reasons to play a major role in the region: First, to have a clout in the region; second, to settle individual scores with the US; third, to thrive on war economies; fourth, region’s security is paramount for their own economic stability especially for China. While China under President Xi Jinping has already raised its concerns owing to its investments in naval exercises in the region, Russia has shown constraint in terms of giving an official statement.[8] Iran is also likely to get some help from the activated militia leaders in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, the loyalists of Soleimani who want to avenge his death. Thus, there is a possibility that there will be more binding of these forces to form the Shia crescent and hurt America and its allies in the region! Turkey, of course may join in on the pretext of saving Islam.

In all this, what is India’s stand? With its non-interventionist policy, India has been enjoying good equations with almost all the countries in the region. However, situation is likely to change, and New Delhi will have to make tough choices and quick decisions. It is well known that the slain military leader had a soft approach towards New Delhi and had gone out of way to help India. He played important role in trying to leverage the case of Commander Kulbhushan Jadhav and played crucial role during Operation Raahat. Therefore, Soleimani’s death is a blow to India’s diplomatic connections with Iran.

India’s energy security is crucial to its development as a regional power. With tensions escalating, India will be in a difficult situation. Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz and if that happens, New Delhi will be short of energy supplies! This calls for a major storage of oil on India’s part. The oil prices have already risen to US$70 per barrel[9] and this will have a greater effect on Indian economy. Possible damage to Chabahar Port is another major concern for India owing to its huge investments.[10]

Another concern for New Delhi is its diaspora. Over around 8.5-9 million Indians live in the gulf alone. If crisis escalates, India needs to be prepared to evacuate them! There have been several instances wherein India was caught off guard especially during Kuwait Crisis of 1991 and Operation Raahat of 2015.[11] With no robust evacuation policy in place until now, New Delhi needs to be lock, stock and barrel ready for such an eventuality.

Lastly, it has taken decades for India to establish an independent relation with all the countries in the Middle East. New Delhi is no longer seen through the prism of Islamabad by the major players in the region.[12] Hence, this is the time when India needs to be careful and watchful of Pakistan taking advantage of the situation. There is a need on India’s part to keep itself engaged with all the countries in the region with focused attention. Unlike Pakistan and Afghanistan, India does not share a border with Iran; hence there is no direct threat to its security. Therefore, it is justifiable that as of now New Delhi did not make any strong statements and only called for peace and practice of restraint for both the parties in the dispute.[13] For both Pakistan and Afghanistan that share a border with Iran; President Trump’s announcement of having identified “52 possible targets to hit Iran”, is a direct threat to these countries. The leaders of both these countries called for peace and showed their displeasure to be used “against anyone”.[14]

Thus, the growing Iran-US tension in the Middle East may not result in an all-out war but it will have a global effect. In a heightened escalated form, several countries in the region will have to play major role. The Shia and Sunni crescent is likely to have a well-defined boundary. Thus, prevention of further escalation will be of interest to many, both in the region and outside. Hence, the onus lies on the diplomatic skills of the countries globally to persuade both the parties to deescalate. India needs to join the bandwagon as it is likely to be affected the most and will have to make tough choices if situation deteriorates in the Gulf.

References:

[1] Al Jazeera (2020), “Iran’s Qassem Soleimani Killed in US Air Raid at Baghdad Airport”, 3 January, Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/01/iraq-3-katyusha-rockets-fired-baghdad-airport-200102232817666.html, Accessed on 6 January 2020.

[2] Al Jazeera (2020), “US-Iran Tensions: Timeline of Events Leading to Soleimani Killing”, 4 January, Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/01/iran-tensions-timeline-events-leading-soleimani-killing-200103152234464.html, Accessed on 6 January 2020.

[3] Zachary Cohen et al (2020), “US Drone Strike Ordered by Trump Kills Top Iranian Commander in Baghdad”, CNN, 4 January, Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/01/02/middleeast/baghdad-airport-rockets/index.html, Accessed on 6 January 2020.

[4] Author’s Interview Published in the Epoch Times. Please Refer to: Venus Upadhyay (2020), “Soleimani Killing Changes US-Middle East Dynamics: Experts”, The Epoch Times, 3 January, Available at: https://www.theepochtimes.com/soleimani-killing-beginning-of-us-obliterating-all-hostile-sectarian-militias-in-iraq-and-weakening-of-hostile-iran-expert_3192564.html, Accessed on 6 January 2020.

[5] Frank Miles (2020), “As Red Flags Unfurl, Will Iran Retaliate After Soleimani Killing?”, Fox News, 6 January, Available at: https://www.foxnews.com/world/as-red-flags-unfurl-will-iran-respond-badly-after-soleimani-killing, Accessed on 7 January 2020.

[6] Claudia Otto and Tamara Qiblawal (2020), “Iran Has Hoisted a Red Religious Flag: Here is What That Means”, CNN, 5 January, Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/middleeast/live-news/us-iran-soleimani-tensions-live-intl-01-05-20/h_e72364ee83f20eb0359cec34bfb1ae71, Accessed on 6 January 2020.

[7] Yaron Steinbuch (2020), “Netanyahu Praises Trump for Killing Qassem Soleimani, Says Israel Stands by US”, New York Post, 3 January, Available at: https://nypost.com/2020/01/03/netanyhau-praises-trump-for-killing-qassem-soleimani-says-israel-stands-by-us/, Accessed on 6 January 2020.

[8] Jonathan Fulton (2020), “China’s Response to the Soleimani Killing”, Atlantic Council, 6 January, Available at: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/chinas-response-to-the-soleimani-killing/, Accessed on 6 January 2020.

[9] The Financial Times (2020), “Oil Tops $70 a Barrel as Middle East Tensions Rattle Market”, 7 January, Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/716aaeb8-3023-11ea-9703-eea0cae3f0de, Accessed on 7 January 2020.

[10] Indrani Bagchi (2020), “Iranian Commander Qassem Soleimani’s Assassination: Why India Should be Prepared to Act on Multiple Fronts”, The Economic Times, 4 January, Available at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/iranian-commander-qassem-soleimani-assassination-why-india-should-be-prepared-to-act-on-multiple-fronts/articleshow/73102436.cms.

[11] Suhasini Haider (2020), “India Caught in the Crossfire as Trump Invokes Delhi Post Soleimani Killing”, The Hindu, 4 January, Available at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/trump-invoking-delhi-after-soleimani-killing-puts-new-delhi-in-a-fix/article30479336.ece, Accessed on 7 January 2020.

[12] Md Muddassir Quamar (2018), “The Changing Nature of the Pakistan Factor in India-Gulf Relations: An Indian Perspective”, Asian Affairs, Vol. 49, Issue 4, pp. 625-644.

[13] Dipanjan Roy Chaudhary (2020), “With 10 Million Indians in Gulf, MEA Calls for Restraint After Soleimani’s Death”, The Economic Times, 4 January, Available at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/with-10m-indians-in-gulf-mea-calls-for-restraint-after-soleimanis-death/articleshow/73092963.cms, Accessed on 6 January 2020.

[14] The Economic Times (2020), “After Afghanistan, Pakistan Says It Will Not Allow Its Soil To Be Used Against Anyone”, 6 January, Available at: https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/after-afghanistan-pakistan-says-it-will-not-allow-its-soil-to-be-used-against-anyone/articleshow/73108389.cms?from=mdr, Accessed on 7 January 2020.

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Dr. Manjari Singh is an Associate Fellow at Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) and she obtained her doctorate from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi for her thesis on Sustainable Development in Jordan: A Study of Social, Economic and Environmental Dimensions. Dr. Singh is a Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF) Fellow and is specializes in sustainable development and the Middle East. Her research papers have appeared in international journals such as Contemporary Review of the Middle East, Mediterranean Quarterly, and Migration and Development. She has co-authored Persian Gulf 2018: India’s Relations with the Region (Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan) and has co-edited Islamic Movements in the Middle East: Ideologies, Practices and Political Participation (New Delhi: Knowledge World) and Challenges to National Security: Young Scholars Perspective (New Delhi: Pentagon Press)She also serves as Assistant Editor of Contemporary Review of the Middle East (Sage Publications) and Managing Editor of CLAWS Journal (KW Publishers).