Tension in Iran

Looming war clouds in Iran

Print edition : January 31, 2020

Donald Trump speaking about the situation with Iran at the Grand Foyer of the White House in Washington, D.C., on January 8. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

From a public protest against the military conflict with Iran in Times Square, New York, on January 8. Photo: AFP

Even as Iran has been forced to respond to the United States following the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, there is a deep sense of dismay for the future that promises either an asymmetrical war or the continuation of the hybrid war by the U.S.

It is impossible to capture the magnitude of the resolve and tension within Iran now. The assassination of Iran’s general Qassem Soleimani shook the nation. His funeral ceremony—which stretched over days and across Iran—became a political rally, drawing millions of people onto the streets to call for revenge. Their mood was not to avenge the death of Soleimani alone; it was the explosion of pent-up energy against living in a country that has been placed under a death threat since 1979. The United States regularly threatens to obliterate Iran. It has conducted a hybrid war against the country, with sanctions, embargoes, sabotage, assassinations and threats. The impact of a hybrid war is that it produces a general sensibility of tension in the country. No Iranian, whatever their views on the Islamic Republic, is immune from this neurological trauma. The massive rallies for Soleimani were outlets for this deep sense of siege.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, wept at the final funeral service in Tehran. They were sincere tears for his friend Soleimani, but they also channelled the sense of fear and anger that had become general in Iran. In November 2019, the Iranian government cut subsidies to fuel, which brought people out on the streets against this austerity measure. A crackdown from the state resulted in many deaths. The epicentre of these protests was in Ahvaz, a city in the south-west of Iran near the Iraqi border. When Soleimani’s body was brought into the city, it appeared as if the entire population of over a million had taken to the streets. If anything, the assassination of Soleimani brought the people of Iran together, the deep wells of patriotism on display even in a town that had just seen severe protests.

Maximum pressure

U.S. President Donald Trump, who personally authorised the assassinations of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units (Hashd al-Shaabi), has executed a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran since he came to office in 2017. Threats of bombardment of Iran came along with the hybrid war, which included sanctions, sabotage, and information warfare. In May 2018, Trump’s government deepened the economic war against Iran, trying to isolate the oil-producing state from the world. Iran’s economy contracted, leading to serious economic problems for the Iranian people. The International Monetary Fund calculated that Iran’s economy shrank by 9.5 per cent in 2019, a consequence of Washington’s end to waivers for countries that had continued to buy Iran’s oil.

Tehran’s policy towards the U.S. hybrid war had been characterised by the idea of “strategic patience”. This policy changed in the second half of 2019, when the United Kingdom, at the behest of the U.S., seized the Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya 1 off the coast of Gibraltar. Iran began taking steps to defend its coastline and shipping lanes, including the downing of a U.S. drone that flew into Iranian airspace. The U.S. began to sanction senior Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and pressure European states to break off any attempt to circumvent the U.S. sanctions regime against Iran. As the “maximum pressure” policy increased, Iran’s “strategic patience” dissipated.

Iran’s influence 

Ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the West has cultivated allies on both of Iran’s borders to hem the country in. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was paid by the Gulf Arabs and urged by the West to invade Iran, while anti-Iranian forces (including the Taliban) were cultivated in Afghanistan. When the U.S. government overthrew the Taliban (in 2001) and Saddam Hussein (in 2003), Iran’s Islamic Republic, for the first time since it was formed, was able to extend its influence from the Hindu Kush to the Mediterranean. The U.S. fought these two wars in 2001 and 2003, but Iran won them.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) deepened its already close ties with pro-Iranian political groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. General Soleimani played a key role in the expansion of Iranian influence in this period. He worked closely with groups such as Iraq’s Kataib Hizbollah, founded by al-Muhandis, particularly after the revolts in the Arab world in 2011 and the war on Syria from 2012 onwards.

The myth of Soleimani grew alongside Iran’s influence. He became an outsized presence, the symbol of Iran’s strategic gains in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Iran assisted militia groups with funds and training, building up paramilitary forces that, in the context of warfare, were able to translate this into political power. Lebanon’s Hizbollah, for instance, attained regional prestige thanks to its leadership in the defence of Lebanon from the Israeli attack in 2006; it now plays a key role in the Lebanese government. Iraqi political groups that lived in exile in Iran from the time that Saddam Hussein rose to power in 1978 returned to Iraq after the fall of Saddam and then rose rapidly to dominate the Iraqi political institutions from the 2005 elections onwards. On the ground in Iraq, the Hashd al-Shaabi developed immense social authority for their role in the anti-U.S. occupation civil war and then in the war against the Islamic State. Amongst them are three powerful mass organisations—Kataib Hizbollah, Munazzama Badr, and Asaib Ahl al-Haq. It is estimated that there are at least 1,50,000 fighters under arms in these pro-Iranian Iraqi paramilitary organisations. Soleimani and his leadership team understood the value of building up these proxy forces so as to counter the massive U.S. deployments in West Asia and also to transfer the proxy power into political power.

But of course, this was not Soleimani’s doing alone, but that of the discipline of the IRGC and its influence over the pro-Iranian militia groups. The assassination of Soleimani and Al-Muhandis will not impact the actual operations of the pro-Iranian groups and of Iran. Indeed, it has already angered them further. Soleimani’s deputy, Brigadier General Esmail Gha’ani, has been appointed to replace him. Gha’ani is a highly decorated veteran of the Iraq-Iran war and has worked closely with Soleimani for two decades.

Washington’s miscalculation

Soleimani had been called to Baghdad from Damascus by Iraq’s Prime Minister to start new discussions towards a de-escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Iran. He was carrying a diplomatic passport when he was assassinated. It has been suggested that Saudi Arabia was eager for the Iraqi government to help bring down these tensions, which means that there was some consensus in the region that the “maximum pressure” campaign from Washington was already endangering the status quo. Saudi Arabia wanted to weaken Iran, but it did not want a full-scale war. The assassination of Soleimani had the opposite effect. It has brightened the red light of warning. That the U.S. assassinated a man on a diplomatic mission shows the recklessness of the Trump administration.

The Iranians were forced to respond. They fired short-range missiles at two U.S. bases. The U.S. hastily deployed more troops in the region. Backchannel conversations between Iran, Iraq, the U.S. and U.S. allies in the region (Saudi Arabia and Israel) as well as Qatar went on feverishly for days and nights after Soleimani’s death. No one wants war, but war begins to seem more and more inevitable. On the one hand, the U.S. says it will not extend its attacks, and on the other there are maddening threats. The unpredictability is frightening for the Iranian people and the people of the region. When Iran fired its missiles into the U.S. bases in Iraq, people went onto their rooftops in Tehran to chant their prayers to God; it was a moment of bewilderment for a people who have long anticipated an apocalyptic war. A red flag was flown at the Jamkaran mosque in Qom, a symbol that a long war was about to begin, a symbolic gesture that has not been seen for centuries. A deep sense of dismay for the future comes alongside the development of the futility that Iran will face an unending barrage from the U.S., either as an asymmetrical war or as the continuation of the hybrid war. Either way, the trauma has to be acknowledged. Iran’s attitude to the world is built on this trauma as much as on the rational manner in which its diplomats have built alliances across the world.

Those alliances are the basis of Washington’s miscalculation. Iran has been part of a movement to create an international platform against sanctions, which includes countries such as Cuba and Venezuela. But beyond that, Iran understands that it is the route for China’s Belt and Road Initiative and for Russia’s new advances in West Asia (especially in Syria). Neither China nor Russia would like to see Iran experience the fate of Iraq; both have their own material interests in the Islamic Republic. China has just pledged $400 billion to refurbish Iran’s petrochemical infrastructure; little wonder therefore that China called for calm in the region. Russia is going to invest at least $50 billion in the same industry, which is why it, too, has called for dialogue. These Eurasian powers know that if there is a war in Iran, it would essentially spill over and threaten the new economic and political developments driven by the Chinese-Russian alliance. Iran has certainly moved into a deep relationship with China and Russia, and even as it is proudly independent, it relies upon these countries to be the shield against a full-scale U.S. attack.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu hastened to Tehran to urge the Iranians not to escalate further, even if they felt that such an escalation was within their rights as a party that had been attacked (through the assassination of their general). Turkey, which has been eager to normalise trade with Iran, does not want to see more chaos on its borders. Nor does Qatar, which would have a front seat in any devastation wrought by a U.S. attack on Iran. Nor indeed does Pakistan, whose Foreign Ministry declined to “take a position” in the tensions but knows fully well that any war on Iran will expand into Afghanistan and then into Pakistan. None of these neighbours can afford more chaos or the gates of hell widening for their people.

Asymmetrical war

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Congress passed a budget that included the largest military expenditure in world history. The U.S. government will soon spend $1 trillion every year on its military force. This money buys the U.S. the capacity to destroy any country with the mass of its sophisticated weapons and from bases that criss-cross the entire planet. No country can fully defend itself against a full-scale U.S. attack.

Iran, meanwhile, is in the midst of an economic contraction. Its military spending is merely $13 billion, although it has developed indigenous weapons and so does not rely on expensive imports. Clearly, the U.S. is capable of destroying Iran. Trump’s war crime tweets about attacking 52 Iranian cultural sites is just a small indication of the U.S.’ capacity. No one doubts that. But what the Iranians will be able to do should be enough to stay the hand of any belligerent power. For instance, Iran said that if the U.S. retaliates against the Iranian civilian population, then Iran will attack Dubai (United Arab Emirates) and Haifa (Israel). 

It does not need to say this, but if there is such a total war against Iran, its paramilitary allies from Lebanon to Afghanistan will launch strikes on U.S. interests and on U.S. allies. A war is no longer to be understood as being between two armies: the U.S. can launch an asymmetrical assault on Iran, which the Iranians cannot answer in kind; what Iran will launch is tantamount to a regional guerilla war, in which its own weaponry will be used against U.S. allies in the region, and pro-Iranian paramilitaries will be used to create chaos across continents. It is only a threat of a regional guerilla war—whose architect Qassem Soleimani was—that can prevent what looks like a world war.

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