Deceptive calm in West Asia

After the precise counterstrike by Iran on U.S. bases in Iraq, the two countries have avoided further drastic action although there is a scaling-up of rhetoric.

Published : Feb 04, 2020 07:00 IST

U.S. soldiers  at the site of Iranian bombing at Ain al-Asad airbase, in Anbar, Iraq, on January 13.

U.S. soldiers at the site of Iranian bombing at Ain al-Asad airbase, in Anbar, Iraq, on January 13.

FOLLOWING the targeted killing of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and the military response by Iran three days later, things are deceptively quiet in West Asia. After a barrage of Iranian missiles hit the two United States military bases in Iraq, U.S. President Donald Trump reacted immediately by tweeting that Iran had “decided to step down” and that there were no U.S. military casualties.

But now, the Pentagon has admitted that 11 of its troops suffered concussion injuries and had to be taken to hospitals in Kuwait and Germany for treatment. The injuries happened despite sufficient warning of an imminent Iranian missile attack. It was true that Iran wanted to keep U.S. military casualties to a minimum while sending the message that it had the wherewithal to successfully target U.S. bases and installations in the region.

Satellite pictures show that Iran’s targeting of the Ain al Asad airbase was precise. The strike damaged or destroyed seven buildings, of which three were aircraft maintenance hangars. The missiles hit only the portion of the base occupied by the Americans, leaving the area occupied by the Iraqi Army untouched. The 1,500 U.S. soldiers at the base were safely ensconced in bunkers as they were notified two hours in advance of the missile attacks. It was a message to the Trump administration that a war with Iran would not be a cakewalk.

Meanwhile, Trump has been busy backtracking on his claims that Soleimani was planning an “imminent” attack on U.S. targets in the region. His latest claim is that the killing of the Iranian military hero was justified because of his “horrible past”. Trump added that Soleimani had said many disparaging things about him and his administration. Now Trump is saying that it “really did not matter whether Soleimani posed an imminent threat” or not.

His Defence Secretary, Mark Esper, said that he had seen no evidence of an “imminent attack” against U.S. targets in the region. “Trump killed Soleimani because he could, because he wanted to reassert American military dominance—and because he thinks it helps his chances of re-election,” wrote Sonali Kolhatkar, a U.S. anti-war activist.

The U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, went one dangerous step further and said that the assassination of Soleimani was part of a broader strategy of deterring foes of the U.S. such as China and Russia. “Your adversary must understand not only you have the capacity to impose cost but in fact you are willing to do so,” Pompeo boasted in a speech delivered at the Hoover Institute in Stanford University. Pompeo is credited to be the real mastermind behind the Trump administration’s disastrous policy on Iran.

The Trump administration has tried unsuccessfully to shift the focus from the targeted killing of Soleimani to the tragic downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane over Tehran. The accident happened on the day Iran responded militarily to the assassination of Soleimani. The government of Iran accepted full responsibility for the accidental shooting down of the plane in which the majority of the 176 passengers who perished were either Iranian citizens or people of Iranian origin, many of them with dual Canadian citizenship. The Iranian forces were on hair-trigger alert after their successful missile attack on the U.S. bases. Trump had warned that U.S. forces would hit 52 Iranian sites “very hard and very fast” if Iran retaliated for Soleimani’s killing. Iran was ready for any eventuality.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani described the shooting down of the passenger jet a result of “human error” and was quick to apologise for the military error that resulted in the crash. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the passengers of the ill-fated plane would still have been alive but for the tensions triggered by the assassination of Soleimani in the region. He said that while the international community was against Iran possessing nuclear weapons, it also wanted to defuse “the tensions in the region brought about by U.S. actions as well”.

War crimes charges against Trump

Iran announced that it was going to file “war crimes charges” against Trump for the assassination of Soleimani at the International Criminal Court at The Hague. International legal experts are almost unanimous in their view that there is a “foolproof” case against the U.S. President. He has been repeatedly boasting about his premeditated decision to assassinate the Iranian war hero. Agnes Callamard, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, has tweeted that the killings of Soleimani and the Iraqi militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, most likely violated international human rights laws. She noted that the U.S. had so far not identified any “imminent threat” posed by Soleimani and Muhandis to its national interests.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, while delivering a public sermon, his first in eight years at the Imam Khomeini mosque, said that the image of the U.S. was “disgraced” internationally as it had to own up to its “terrorist action” of killing Soleimani. “In assassinating the valiant martyr, the Americans did not face him on the battlefield but committed their crime stealthily and in a cowardly way, which brought more disgrace to them,” Khamenei told the tens of thousands of people who had gathered at the historic mosque in Tehran. The Iranian military response, Khamenei said, “was a major blow to America’s fearsome superpower image”.

He had harsh words for Trump and his close associates for trying to encourage protests following the accidental downing of the civilian aircraft. Trump and Pompeo had tweeted support for a few hundred people who had demonstrated in Tehran immediately after Iran admitted to have accidentally shot down the Ukrainian passenger jet. The Trump administration had earlier resorted aggressively to social media to encourage Iranians to come on to the streets to protest against the austerity measures the government was forced to introduce as a result of the draconian economic sanctions imposed by the U.S.

Khamenei expressed his sorrow at the “bitter tragedy” of the plane crash. “As much as we were saddened and our hearts broken by the plane crash, our enemy was made happy, assuming that it had found a pretext to question the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps], the armed forces, and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Khamenei said in his speech.

He was also critical of the stance adopted by the three western European countries that are signatories to the the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) after the Trump administration carried out the assassination of Soleimani. In the second week of January, Britain, France and Germany announced that they were triggering the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal’s dispute resolution mechanism in response to alleged Iranian breach of the nuclear accord. Iran has not breached any restrictions placed by the JCPOA despite the crippling U.S. sanctions. It has not barred international inspectors from its nuclear research sites or ramped up uranium enrichment to 20 per cent.

The Iranians see the move of the three European powers as a threat to reimpose U.N.-mandated sanctions on the country. The Europeans, while being formally critical of the Trump administration for unilaterally tearing up the nuclear deal, have done nothing concrete to help the short-changed Iranians either economically or politically. The European moves against Iran are also a result of U.S. arm-twisting. The Trump administration, according to reports in the U.S. media, threatened to impose 25 per cent tariffs on cars manufactured in Europe if the three JCPOA signatories refused to take a tough stance on Iran.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has even suggested that the Iranians sit down and negotiate a new nuclear deal with the Trump administration. The right-wing British government has also gone ahead and declared the Hizbollah party in Lebanon “a terrorist outfit”. The party holds important ministerial posts in the Lebanese government. The Hizbollah movement is a key ally of Iran.

The Iranian government warned that the return of U.N.-mandated sanctions would force Iran to leave the JCPOA and quit the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). “If Europeans continue with their improper behaviour or send Iran’s file to the Security Council, we will withdraw from the NPT,” Javad Zarid, Iran’s Foreign Minister, told the Iranian media. Russia has criticised the European move, warning that it risked causing “a new escalation around the nuclear accord”. As a sop to Tehran, the three European signatories to the JCPOA stated that they had no intention of joining the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy on Iran. Iran, however, wants more than lip service from the European powers and wants them to play a meaningful role in mitigating the effects of the U.S. sanctions on the Iranian people.

And it is not business as usual once again for the U.S. in Iraq. The Iraqi Army has refused to go on joint missions with the U.S. Army. The demand for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country is getting louder by the day. The outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, has written a letter to the U.S. Secretary of State to start working on a road map for the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers. In the third week of January, the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr started mobilising. The fiery cleric, whose Saidoon bloc is the biggest group in the Iraqi parliament, has called for a “peaceful million-strong march” on Baghdad to demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops. “The skies, land and sovereignty are being violated by occupying forces every day,” Sadr wrote on Twitter. Iraqi Shia militia leaders, including Sadr, met in the Iranian city of Qom to coordinate action.

Iraqi militias continued with their attacks on U.S. forces. In the third week of January, they fired Katyusha rockets on an airbase in northern Iraq where U.S. forces are based, and inside Baghdad’s “green zone” where the U.S. embassy is based. Two rockets landed near the embassy. Earlier, there was another rocket attack on the Camp Taji airbase.

Even as the struggle to oust the U.S. troops from Iraq is going on, protesters have regrouped in Baghdad to demand the formation of a new government in Baghdad that would address the issues of unemployment and endemic corruption. The street protests, which started on October 1, 2019, are demanding an end to the quota-based political system introduced by the U.S. after it occupied the country. The protesters do not want Iraq to be made the battleground for a military conflict between the U.S. and Iran.

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