What Qassem Soleimani's assassination means for the region
Soon after news broke of the assassination of Iranian Gen Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in American strikes in Baghdad, Donald Trump told the media that he had taken the action “to stop a war”. However, as events following the killing have shown, it very much appears that the US president — by taking this questionable decision — has in fact declared war, putting his country on a collision course with Iran. And if saner counsel does not prevail, a new, incredibly destructive conflict is very much on the horizon of an already shattered Middle East.
The fury and outrage in Iran is palpable; Soleimani was no ordinary general and the fact that hundreds of thousands of people — if not millions — have taken to the streets of Iranian cities to pay their last respects to the Quds Force commander shows that the killing has struck a raw nerve with Iran’s people across political divides. In fact, the footage and pictures of the funeral processions and mourning assemblies are reminiscent of the massive funeral for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, in 1989. Such a comparison is strengthened because, by hitting Soleimani, the Americans have struck at a strong symbol of the nezam, as the Iranian establishment is known.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has promised “harsh revenge” for the American hit, and the Iranian missile strikes on US bases in Iraq early last Wednesday morning may just be the beginning of a long, bloody exchange. However, regardless of the scope of the reaction, it is quite apparent that any ratcheting up of tension in the Gulf, Iraq or Afghanistan — where American military assets are based in the region and can be targeted by Iran or its allied groups — will have a destabilising impact on the global economy, particularly on the countries of the region, including Pakistan.
But how did we get here? How did the situation develop where once upon a time, Iran, under the Pahlavi regime, was a loyal American client and today Washington and Tehran are eyeball to eyeball in a deadly game of geopolitical chicken? The key turning point in this highly tortured relationship came, of course, in 1979, when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fled Iran and, with the overthrow of the imperial order, an Islamic Republic was proclaimed by Ayatollah Khomeini.
FROM EMPIRE TO ISLAMIC REPUBLIC
Under the Pahlavi regime, Iran was considered part of a troika of principal American clients in the Middle East, with Israel and Saudi Arabia being the other two members of this triad. However, following the events of 1979, which witnessed a 180-degree change in Iran’s ideological and political orientation, the ties of the past were mostly severed, as the ayatollahs broke away from the orbit of what they termed shaytan-i-buzurg (the great Satan) to plot an independent course based on a mix of democracy, theology and revolutionary fervour.
The new reorientation of Iran sent shockwaves across the world, particularly in the US — which had just lost a valuable outpost in the Mideast — and the Gulf, as the Arab potentates feared that Iran’s new religious dispensation would aim to ‘export’ its revolution, sparking uprisings particularly among Shia Arab populations as well as across the greater Muslim world. For example, Pakistan’s Maulana Abul Al’a Maududi and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood had both welcomed Iran’s revolution. Hence, where Washington felt a threat to the Pax Americana in an energy-rich region, the Arab kings and shaikhs felt a challenge to their authority from a set-up that claimed to be both democratic and Islamic. Israel, which enjoyed warm relations with the Shah’s Iran, now had different ideas, as Islamic Iran called for the liberation of Al Quds, considered Israel’s ‘eternal capital’ by Zionists. This collective rivalry, with minor ups and downs, would set the trajectory for the next 40 years and, therefore, the current turmoil can be traced back to the events of 1979.
DECADES OF DISTRUST
In the aftermath of 1979, two major events can be considered watershed moments in the post-revolution relationship between the US and Iran, events that have coloured relations till this day: the US hostage crisis and the Iran-Iraq war. The hostage crisis emerged when Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Tehran, dubbed a ‘nest of spies’ by the revolutionaries, and held 52 Americans hostage for over 400 days; following Gen Soleimani’s assassination, Trump threatened to target 52 key Iranian sites, in a clear reference to the hostage crisis. This shows how much that event has affected the American psyche.
On the other hand, in 1980, Iraq — under military strongman Saddam Hussein — launched an invasion of Iran. Backed by the US, Western Europe and the Arabs, Saddam indulged in a brutal eight-year war of attrition with Khomeini’s Iran; by the time the guns had fallen silent, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians on both sides had perished. Incidentally, Gen Soleimani saw action during the Iran-Iraq War as a pasdar [Revolutionary Guard] and his battlefield experiences in this theatre would be used by the Iranian establishment decades down the line as it expanded its influence in the region. The result that emerged from the war was that the gulf of mistrust, between Iran on one side, and the US, Europeans and Arabs on the other, grew even wider, as both sides felt they could not trust each other. As for Saddam, in 2003, he was overthrown (and later executed) by the very hands that had at one time fed him, and the American entry into Iraq following the fall of the Baathist regime would set the scene for the current confrontation.
While George W. Bush had used the term ‘Axis of Evil’ as a pejorative for his geopolitical foes Iran, Iraq and North Korea, after the fall of Saddam in 200,3 two different axes have emerged in the Middle East: the pro-American bloc, which includes Israel and many of the Arab states, particularly the Gulf sheikhdoms, and the mahwar al-muqawamah, the Arabic term used for the ‘Axis of Resistance’, a grouping bringing together Iran, Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Today, Yemen’s Houthis and Iraq’s Shia militias grouped under the Hashd al-Shaabi, of which Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was a key commander, can also be added to this bloc. Interestingly, this grouping of mostly Arab states and militias is led by non-Arab Iran, indicating that ideology has trumped nationalism in this case. Much of the power plays and confrontation in the region today can be traced to the competition between these two blocs.
While a cold war has been raging between these blocs for over a decade — though there were moments of cooperation, for example in actions against the militant Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria — now, with the assassination of Soleimani, the threat of a hot war is very real, and the theatre could extend from the Levant in the north to Yemen in the south, and Afghanistan to the east and the Red Sea and Mediterranean in the west.
The dominant narrative primarily in the mainstream Western media is that Iran is a disruptive force in the Mideast, aiding armed groups fighting established governments (with Syria being the exception, where Tehran and its allied groups are backing Bashar al-Assad’s regime against rebel fighters). However, an alternative narrative, particularly from the Iranian perspective, is that the US has encircled Iran in a web of military bases and naval flotillas in Afghanistan, the Gulf and Iraq. Moreover Iran’s actions — for better or for worse — are confined to its neighbourhood; the US is extending its imperial reach thousands of miles from its borders.
While a cold war has been raging between these blocs for over a decade — though there were moments of cooperation, for example in actions against the militant Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria — now, with the assassination of Soleimani, the threat of a hot war is very real, and the theatre could extend from the Levant in the north to Yemen in the south, and Afghanistan to the east and the Red Sea and Mediterranean in the west. Though the World War III comparisons being made on social and some mainstream media forums may be a tad exaggerated, any hot war will definitely be a nightmare for all those who live in the vast geographic expanse described above.
CALLS FOR REVENGE, REGION ON EDGE
Aside from Iran itself, which is brimming with rage after the Quds Force commander’s killing, Tehran’s other allies have also issued calls for revenge. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, in an emotional speech, said the American military “will pay the price” while thousands of Houthi supporters marched in Yemen and held a funeral in absentia for Soleimani and al-Muhandis. On the other hand, Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg, while calling for ‘de-escalation’, has said in the same breath that the alliance stood behind the US in its confrontation with Iran. Clearly, a perfect storm is brewing.
However, the Gulf Arabs, normally ambivalent towards Iran if not openly hostile — with the feeling being mutual in Tehran — have distanced themselves from the US strike that assassinated Soleimani. Soon after the attack, the Qatari foreign minister was in Tehran to express “condolences” with the Iranian president over the killing of the Islamic Republic’s senior general. Similarly, Kuwait denied its military facilities were used as a base for the Iraq strikes. And even the Saudis — who have adopted a much harsher tone towards Iran ever since Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince — said they were not consulted before the American drone strikes.
These clarifications are relevant because all three Gulf states are American allies and host Washington’s military facilities. Their very public messaging to Iran couldn’t have been clearer: ‘We had nothing to do with your general’s assassination’, they appeared to be saying. As tensions mounted in earlier months, Iranian commanders had said US bases and vessels in the region were within the range of their missiles. The Gulf Arabs may despise Iran, and vice versa, but even they seem to have been rattled by the Americans’ adventurism in targeting Gen Soleimani and al-Muhandis, and have sent signals to Tehran saying they did not approve of the hit.
As for the economic impact of a new Gulf war, should oil and gas supplies be disrupted, the global economy will take a major hit, with petroleum prices reaching astronomic heights ... There is a strong possibility that the Strait of Hormuz, a key pathway for global petroleum trade, will be blocked. Consumers across the world will feel the pinch of actions against Iran at the petrol pump.
The brewing confrontation has, of course, put Pakistan in an unenviable position. For decades, Pakistan had hitched its wagons to America’s star, while also enjoying close relations with the Gulf Arabs, particularly the Saudis. On the other hand, relations with Iran have been lukewarm at the best of times in the post-1979 situation. Soon after the Soleimani assassination, the military’s spokesperson told the media that Pakistan will not let its soil be used against anyone. It is likely Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor was trying to scotch rumours that this country would be used as a staging post against Iran in case of conflict. The rumours had swirled after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had called Army Chief Gen Qamar Bajwa following the Baghdad assassination.
Pakistan has, of course, been in a similar situation five years ago. In 2015, when the Saudis decided to intervene in the Yemeni civil war to prop up the government in that country against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, there was tremendous pressure, particularly from the Saudis and the Emiratis, on Pakistan to participate in that military adventure. However, in a brave move, parliament voted against intervening in the Yemen war; the establishment seemed to also back the politicians’ assertion that getting involved in the Yemen imbroglio was a bad idea. History has shown that this was the right decision. Though Pakistan had offended some of its rich Arab friends, looking back, this country was absolutely right to stay away; the Yemen war — another front in the larger confrontation detailed above between the American- and Iran-led blocs — has become a byword for disaster. Thousands of Yemeni civilians have died, millions are hungry, sick and displaced while the Saudi-led coalition is nowhere close to victory against the Houthis. In fact, the UAE, which had earlier been in the forefront of the Yemen war, has quietly taken a back seat, perhaps realising that this war is unwinnable.
The Yemen experience shows that should Pakistan debate the issue in a democratic fashion, it can resist pressure to get involved in any campaign against Iran. Up till now the elected leadership has trod a fine line, calling for de-escalation. However, the real test will come if hostilities break out and the US, as well as the Arabs, start pressuring Pakistan to ‘do more’. This is something the leadership — civil and military — needs to plan for.
While Iran is a neighbour, the Arabs, particularly the Gulf potentates, exercise oversized influence over Pakistan’s policies. The most recent example of this came when the prime minister had to withdraw from the Kuala Lumpur Summit, as the Arabs felt the conclave was meant to replace the Saudi Arabia-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Pakistan’s withdrawal did not go down well with host Malaysia and Turkey, the other prime mover of the initiative. As Turkish President Recep Erdogan told the media, the Saudis had threatened Pakistan with expulsion of its citizens working in the kingdom and withdrawal of funds deposited in the State Bank of Pakistan. Riyadh denied this was the case and termed the reports ‘fake news’.
However, skipping a summit is one thing; becoming party to a conflict against a neighbour is completely another. It will take deft diplomacy from Pakistan to navigate the situation should a hot war break out against Iran.
CONSEQUENCES OF WAR
The fact is that Pakistan has one of the highest Shia Muslim populations in the world. Any attack on Shia-majority Iran will not go down well in this country. On the Sunday following Gen Soleimani’s assassination, thousands of protesters, holding aloft portraits of the murdered Quds Force commander, tried to march to the American consulate in Karachi. They were prevented by the administration from reaching the mission by a barricade of shipping containers. However, in fiery speeches, Shia leaders eulogised Soleimani, cursed America and warned the Pakistani government against attacking Iran. Moreover, Trump’s brash threat of bombing “cultural sites” in Iran has also raised eyebrows. If by this he means attacking revered religious places located in the Islamic Republic, then this will definitely elicit a severe reaction from Shia populations across the world and create a major security headache for global American interests.
Moreover, in case the Arabs, specifically Saudi Arabia, gets involved in a campaign against Iran, it will have a debilitating effect on fragile sectarian relations in Pakistan and other parts of the Muslim world, as the confrontation will be portrayed in ugly communal colours instead of as a geopolitical struggle for influence. As for the economic impact of a new Gulf war, should oil and gas supplies be disrupted, the global economy will take a major hit, with petroleum prices reaching astronomic heights. Can fragile economies like that of Pakistan absorb these major shocks? There is a strong possibility that the Strait of Hormuz, a key pathway for global petroleum trade, will be blocked. Consumers across the world will feel the pinch of actions against Iran at the petrol pump.
THE WAY FORWARD
Interestingly, the Soleimani assassination has created some unexpected outcomes. For one, the very open political divides within Iran — conservative, reformist, moderate etc — have been temporarily bridged as the outpouring of grief over the general’s killing has shown. Even those who may not agree or even oppose the Islamic Republic have condemned the killing due to nationalist tendencies.
Meanwhile in Iraq, by killing al-Muhandis, a major Iraqi figure, along with Soleimani, the Americans have also helped dampen anti-Iranian sentiment in that country. Only a few weeks ago there were cries of ‘Iran barra barra, Baghdad hurra hurra [Iran out, Baghdad free]’ ringing out in parts of Iraq. Yet before the ceremonies in Iran, Soleimani and al-Muhandis were given grand funerals in the holy cities of Kadhimiya, Najaf and Karbala, attended by a large number of Iraqis.
So how to proceed? The rhetoric from both sides — the US and Iran — is intense and there is a very high possibility that Iran will respond. After all, if it does not, the Iranian public will be asking some tough questions of their leaders. Already Iran has announced that it will withdraw from the landmark 2015 nuclear deal, a move that may give the Americans another excuse to pounce on Tehran.
To untangle this incredibly messy situation, masterful diplomacy is needed. However, in a world stage populated by demagogues, statesmanship and foresight are short commodities. Moreover, cynical observers are saying that Trump ordered the Baghdad hit to take the attention away from his domestic troubles. Even many within the US political system, especially Democrats, are questioning the logic of striking Soleimani at this juncture. Meanwhile, the hard right is celebrating, with neocon mascots like John Bolton beside themselves with joy.
From hereon, much will depend on Iranian retaliation. Crystal-ball gazing will be of little help, as the situation is likely to change rapidly over the next few days. However, what can be done in the long run is for the states of the region — Iran as well as the Arabs — to solve their affairs between themselves. Calling in the US as a global policeman will always complicate matters. Iran and the Arabs need to reach a modus vivendi where they assure each other of mutual security and respect their respective red lines. This may be wishful thinking at the moment but, in the long term, this may be the only viable solution.
The Trump administration has set a negative precedent by assassinating a senior commander of a foreign nation and violating the sovereignty of another to do the deed. If other states start to replicate these methods, more global anarchy is likely. Therefore, there needs to be an end to American exceptionalism. If the US is serious about making peace with Iran, then it should approach Tehran with respect, undo the sanctions that have choked the Iranian economy and shed plans of regime change in Iran. Unless there is some organic movement from within Iran, the system of Wilayat-i-Faqih that governs that country is not going anywhere.
Header: Qassem Soleimani prays at a mosque in the residence of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2015 | AP
The writer is Dawn’s Editor Karachi Metro & South
Generals and high-ranking officials have been targeted by assassins throughout history. But when a country vows to hit back at the world’s sole superpower — and follows up with it — after one of its senior military commanders have been hit, there is something more than meets the eye.
Ever since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, countless of Tehran’s soldiers, generals and military commanders have fallen due to enemy fire. For example, the death toll extracted by the Iran-Iraq War was massive, and those that fell during this brutal conflict have been lionised by the Iranian establishment. However, the reaction to the American assassination of Gen Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad has elicited a reaction rarely seen in Iran and beyond. This begs the question: just who was Soleimani?
The 62-year-old commander from Kerman taken out by the Americans rose through the ranks of the Sepah Pasdaran Inqilab-i-Islami (Islamic Revolutionary Guards) to become one of his country’s most powerful and influential generals. It should be noted that within the artesh, as the Iranian military is known, the Pasdaran, or guards, are a crack subformation sworn to protect the Islamic Revolution and its ideals. The Quds Force, the formation that Gen Soleimani commanded, is a specialised group within the Pasdaran, responsible for executing Iran’s foreign policy aims.
Gen Soleimani first saw action as a young pasdar during the war with Iraq. Some Western outlets have described him as the second most powerful man in Iran after the supreme leader. This contention is highly debatable, as Iran’s complex hybrid democratic-theocratic political system is complex and below the supreme leader there are several power centres. However, what is true is that, whatever the ayatollahs planned, it was Soleimani and generals of his rank that executed it in various theatres.
Views of Soleimani vary along ideological lines. For the pro-American camp, he was a conniving troublemaker creating problems for the US and its clients in the Middle East — a clear and present danger to the Pax Americana. In fact, the US and several of its allies had designated the Quds Force as a terrorist organisation.
However, to Iran and its ideological fellow travellers, he was a hero and master strategist, a punchy David facing America’s Goliath in the Mideast. For nationalist Iranians, he was upholding the defence of the motherland, while for those more ideologically prone, he was helping expand the influence of the Islamic Republic through groups like Hezbollah, the Houthis, Hashd al-Shaabi and Hamas. Moreover, for Shias he was a mudafi (defender) of the harams (holy shrines), marshalling the ranks of the faithful against the threat posed by the takfiri fighters of the so-called Islamic State and similar militant groups to the holy sites such as Zainabiya in Syria and the shires of Najaf, Karbala, Kadhimiya and Samarra in Iraq.
To sum up Soleimani’s personality, senior former Italian diplomat Marco Carnelos, who has served in Iraq, writing in Middle East Eye has, quoting Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a former Iraqi national security adviser, said this about the slain Iranian general’s characteristics: “frighteningly intelligent, ideologically driven and, most of all, with the quite rare [possession of] both tactical and strategic capabilities”.
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 12th, 2020