A Killing in Baghdad

In your own language

Eduardo del Buey
Photo: Ap
La Jornada Maya

Monday, January 3rd, 2020

U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, viewed by many as the second in command in Iran after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.

Arguably this killing was justified given Soleimani’s direct involvement and direction of terrorist activities that led to the killing or injury to many Americans and others in a variety of countries over the past three decades.

Nevertheless, to be successful in achieving a country’s overall objectives, this type of severe action must be part of an overall strategy to ensure that the final outcome doesn’t result in endangering the aggressor state’s interests or safety.

In this case, the degree of urgency and timing of President Trump’s actions create many questions and leave us wondering how far and how deep any possible ensuing violence will go, and whether it might engulf the world in a wider war.

By now, it is no secret that President Trump can make capricious decisions which oftentimes are at odds with informed strategic thinking or long-term planning. One is allowed to ask why this timing, what assessment of possible Iranian responses was made and what the US strategy now is.

To date, apart from some long winded, un-Presidential tweets by the President, little has been said by the US administration about the immediacy of the threat and its overall plan of action.

To further complicate things, the President and his Administration lack credibility given the President’s constant lies and repeated concern only with his own personal or political gain, making it hard for people to believe most any rationale for this decision.

Indeed, with the House of Representatives about to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate, Trump once again seems to have succeeded in changing the conversation by throwing the United States into a deeper presence in the Middle East despite his constant statements that he would pull out of the region, referring to the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq as major foreign policy errors by his two immediate predecessors.

Unless the Iranian reaction can be contained, this change in conversation now threatens US national security and perhaps the security of all should the result of his actions and Iranian and Iraqi reactions result in an increase of terrorist activities globally.

And his inability to control himself may have has just given Iran its most significant moral victory in years. On January 5th, the Iraqi parliament voted to expel US forces from Iraq – a long-term goal of Iran´s and Soleimani. While this resolution is non-binding, it underscores the concerns of Iraq’s Shia majority that the US used Iraqi territory to kill Soleimani.

If the resolution is ultimately successfully implemented, occurs, the balance of power in the Middle East could be seriously affected and the stability of the region put into question. And erstwhile US allies in the region – specifically Saudi Arabia – need stability in the region to ensure the secure flow of oil from Saudi oil fields through the Straits of Hormuz.

And, if the resolution is ultimately implemented, Trump’s decision will have contributed to the success of one of Soleimani’s objectives – to remove the USV presence from Iran’s western border.

Another consequence of Trump’s lack of self-control is his tweet in which he threatened to attack fifty-two Iranian cultural sites if Iran retaliates against the US killing of Soleimani. International observers have said that this would be a war crime. Only a few days ago tens of thousands of Iranians marched against the regime. Trump’s tweet has diminished the power of the opposition as Iranians from all sectors of society oppose the threat to destroy Iran’s cultural heritage.

Trump’s America First policy has also isolated it from many traditional allies who, other than Israel, do not appear overly enthusiastic at the prospects of armed conflict with Iran and the instability that this could bring to the region.

Indeed, at this point in time, after deriding his European and NATO allies since taking office, Western European states and Canada have not responded enthusiastically to Trump’s play. Consequently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized NATO allies for not immediately falling into line to support the current US initiative.

As such, should a shooting war ensue, there is no guarantee that traditional US allies will participate or even support the US. While this may be true for members of the European Union, (EU) British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab backtracked on his initial lukewarm statement of support for the US position when he reportedly realized that supporting Trump is essential if post-Brexit UK is to sign a free trade agreement with the US.

So, the US government’s support is mainly from the President’s electoral base and, perhaps, from Israel and the UK. But tellingly, FOX News, his main supporter in the media has criticized this latest move all while the State Department is depleted and incapable of generating the diplomatic support that the country will need to secure its position should the conflict escalate.

The situation in Iran is not any more encouraging.

According to a knowledgeable source with direct experience in Iranian affairs, the majority of Iranians are millennials and they have little sympathy for the revolution that brought the Ayatollahs to power in 1979. They never shared the oppression of the Shah’s regime or the religious fervor that swept Iran in 1979. In addition, the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 occurred before their birth. The resulting national unity has long since dissipated and it is not a point of reference to younger Iranians who have joined the global internet community with great enthusiasm.

Young Iranians are very interested in western ways and follow them closely on line, through their travels, and social media connections. Hundreds of thousands study in the West and many of the current political leaders studied in the United States and understand that country far better than their religious leaders. Yet they are currently divorced from the levers of power and influence and are not consulted by the regime in the making of foreign policy.

As well, many younger Iranians are upset that their government is squandering resources on Arab states from Iraq to Yemen at a time of harsh economic sanctions against their country. Iranians are not Arabs and have traditionally disliked their Arab neighbors and Sunni coreligionists. So, while Soleimani was a charismatic and popular leader, his cause – to export the Iranian revolution to Arab states at the expense of the Iranian tax payer is not as popular a policy with Iran’s millennials as one might assume from the current displays of mourning by Iranians at his untimely passing.

There is also a major disconnect between the government and the power structure firmly in the hands of the Ayatollah’s and their allies. The government is seen with suspicion by the religious authorities who wield real power. It has little room to maneuver and cannot be seen as a viable interlocutor.

The US reportedly sought to initiate a dialogue with Soleimani in order to advance their interests and engage in a conversation with someone at the center of Iran’s power structure. They were roundly rebuffed. Soleimani and the religious leadership had and continue to have little confidence in the Trump administration since it pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal (that Iran was respecting) and imposed harsh sanctions.

A major question is if the Ayatollahs will see confrontation with the US as a way to consolidate public support at a time when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in major Iranian cities protesting the theocratic regime.

One must wonder how Iranians would react to a direct military confrontation with the United States. There is no guarantee that masses of Iranians would rally to the defense of a religious leadership that has little relevance in their daily lives or to a government divorced from the levers of power.

So, another major question is, will Iranians be more loyal to Iran, or more opposed to its leaders? Public support in a divided society will be a major issue for the religious leadership to consider as it mulls its next moves.

Geopolitically, the situation is delicate.

Just three weeks ago Iran joined Russia and China in joint naval exercises in the Persian Gulf. This nascent military alliance may have contributed to the US actions and will almost guarantee that the United Nations Security Council remains divided on the issue of a US-Iranian conflict, with both Russia and China vetoing any resolution that seeks to bring the UN to the US side.

So, there we have it.

Two leadership structures that today are not functioning within rational and logical parameters, each governed by leaders who seek to remain in power at all costs, and who do not appear to accept any foreign or even domestic influence in their decisions or policies.

Each governing highly divided societies and each looking to retain power through the strategic use of force.

Iran has a formidable military and allies throughout the Shiite arc of influence from Afghanistan to Lebanon. In addition, and, perhaps, more importantly, it has a world-wide network of allies in the form of proxy militias and fighters at its command.

Iran need not wage a head on war with the US as it would likely lose.

However, it only has to begin a war of attrition against Western interests aiming to demoralize and weaken the resolve of Americans and their allies everywhere.

Should they decide to play it smart, Iran will avoid targeting US military, diplomatic or even civilian interests that would arouse the ire of the American public. Iranian leaders might, rather, target President Trump’s financial interests at home and abroad through cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns to hit the President where it hurts – his wallet.

That way, Iran would separate the President’s interests from those of the American public and avoid the anti-Iranian sentiments that broke out in the US during the US Embassy hostage crisis in 1979.

American voters would likely reject any attempt by the administration to use US military or intelligence forces to protect President Trump’s properties should they become a target. Indeed, such a move could backfire in the leadup to the Presidential election in November.

As well, cyberattacks could be calibrated to avoid harming the interests of middle- and lower-class Americans, thus ensuring that an attack on the interests of Trump’s wealthy supporters. This would also spare Iran from a massive anti-Iranian backlash since the interests of the average American would be nil and no lives would be lost.

Such a move would allow Iran to meet its objectives while separating Trump from the majority of the US public and pushing him into a corner.

The next few weeks will be a test of our collective patience.

Iran has threatened retaliation and I have no doubt that this will happen.

The US has yet to announce an overall strategy and set of objectives. When he announced the killing, President Trump said that he did not do it to start a war but, rather, to end one.

Given his history of lying and changing positions, however, this is hard to believe.

This especially when he is unable to show where he wants to lead the US and, indeed, the world, in this escalating struggle against Iranian-backed political interference and terrorist activities abroad and an entrenched theocracy within Iran itself.

One would hope that saner voices will prevail on both sides.

However, at the time of writing, it is almost impossible to identify sane voices either within the US administration or within the Iranian power structure.

Hence, leaders are rolling the dice with little apparent regard for the consequences of their actions beyond their own immediate political self-interest.

And, herein lies my fear.