Galip Dalay – Newsweek
It’s been less than two weeks since the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds force, and he already looks set to reshape regional politics in death as much he had in life—if not more so.
The assassination broke one of the cardinal unwritten rules of Iran-U.S. confrontation, traditionally indirect and played out via proxies. With the U.S. openly targeting a top level Iranian official and Iran reciprocating by openly launching missile attacks on the U.S. facilities in Iraq, these rules can no longer be taken for granted. The only apparent certainty so far is that the U.S. is shifting from a strategy of targeting proxies to targeting patrons. The other new rules of the game remain unclear, but this alone moves theU.S.—Iranian relations from a state of managed tension to uncharted waters, irrespective of Trump’s de-escalatory statement on Wednesday.
Quickly setting aside the initial shock, Iran has tried to to capitalize on this assassination.
Through massive funeral scenes, the Iranian regime has tried to shore up public support not only in favor of avenging Soleimani revenge, but also in support of the regime’s overall policies—once again channeling festering public frustration towards the narrative of resistance against the “Great Satan,” i.e. the U.S.
The killing of Soleimani came a time when the Iranian regime was facing a public backlash not only on the streets of Tehran, but also on the streets of Baghdad, Beirut and Najaf. The Shia public sphere across the region is growing increasingly frustrated with Iran and its policies, and this discontent was finally beginning to overspill.
By making Soleimani’s funerals a rallying point for Shias in both Iran and Iraq, the Tehran regime was not only posturing to the outside world but seeking to mend ties with people and the streets. Trump’s threat of targeting 52 selected sites, including cultural ones, in Iran gave these attempts a massive boost. After all, if millennia-old cultural sites are threatened, what’s at stake isn’t only the regime, but the very idea of Iran and its epic civilizational heritage—a heritage even opponents of the Islamic Republic passionately want to preserve.
Paradoxically, however, these displays of hyper-nationalism and defiance only further aggravates the regime’s dilemmas. Senior Iranian officials have also delivered high-pitched speeches, promising revenge. This has in return created a level of expectations amongst the people that can’t be met without Iran inviting a further major counter-response from the US, which can only generate an escalation spiral. The way that Iran has launched missile attacks on the U.S.bases in Iraq—informing Iraqi government in advance, which highly likely means that the U.S.was informed indirectly by Baghdad—came across more as a face-saving show rather than the response that the Iranians have vowed to deliver. And the blowback from Tehran’s confession it had downed a civilian aircraft with dozens of Iranians on board shows that it takes more than an external threat to restore the population’s trust in the regime.
Arguably, Iran’s real answer to the U.S. its still to come, and the missile attack was merely a smokescreen to create room for plausible deniability for a response that Iran is likely to deliver through proxies and in an asymmetric way in coming months. Iran’s response is likely to be a process, rather than a one time off strike. But Iran’s dilemma remains in place. If Tehran tries to deliver on anything like the public expectation it created, whether through proxies or not,it is likely to risk a major confrontation, with the U.S., perhaps even an outright war.
What’s more, such an Iranian response is also likely to deepen its international isolation and bridge the divide on Iran between Europeans and Americans. To date, the difference between the U.S.and Europe has mostly been on the nuclear dossier, and not on the Iran file a whole. In fact, when it comes to Iran’s regional policy, militia network and missile program, Europe and the U.S.have been more or less on the same page. A case in point was a recent statement of the EU-3 that wasn’t remotely to Iran’s liking. The statement called on “Iran to refrain from any violent action and urged Iran to go back to respecting arrangements laid out in the JCPOA 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.”
Iranian disillusionment with Europe is palpable. Reflecting this growing frustration with the EU, a high-ranking Iranian official, speaking at a conference in Tehran, contended that if Europe wants to pursue any containment policy, it should be geared towards theU.S.hegemonic power projection and its president Trump, rather than Iran. Irrespective of Iranian indignation, it’s anticipated asymmetric response will define whether the gap between Europe and theU.S. will be bridged or widened—as illustrated by Europe’s stern, albeit reluctant, triggering of the dispute mechanism in the JCPOA earlier today.
Damned if they do, damned if they don’t
Nevertheless, Iran’s very public exercise of strategic patience, there are plenty of considerations for Tehran not to forego a more forceful response to the assassination.
First, as strong response can elicit a counter-response from the US, no-response can invite repetition of similar attacks. Second, this assassination poses an ideological challenge to the regime. The regime’s discourse of ‘axis of resistance and struggle against the Great Satan will suffer significantly in the case of no-response or low-intensity response. These narratives were important and have had mobilizing effects, particularly when it comes to recruiting new fighters outside of Iran to fight in different regional battles.
Third, Iran’s idea of national security, to a large extent, rests on a network of allied militia groups across the region. Iran adopts a forward defense doctrine in which it intimately and intricately ties its national security with its idea of network security (collective security of a network of allied militia groups.) By killing the main executive and strategist of this network in one fell swoop with the network’s arguably most important Iraqi actor—Abu Mahdi al Muhandis—the resilience of this stratagem is tested. A low-intensity or no response will demoralize the entire network. The idea that the network looks after its own is a key ingredient of the glue that binds it together.
Fourth, perception and image matter. In recent years, the image that Russia has cultivated for itself through its role in Syria opened the gates for new forms of relations (such as the ones with Turkey and the Gulf states) and for new opportunities (such as getting a larger share of the regional arms market, more business deals, and better energy price coordination with the Arab members of OPEC.) Similarly, Iran’s image of being a formidable and reliable regional power has motivated many to seek better relations with Tehran and to be more accommodating towards its interests and concerns. In fact, on the top of the US’ policy of downsizing its regional role, the combination of image and realities of Russia, Iran and Turkey’s assertiveness on regional affairs is what has led many to talk of the alleged emergence of a post -U.S. Middle East. Tehran’s response to this targeted killing, as well as the Washington’s counter response or lack thereof, will redefine its regional image and perception. That in return will redefine other regional actors’ approaches towards Tehran. But, if anything, Iran’s need for a strong response and aggressive regional posture is heightened after its botched and ill-calculated moves, which culminated into the disastrous downing of the Ukranian Airlines flight.
The domestic and regional imperatives of an Iranian response that goes beyond launching missiles on handsomely forewarned U.S.bases in Iraq is strong. But the means and goals of its next, likely asymmetric, steps is fiercely contested.
In any further response, what is Iran likely to prioritize? Will Iran try to exact spectacular cost on the U.S. through human casualties and material loss? Or will Iran go for the dogged, long-term downsizing or targeting of theU.S.regional presence? Or perhaps Iran will choose to impose collective costs on various international stakeholders by targeting energy infrastructure and passages in the region? Or maybe it will go after U.S.regional allies?
It isn’t easy to predict which option or set of options Iran will choose. But the official statements from Iran and its regional allies, and developments since the assassination provide some clues.
To start with, Iran’s first direct but limited response has been launching of missiles on theU.S. facilities in Iraq, emhpasizing its determination to reduce America’s regional footprint. Reflecting this inclination, speaking in an international conference, Tehran Dialogue Forum, foreign minister Javad Zarif said that with the assassination of Suleimani, “the end of the U.S.malign presence in Western Asia (i.e. the Middle East) has begun.” As a sign of recognizing many regional countries and communities’ concerns over the U.S.withdrawal, along with subsequent Iranian domination he once again advanced Iran’s recently refashioned proposal for regional collective security—the so-called HOPE plan, or the Hormuz Peace Endeavour, which is framed to serve as a platform, resembling the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), for dialogue on security and cooperation amongst the eight littoral states of the Gulf, with possibility of including Yemen down the road.
Though not stated clearly, this initiative aims at removal of the US military presence from the region. He also called upon the regional actors “not to gamble on the losing horse” of the United States. Likewise, the Iraqi Shia militia leader Hadi al Ameri, who replaced al Muhandis, vowed on his predecessor’s coffin to end the U.S.presence in Iraq. With minor exceptions, there appears to be almost unanimity amongst the Shia political factions in Iraq in terms of wanting to kick the U.S. out, or at the very least to drastically reduce its presence. In a similar vein, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah ruled out targeting U.S.civilians, but declared that theU.S.bases, warships and soldiers in the Middle East were all fair game.
Taken all together these statements nearly amount to spelling out a new foreign and security policy for the pro-Iranian axis in the region. Targeting and seeking to downsize theU .S.regional presence appears to be the priority. Irrespective of prospects for success, a post-U.S. Iraq, let alone a post U.S.-Middle East, will be the biggest prize for Iran. This will not only restore Iran’s image and status, it will also hand it a major geopolitical victory.
Last but not least, Iran and its allies’ anticipated response to the U.S. appears to be calculated also for its impact on domestic American and wider Western politics. Rather than doing anything that would rally Americans and Western nations behind Trump, Iran appears to want its response to push people to question the rationality of Trump’s decision to carry out this targeted killing and to hold him responsible for any ensuing costs. In this respect, the next phase of the response is likely to be social base-conscious in terms of the American public and election-sensitive, calibrated to undermine, rather than increase, Trump’s chance of winning in 2020. Nasrallah made it very clear in his speech, saying: “When American troops return in coffins, when they arrive vertically and return horizontally to the USA, Trump and his administration will know that they [have] lost the region and will lose the elections.”
In its phased responses, the Iranian side appears to have some form of strategic clarity. The same cannot be said of America’s own strategic priorities in the post-Soleimani Middle East it has created.
*Galip Dalay is an IPC-Mercator Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) and non-resident fellow at Brookings Institutions, Doha Center.The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.