The Middle Eastern Region houses some of the most thriving and richest economies of the world. Meeting much of the world’s energy requirements, the region is an economic powerhouse. Backed by such strong economics, it almost seems that there exists nothing that these nations cannot afford.
But, two things come at a very high premium in the Middle Eastern region – Water and Peace. While regional countries and global powers have advocated, initiated and claimed to have implemented peace solutions, it has to be understood that this has only been percieved peace. While tall talks of a far reaching peace initiative for the region has been promised for decades, leaders of the region themselves understand that lasting peace is much like perceiving water in the regions’s deserts – only a deceptive mirage.
The region now is again in turmoil with two most powerful players treading close to the threshold. At the throes of conflict now are the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which have in the last year, repeatedly ascended the escalatory ladder. The US, a powerful force in the region and Iran, a true regional political and military power, are worryingly inching towards the brink of a war.
Repeated attacks on oil installations, ranging from attacks on oil liners to precision attacks on massive refineries, all of which are blamed on Iran by the US, has meant that the geopolitical tensions in the region have witnessed a manifold rise.
While the world community has strived hard to contain a full fledged conflict between the US and Iran, which threatens to push the region and in large put the global economy into an abyss, the new year opened on a sore note for the International communities’ efforts.
Even as the European nations, many of them constituent members of the NATO alliance, were working towards setting-up a credible diplomatic backchannel between the countries for meaningful dialogue, their efforts took a back step when on the eve of the new year, the US’ embassy in Baghdad was targeted by a number of protestors. Evacuating its ambassador to Iraq and all non-essential personnel, the President of the United States of America – Donald Trump blamed Iran for the violence around the Embassy and threatened action if Iran didn’t backoff.
While the world watched the events unfolding in Baghdad in worry, with grim memories of the Benghazi episode, and hoped for easing of tensions, the world on January 3, 2020 began its day on a horrid note. Shortly after midnight local time, the area around the Baghdad International Airport was violently shaken by multiple blasts.
While it initially emerged that multiple rockets had targeted the airport, something not very rare in Iraq, the evaluations changed as images of mangled remains of multiple cars began trickling in on the social media within minutes of the strike. As wreckage burned bright just outside the perimeter of the airport, it was now certain that a kinetic strike targeting, what was being labelled as a convoy of some high ranking member, of one of the numerous extremists organisation operating in Iraq, had been targeted by the US. The US military had only days before targeted at least 5 known locations of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a known Iranian backed terror organisation, holding it responsible for the attacks on Iraqi bases housing US troops and the Embassy in Baghdad.
Hours after the strike, the PMF in a statement claimed that one of its leaders, Mohammed Ridha and a guest was killed in the attack. As news of the elimination of a senior PMF commander governed the chatters, an image showing a hand wearing a red-ruby studded ring, took the social media by storm. It was around this time that the most incredible rumours began taking shape. The image had an incredible description reading “Image of the hands of one of those killed in the airstrike in Baghdad tonight. Soleimani has the same ring (red-ruby studded).” Those uploading the images were referring to General Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s IRGC forces.
The world’s strategic circe had by now woken up as rumours of the US having eliminated the second most powerful person in Iran – Gen Qasem Soleimani – was gaining grounds. While multiple reports quoting unnamed senior US officials went towards confirming the elimination of the Iranian General, the strategic circles remained skeptical, as none could believe that the US would risk killing the person, who is rumoured to be in line to succeed Ayatollah Khameini – the Supreme Leader of Iran – himself.
While rumours flew thick and fast, the US President Donald Trump, in an unusual late night tweet, uploaded a picture of the US flag on his twitter handle, which is now considered to America’s preferred diplomatic tool. The world wondered why, the US President was uploading such an image, that too from his Florida resorts, where he was on a holiday, when rumour mills were busy churning incredible claims.
Within hours of Trump’s tweet and the strike, the Pentagon issued an extraordinary, but brief statement detailing and calming responsibility to the reported air strike in Baghdad. The Pentagon, in its carefully worded statement, said “At the direction of the President, the US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect U.S personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) – Quds Force, a US-designated Foreign Terrorist Organisation”.
Elaborating on the attacks and the reason mandating the extraordinary strike, the Pentagon, said “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more. He had orchestrated attacks on coalition based in Iraq and over the last several months – including the attack on December 27th – culminating in the death and wounding of additional American and Iraqi personnel.”
The Pentagon further blamed General Soleimani for the attacks on the US Embassy in Baghdad and stated that the air strike was intended to deter any future Iranian attack plans against the US and her interests.
With two missiles being fired from an unmanned aerial platform, the US, eliminating the second most powerful figure in Iran, had effectively redefined the history of conflict in the Middle East and the dynamics in the power play in the region.
Eliminated alongside General Soleimani in the air strike was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Commander of the PMF, who was leading Iran’s efforts through his militia in Iraq and beyond. The US had held Muhandis responsible for the increasing instances of attacks targeting coalition forces in the region.
As reports of the attacks emerged, multiple flash protests erupted across Iraq and Iran. Ayatollah Khameini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, called on the Iranian population to gather together for furthering the cause of resistance against the US. The Ayatollah condemning the US strike said “Years of sincere, brave efforts fighting against the devils and villains in the world and years of wishing for martyrdom on the path of God, finally took the dear Commander of Islam, Soleimani, to this lofty status. His blood was shed by the most barbaric of men. We congratulate Imam Mahdi and Soleimani’s pure soul and condole the Iranian nation on this great martyrdom.”
Speaking about his Commander, the Ayatollah said “He was an eminent example of a person trained in Islam. He spent all his life in struggling for God. Martyrdom was the reward for his tireless efforts over the years.”
Warning the United States about retaliation to the attacks, the Ayatollah said “His (Soleimani’s) efforts & path won’t be stopped by his martyrdom, by God’s Power, rather a severe revenge awaits the criminals who have stained their hands with his & the other martyrs’ blood last night. Martyr Soleimani is an international figure of resistance & all such people will seek revenge.”
WHAT AFTER THE AIR STRIKE?
By the time Soleimani’s remains were transported from Iraq to Iran in preparation for his final rites, in his hometown of Kerman, millions of protestors across the Middle East had take to the streets, effectively putting the region on a boil. The US also asked all of its citizens to evacuate from Iraq as early as possible.
The US military on the other hand was busy preparing contingency plans to guard its personnel and US interests in the region, as it feared a certain retaliatory action from Iran. While Trump threatened Iran of any misadventures, the US resorting to eliminate the second most revered figure in Iran, had definitely put Iran to an impregnable wall.
The Ayatollah having lost one of his most trusted commander and advisor, had been forced to retaliate to not only avenge the death of General Soleimani, but to save his regime’s image in Iran. In the last year, Iran has witnessed widespread protests across the country, with people condemning the inaction of the regime to check increasing unemployment rates and a dramatically waning Iranian economy. President Trump’s maximum pressure campaign imposed on Iran, after the US scrapped the JCPOA, famously known as the Iran nuclear deal, has been steadily strangling Iran’s economy, Government and its society.
On January 8 January 2020, the Ayn al-Asad air base in Iraq, which houses several hundred US military personnel, was struck by a barrage of missiles. At about the same time, another military base in Erbil was also struck by multiple rounds of missile fire.
Iran, within minutes of the strike, claimed responsibility to the attacks, and stated that the attack was mounted as part of ‘Operation Martyr Soleimani’, which Iran said was launched as retaliation to the killing of its General.
Though Iran claimed of widespread damage in the base and having killed about 80 US soldiers, the Pentagon later confirmed that while a section of the base was hit by about 11 missiles, none of its personnel were injured in the attacks, while injuries were sustained by Iraqi forces.
While US’ threat matrix had accounted to multiple retaliatory strike options that Iran was to deploy, the possibility of Iran employing ballistic missiles was much higher up the matrix. Iran’s actions definitely put the US and Iran on a steady course to a conflict, but with the US suffering no casualties and minimal damage to assets, would it really risk to escalate the already simmering tensions by retaliating to Iran’s action, was a question that haunted the international community at large.
When President Trump addressed his nation from the White House on January 9, 2020, the world waited with an abetted breath over what would be the future course of US’ action in retaliation to Iran’s attack. Iran had already said that it intended to up the ante against the US and her regional allies, should the Trump administration decide to retaliate to what Iran addressed as a defensive move on its part. The intelligence assessments had fairly concluded that Iran was, in fact, capable of targeting other regional military bases housing US troops, such as those in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait.
ESCALATING TO DEESCALATE
Speaking from the grand foyer of the White House on December 8, 2020, a day after Iran struck Iraqi bases hosting US troops, President Trump stating that no Americans were harmed in the attack, said “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.”
While President threatened Iran with harsh actions, for what US termed as Iran’s support to terrorism, the US President did not speak about any impending military response to the Iranian attack. Though the President upped his rhetoric by stating that the US Military had been completely rebuilt under his Administration by spending $ 2.5 trillion, Trump stated that the US had no intentions to use it by any means, but for deterrence. This, by far, confirmed that the US had decided to not pursue the climb up the escalatory ladder.
On the other side, Iran relied its intensions to deescalate, with crystal clear clarity. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Sharif terming his country’s decision to attack al-Assad air base as proportionate measures in self defence, relied in clear terms that his country did not seem escalation or war, but would defend itself against any aggression. Iran shortly after, forwarded a letter calling for peace to the United States, through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran.
While the world had feared of a full blown conflict erupting in the strategically important Middle Eastern region, both the US and Iran had descended the escalatory ladder pretty drastically, given how volatile the situation was following the US air strike.
This climb down the ladder, in fact, according to multiple reports was actually initiated hours prior to the Iranian attack, when Iran decided to inform Iraq of the attacks and the chosen targets themselves. Iran had all along known that Iraq, once informed would definitely tip-off the US and coalition forces over the impending attacks. US is believed to have had at least 6 hours notice prior to the barrage began. This move by Iran, thus, definitely was its step towards avoiding a war with the US, which it can definitely not afford, given the shambles its economy is in.
This trend of drastic deescalation by an involved actor is not something new to the region. In fact, this pattern is a reoccurrence of the events that unfolded in June, 2019, when Iran targeted an US drone. On June 20, 2019, IRGC missile units shot down a US Navy operated MQ-4A Global Hawk drone, which US claims was patrolling in international airspace on an aerial reconnaissance mission.
In retaliation to this aggressive action by Iran, the US prepared a broad military strike to target known Iranian missile battery locations along the Strait of Hormuz. While the formation of fighter aircraft and ships, assigned to handle the punitive strike, had taken positions, they were ordered back midway to the mission.
The order to stand down had come by the US President himself. President Trump, later taking to Twitter, speaking about his action to call off the strikes, said “Ten minutes before the strike I stopped it, not proportionate to the shooting down of an unmanned drone.”
Trump had even back then in September, 2019 clearly stated that he did not want war with Iran, and that he was willing to negotiate with Iran, if the process was initiated.
With the current events, it evidently seems certain that both the countries do not want to escalate any further at least on the conventional matrix. Iran’s recent attacks and rhetoric can only be viewed as face saving efforts by the regime to save itself from an internal upheaval.
For the Trump administration, a war in the Middle East would mean committing thousands of troops to the region. President Trump has himself repeatedly advocated to distance the US from what he terms as endless wars of the Middle East.
Further, an uptick in the flareups with Iran will definitely have a lasting impact on Trump’s efforts to finalise the Afghan peace, currently being negotiated with the Taliban. Having considerable sway over the Taliban Shura, the Iranian regime, in case of a conflict with the US, is bound to scuttle Trump’s efforts, which the President plans to make his showcase model for the 2020 re-election bid.
While the model of ‘escalate to deescalate’ certainly seems to have found some room in both countries’ strategic manoeuvring, it has to be seen if the US under Trump will be willing to negotiate with Iran, a newer lasting nuclear deal and thus a lasting peace deal for the Middle East.
Middle East to the US after Soleimani’s Elimination
The Trump administration, since the air strike targeting General Soleimani, has celebrated the success of, what it terms, the elimination of a terrorist. The President, has since, said that Soleimani’s hands were drenched in both American and Iranian blood, and that, he as the head of the Quds Force, was personally responsible for some of the absolutely worst atrocities.
Hands tied, Iran seems to have resorted to the option of striking Iraqi bases in a knee-jerk reaction. While Iran claims that its campaign of retribution is over, to anyone who has watched the Middle East and followed Iran closely, it is known that any action initiated by Iran comes with a lot of strategic thinking. Iran has historically bided its time before retaliating to any threats. It can thus be safely assumed that the visible attacks were only the beginning of a campaign.
In a statement after the attack, Ayatollah Khamenei said “They (the US) were slapped last night in the face, but such military actions are not enough. The corruptive presence of the US in the region of West Asia must be stopped.” He has also since called for furthering the spirit of Jihad resistance against the US.
These troubling statements, by the Supreme Leader of Iran himself, clearly indicate that troubles for the US are far from over. While Iran would not be willing to escalate on the conventional matrix, it is almost but certain, that it will rely on the network of extremists organisations and militias to intensify attacks on the US and her interests in the region.
With many of these non-state proxies, having been raised and nurtured by Soleimani himself, the war for the US in the region is now on the unconventional front. Increasing rocket attacks, use of ballistic missile, armed drones and even precision cruise missiles by non-state actors of the region, has made asymmetric warfare extremely fluid. Life for the US and her allies in the region is definitely bound to be a lot tougher at least for the foreseeable future.