The US-Iran Conundrum
Student of MA in Defence and National Security Studies from Panjab University. Areas of expertise- Defence, Strategic Issues and International Relations.
The already strained ties between the United States and Islamic Republic of Iran hit a new low when the US at the instruction of President Donald Trump assassinated top Iranian General and Commander of the Quds force, Qassem Soleimani in a strike outside the Baghdad Airport in
Iraq. The assassination that led the tensions soaring in the gulf was justified by Donald Trump as a necessary action on the man who was allegedly responsible for the killing an American contractor and injuring American troops in Iraq. Trump also added that Soleimani was hatching a plan to attack various embassies of the United States. The killing led to shock waves running around the Gulf with Iran pledging revenge and the world speculating a Third World War. All the major world leaders
called for restraint including the arch-rival of Iran and an all weather ally of the United States- Saudi Arabia. Cries for de-escalation started to reverberate from all across the globe with Israel warning that any attack on its soil will not be tolerated.
Qassem Soleimani, obliterated by the United States was the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, an elite unit that handles Iran’s overseas operations. Known as Iran’s shadow commander, Soleimani was the mastermind of Iranian military operations in Iraq and Syria which led to the defeat of the Islamic State. He was the man who oversaw the militias in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq to protect Iran’s interests. His popularity was such that people believed that he might run for presidency one day. He was addressed by the Supreme leader of Iran as a ‘living martyr.’
Qassem Soleimani’s funeral which saw the Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei crying on his casket and a turnout of about a million people who assembled to pay their last respects to the General was the testimony of the anger and grief. It was followed by Iran’s retaliation on US Military bases of Erbil and Al Asad inside Iraq. Iran described the strikes as a ‘slap on the
face’ of United States and claimed that they managed to kill 80 American soldiers. However, Trump later clarified that there were no casualties as no soldier was stationed at either of the two bases that were targeted by the strikes. Iran took a defensive posture and invoked Article 51 of the UN Charter to justify the strikes on the US bases as an act of Self Defence.
However, the key takeaway that emerges from Iran’s strikes is that Iran carried out a limited attack with no intention to escalate the situation. It was done to send a strong message to the United States and its allies. However, it fell short of inflicting maximum damage on American life and strategic assets. The choice of targets, especially Erbil suggests that Iran intended to convey to the Americans that they were not safe in Iraq despite
their strong presence in the Kurdish region. From its face value, it seems that Iran wanted to pacify its people who were calling for revenge without pushing United States too much. The leaders in Iran are aware that they have neither the economic strength nor the military capability to engage in a direct conflict with the United States which is a force to reckon with and even more so with allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel in the middle east. Both Trump and Hassan Rouhani were quick to add that they did not want the conflict to escalate into a full-blown war.
Iran has been on the brink ever since United States unilaterally walked out of the Nuclear Deal that was chalked out between Iran and P5+1 countries and imposed sanctions on it. The tensions kept increasing forthwith and reached a tipping point when America warned its trading partners to stop importing oil from Iran. The economy has been in shambles ever since. On the other hand, United States has been irked by increased cooperation between Iran and Russia especially in the Syrian conflict. United States does not have significant interests in Iran given the fact that it has energy sufficiency which made it easier for it to take a vengeful stand against
the Islamic republic. With increased uncertainty in the Middle-Eastern region, Arab countries will further try to strengthen their militaries and hence, there will be a boom in the arm industry of the United States. It is a win-win situation for America.
Another point worth noting in the whole conundrum is the posture taken by Saudi Arabia who has time and again warned Iran of dire consequences and has sided with United States in all matters. Even though the news of Soleimani’s assassination was received well by the kingdom in the backdrop of alleged attack of Iran led Houthi rebels on its oil and natural gas facility,
there were calls of de-escalation fearing further instability in the region at a time when it is engaged in economic reforms. Since, Saudi Arabia does not have a dedicated policy vis-a-vis Iran, it largely depends on United States for decisive action.
The fact that Donald Trump chose Iraq as the point of attack to eliminate Soleimani and not Iran was also instrumental in not resulting in an all-out war. Iran would have had no other option but to go to war with the United States had its own country been attacked. From what it appears, Iraq was chosen deliberately because of the clout that Soleimani had in Bhagdad. However, the attack has caused deep fissures in Iraq with the legislative assembly passing a resolution for the eviction of all US troops stationed in its land to counter a resurgence of Islamic State. The gulf continues to remain on a boil with different states having different interests at stake. Peace in the Middle East is a precursor to the economic growth in the region which is heavily dependent on natural resources like natural gas and oil.
In the backdrop of strikes and counter-strikes, Trump called on the European countries to walk out of the JCPOA deal and promised more sanctions on Iran. In order to reduce tensions, the remaining signatories have to persuade Trump to come back to the negotiating table and slowly
but surely lift sanctions from Iran in order to dissuade the fire that engulfs the entire region.
The tensions between the two countries will severely impact the world. Countries that are dependent on Iran for their energy needs will be pushed to the wall with oil prices soaring at a time when the global economy is witnessing a major slowdown. For example, the threat of war led to a surge of 6% in the price of crude oil. What happens in case of an all out war is an open ended question.
The way forward for Iran should be to reduce its uranium enrichment so as to make the environment conducive for America to return to the negotiating table. It will be in its interest to not irk it’s European counterparts at a time when they’re being pressured by the US to withdraw from the nuclear deal. On the other hand, Donald Trump must make efforts to forge a deal that suits both countries and take steps to de-escalate the situation.