International relations, National security | Asia, The World

29 January 2020

Despite talk of ‘World War Three’ following the killing of prominent Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, Iran is likely to avoid all-out conflict and target its response carefully, as to do anything else would undermine the regime, Isaac Kfir writes.

The killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani by an MQ-9 Reaper drone at Baghdad International Airport has sparked much speculation as to what the future holds in the region. Soleimani was a close confidante to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who had described him as “the living martyr of revolution”. John Maguire, a former United States Central Intelligence Agency officer in Iraq, referred to him as “the single most powerful operative in the Middle East”. Such views explain why there has been so much interest in Soleimani and how his death could impact international peace and security.

There are several reasons why, despite many predictions of doom and gloom, Iran is likely to temper its response to the killing. There will be the usual calls of ‘death to America’, and there will be those who agitate for action, but the Iranians know not to push the envelope.

First, the Iranian ayatollahs – high ranking clerics and government officials – believe that the Trump and the Netanyahu administrations are itching for a major conflict, possibly because both are facing tough re-election campaigns and they hope that focusing on Iran would aid them. Second, a conventional war would undermine the Iranian theocracy.

In respect to the ‘Great Satan’, experience has taught the Iranians that the way to challenge United States hegemony is through insurgency, involving a strategy to undermine the established socio-economic-political order through militancy, and then begin a process of legitimatising those entities, not conventional war. This is a tried and tested method, seen with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, and a key figure behind this model was Soleimani.

More on this: No respite for the Middle East

Soleimani built the Quds Force, designed as an elite unit within the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, with a base in the former United States Embassy compound in Tehran. He commanded it for 15 years, ensuring that its 15,000 members were ‘picked for their skill and their allegiance to the doctrine of the Islamic Revolution’. The Force specialised in insurgent style warfare. To the end, it carried out assassinations of rivals, and it armed, built, and trained militias. Its focus was not on large-scale war.

Second, Soleimani’s death is likely to empower the hardliners in Iranian politics, as both he, and his successor Esmail Ghaani, embodied their ideologies.

Like Soleimani, Ghaani fought in the Iran-Iraq War. When asked about his relationship to Soleimani, Ghaani said, “We are children of war … We are comrades on the battlefield and we have become friends in battle.” Ghaani is likely to continue where Soleimani left off, as the two are cut from the same cloth.

Third, the American strike is likely to encourage Iranians that Iran must continue with its uranium enrichment program, which could act as a deterrence against aggression. The program gathered momentum following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as many Iranians feared that the invasion was either a pretext to launch a campaign against Iran or establish a beachhead in the Gulf to ‘undermine the revolution.’

Iranians are likely to see the strike against Soleimani as apart of the Trump administration’s commitment to escalate tensions between the two, with the hope that Iran would respond leading to an American declaration of war. Importantly though, this is one of the few things that could effectively end the ‘velayat-e faqih’ – the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists, which lends the theocracy its legitimacy.

Further, having uranium, many Iranians would argue, would mean that they will have the necessary tools to deter further aggression and help end energy shortages across the country, without having to resort to conventional war.

More on this: Sanctions, strategy, and Iran’s nuclear deal

This leaves an important question unanswered. If Iran seems unlikely to be drawn into conventional war with the United States, then what is it likely to do instead?

In Iraq, the Iranians are likely to increase their efforts to empower militias and get better control over the political and religious establishments. Soleimani was the architect of this policy, having sought to use the American-led invasion of Iraq as a way to gain influence over their neighbour, which Iran sees as a threat.

Notably, Soleimani and others in Iran believed that if they had had more support in the 1980s, they would have conquered Iraq, which is why Iran has committed so many resources to gain a presence in Iraq since 2003.

In 2010, Soleimani ensured that Nuri al-Maliki became prime minister, Jalal Talabani President, and Hadi al-Amri transport minister. These are friends of Iran, and were instrumental in letting the Iranians run support for their action in Syria – Iraqi air space has been used ever since the conflict broke out. Included in the deal that brought these men to power was an agreement to get American combat troops out of Iraq by 2011.

The Iranians will also increase their efforts in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Libya. A key strategy of Soleimani was to nurture pro-Iranian militias that in time would come to govern or at least undermine regimes likely to support Iran’s enemies. This strategy is meant to protect the motherland and promote the vision of Khomeini, who argued for a rejection of capitalism and communism for an Islamic Republic.

This strategy is precisely why Soleimani meddled in Afghan politics, and why he ensured an Iranian presence in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. It was because these states not only border Iran, but also give it access to important strategic locations such as the Eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Sea.

Soleimani and others across the Middle East know that America is an unreliable ally with the abandonment of the Kurds only the latest in a long line of betrayals. Iran’s nine-year commitment to support and prop up Assad was a clear message: Iran doesn’t abandon its allies. Thus, the Iranians would ensure that across the region, allies and potential allies know that should they choose to work with Iran, they will have a trusted friend.

Iran is also likely to explore ways to improve its activities far from the homeland. Attempts by Iran to carry out assassinations and terrorist activities in the United States, Argentina, and Thailand have generally failed or have caused more damage to the regime, and it will look to rectify this record.

One thing is certain: Soleimani’s death is likely to ensure instability in the Middle East in the near future. Ideologically, it will fortify Iranian beliefs that the United States cannot and should not be trusted and that the revolution is always under threat. Militarily, Iran’s position seems clear: it must continue to project power and destabilise those deemed a threat to the revolution, without engaging in large-scale conventional warfare.

Conversely, with the United States national security establishment eviscerated by a mercurial, transactional president who rejects allies and friends, Russia and China will reach out to American allies as they look to continue to make strategic gains. Despite the unlikelihood of serious conventional war, the killing of Soleimani is certain to create further volatility in a region aching for a calmness which is simply not on the horizon.

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