The US drone attack on Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian ‘Quds’ commander, and his Iraqi associate, Abu Mahdi al Mohandis, leader of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) on 3 January, as they were exiting from Baghdad airport, has been a major development in the Middle East with implications for India as well. While the Iraqi Prime Minister, Adil Abdul Mahdi, has called it a violation of national sovereignty, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Agnes Callamard, has used guarded language by calling it a likely violation of international law. Iran called it “an act of war” and vowed revenge.
Most countries, including India as well as the UN Secretary-General, have called for mutual restraint alarmed as they have been about its ramifications for instability in a region which is already wracked by civil wars witnessing involvement of external powers, regional as well as extra-regional. The Iraqi government experienced a serious political crisis with the Parliament passing a resolution, drafted by the Prime Minister himself, for the US forces to leave the country; just at that time, the US Armed Forces suspended the joint operations, with the participation of the Iraqi forces, against Isis which is showing signs of consolidation in recent months.
The Parliament resolution was a Shia-led move which was not supported by the Sunni and the Kurdish MPs. In Iran, the public condemnation was led by the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, himself . He also personally controls the ‘Quds’ force and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IGRC). A massive public mobilisation took place throughout the country with the IRGC commander vowing attacks against the US forces throughout the Middle East, including Afghanistan; the Iranian Supreme Leader also threatened that the US forces would be driven out of the Middle East. As the Iranian President announced further uranium enrichment, in violation of the terms of the Iran nuclear deal ( JCPOA), three other signatory countries, namely, UK, France, and Germany, invoked its dispute settlement mechanism which could, potentially, lead to the Security Council reimposing sanctions against Iran.
In a retaliatory attack, on 8 January, the Iranians fired missiles at the two US bases in Iraq, at Ayn al Asad and Erbil, which seemed to have been carried out in the manner of controlled escalation for which the US had a prior warning but choosing not to take out the Iranian missile batteries before launch; the US has subsequently admitted that 34 of its soldiers have suffered injuries requiring treatment both in Iraq and Germany. A coincidental tragedy was the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger airliner, a few hours later, by an Iranian anti-aircraft missile battery deployed near Tehran airport. Due to satellite detection, Iran was forced to admit, under international pressure, that its own missiles had shot down this airliner.
Even as the US imposed further sanctions, the Iranian public anger against the killing of Soleimani was fractured with demonstrations, in the wake of the airliner tragedy, in several Iranian cities against the government, including the Supreme Leader, expressing disaffection against the Iranian regime’s policies at home and abroad. The nature of the already fractured Iraqi polity is such that the US government has decided not to accede to the Iraqi demand to withdraw its troops. Instead, the US Army has resumed its joint operations with the Iraqi army against Isis. Although there has not been any direct Iranian attack on US personnel and assets anywhere after its missile attacks, an Iraqi Shia militia fired rockets at a Baghdad airbase, housing US trainers, on 12 January, which injured four Iraqi soldiers.
On 17 January, the Iranian Supreme Leader, in an emotionally charged sermon at a rare Friday prayer meeting in Tehran, ridiculed the three European countries, and repeated his earlier declaration of Iranian determination to drive the US forces out of the Middle East. Diplomatic efforts, post-US strike, reflect strategic great power divergences. A joint UKFrance- German head of state/ government statement, of 6 January, offered their good offices for de-escalation of tension whilst being critical of Iran’s activities in the region; the European Council President also spoke to the Iranian President on 9 January. As US vows to maintain its “maximum pressure” strategy, its beefed-up military presence in the Middle East bringing it up to 60,000 troops.
After a meeting between Turkish and Russian Presidents on 8 January, the Turkish Foreign Minister visited Baghdad the next day as part of the “efforts to alleviate tensions”. The upshot is that European diplomacy, the Russian and Chinese hard power postures, and muted regional Arab reaction amidst deepening geopolitical uncertainties over Soleimani’s killing notwithstanding their deep distrust of Iranian regional involvements, add up to serious negative factors against any US military action against Iran. President Trump has also declared more than once that US does not favour a regime change in Iran. This, however, does not mean that Iranian covert actions, with a view to making the US presence at least in Iraq untenable, will not escalate in the short-to-medium term either directly or indirectly through various proxies; Iranian cyber capabilities are also expected to be deployed against the US both on its mainland and overseas.
The Soleimani killing has highlighted the extreme fragility of the states in the region. Before this event, serious public and political opposition was developing in Iran over the failure of the government to manage the deteriorating economic situation, especially after the Trump administration’s sanctions. There was also criticism of the Supreme Leader over the regime’s policy, including Iran’s military involvement in the neighbouring countries; unusual for a nation state, the task of the ‘Quds’ force is to organise and help militant Shia groups in various neighbouring countries to dominate their internal politics. These public protests were suppressed through a massive application of force.
In Iraq itself, a new version of the Arab Spring protests, against the disfunctionality of the government and the behaviour of the political class both in the government and outside, had led to a situation of potential regime instability and to large number of killings of the protesters, mostly unemployed youth. The US failure to create a stable political system there, after the dissolution of a pan-Iraqi political party in the erstwhile Ba’ath Party (2003), has led to the emergence of ethnic faultlines between majority Shias and Sunnis and Kurds and to the organisation of militia groups, many of them raised by Soleimani’s ‘Quds’ force. There were protests against the growing Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs and the Saudi government, tempering its earlier hostility, has been reaching out to the moderate Shia groups in Iraq; the present Iraqi Prime Minister also visited Saudi Arabia in April last year.
As the popular protests had forced the resignation of the Prime Minister, who is currently acting in a caretaker capacity, the last fateful visit of Commander Soleimani was speculated to be connected with efforts to control the political situation. The regional tensions already being high, al Mohandis’ militia had launched rocket strikes against US troops, on 27 December, killing a US national which led to a US retaliatory strike against the former’s sites in Iraq and Syria. Shia militia mobilised crowds to besiege the US mission in Baghdad, with the Iraqi government complicity, which might be a diversionary tactic for both Iraqi and Iranian leaderships given the growing public unrest against them.
In this backdrop, both Russia and China signalled their opposition to any precipitate military US action by holding joint naval exercises with Iran in the Gulf of Oman from 27-29 December. The pause in these larger political ~ and strategic ~ trends, brought about by the US drone strike has ended. The Iraqi protesters are, once again, out in the street demanding national elections and appointment of a caretaker Prime Minister of their choice reflecting their deep distrust of the current Iraqi political class. In Iran also, there is simmering discontent against the regime, including its excessive military involvement in several neighbouring countries.
As Isis sees renewed opportunities, the unease in the countries of the Gulf and the wider Middle East is palpable with serious disturbances in Lebanon and conflict in Yemen adding to the geopolitical uncertainty and heightened interest in others’ domestic affairs of both regional and extra-regional powers. Now, the political ~ and geopolitical ~ paradigm continues but at a more aggravated level. The situation is a matter of concern to India as the MEA spokesperson has articulated. India imports nearly a quarter of its oil requirements from Iraq. It has a large diaspora in the Gulf countries, including in Iraq. Indian effort to develop trade links via Chabehar with Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Russia are seriously impacted. Any Gulf turbulence affecting India’s energy supplies is a national security concern as evident in the Indian Navy being deployed, like other outside powers’, near the Strait of Hormuz to secure them.
(The writer is former Ambassador and author of Diplomatic Dimension of Maritime Challenges for India in the 21st Century)