The drone strike which assassinated General Soleimani led to widespread anger within Iran. The nation called for revenge, while President Donald Trump threatened them with war, if they retaliated. The world waited with bated breath for Iranian retaliation and the US response. Major powers sought peace and backed Iran, aware that its response would destabilize the region. A war in the Middle East could devastate the global economy and push oil prices to unbelievable level.
Iran had the option of striking through its proxies in Iraq and Syria. It could even task its proxies in Lebanon and Yemen to target Israel and Saudi Arabia, drawing them into the conflict. It simultaneously had to satisfy anger within its nation and hence responded from its soil. It was also not seeking an escalation. Its response was calibrated. It chose targets which were large bases, located in Sunni or Kurd dominated areas with sparse population, where collateral damage could be avoided. To further ensure that there would be no escalation, Iran informed Iraq of the impending strike, enabling them and US soldiers to remain secure. Post the strike, there were two responses from Iran. Ayatollah Khamenei addressed the nation and stated the Iranian retaliation had claimed 80 US lives.
The Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif tweeted, ‘Iran took and concluded proportionate measures in selfdefence under Article 51 of the UN charter, targeting the base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens and senior officials were launched. We do not seek escalation or war but will defend ourselves against any aggression.’ Iran’s UN ambassador sent a letter to the U.N. Secretary-General and the President of the Security Council calling the missile strikes a ‘measured and proportionate act of self-defence.’
Iran also conveyed that it possesses missiles which can target US bases in the region. It was up to Trump to close the confrontation. Addressing the nation Trump stated, ‘As we continue to evaluate options in response to Iranian aggression, the US will immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime.’ This implied that the US would not escalate. At present both nations have met their respective goals. The US which wanted to eliminate Soleimani had done it successfully.
Iran retaliated to satisfy its domestic audience. Iran, which had international support did not act hastily as it could engulf the Middle East into a conflict. Iran also announced its withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal. This led to concern within Europe. Israel, which considers Iran as its sworn enemy, is presently in a state of political turmoil and hence would only respond if attacked. Cyber-attacks on the US from Iranian soil would continue. Simultaneously, Iran would continue applying pressure on Baghdad to demand withdrawal of US troops.
In Afghanistan, Iran would push the Taliban to increase its attacks on US troops, while delaying direct talks preventing the US from seeking an honourable withdrawal. The intention is to force the US to retreat from the region in defeat. Clearly, the war has not ended. Iranian proxies have not been curtailed. They would now be given freedom to act. Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iraqi proxy, has already threatened revenge. Rockets continue being fired at the Iraqi Green Zone.
General Esmail Ghaani who has replaced Soleimani is aware that he has stepped into the shoes of an individual most revered in the country. He would need to prove his credentials of being a capable replacement. The only way he can do so is by following in the footsteps of his predecessor and striking the US and its allies across the region. Simultaneously, he would take precautions to avoid presenting an open target to the US. Thus, violence levels would increase across the region in the coming days.
This would enhance tensions. Within the US, the election year has begun. Simultaneously, the Congress is voting on curbing the powers of the President, preventing a similar strike as that on Soleimani, without their approval. While Trump may ignore these directions or it may be blocked in the upper house, however, he may be forced to be cautious in the future. A retaliatory strike leading to loss of US lives close to elections, would impact Trump the most as it was he who had announced pulling US troops back from ‘useless wars’ across the globe.
Internationally, the US was alone in this incident, with none of its European allies backing it. Germany even ordered the withdrawal of its personnel from Iraq. The anger within Europe would increase with Iran walking out of the JCPOA, which they had negotiated with difficulty. Already the EU has asked the Iranian foreign minister to visit Brussels for talks. Saudi Arabia and the UAE maintained silence throughout the incident. They claimed they were not taken into confidence on the strike.
When Iranian proxies strike, they could be targeted. The present is a period of pregnant silence. Temperatures are bound to rise as Iranian proxies seek to extract revenge. Strikes by them would lead to a counter-response by the US, which would depend on the damage caused. If Iran is struck, the retaliation this time could have devastating impact in the region. If proxies are struck, battles would be localized within Iraq. The fight between the US and Iran would continue being largely played in Iraq.
With the targeting of Soleimani at the Baghdad airport to subsequent retaliations, all have been in Iraq. Both nations have violated Iraqi airspace with impunity and without permission, breaking international norms. Iraq would witness more mindless casualties, forcing it to continue pressurizing the US to withdraw. Iraq for its own reasons would now prefer the Iranian camp to the US, making the US appear to be forced occupiers. The present pause may last a couple of months.
As time passes, Trump becomes more vulnerable and the Iranians bolder. The situation has neither eased nor have tensions ended. The first collateral damage of the crises was the accidental downing of the Ukrainian aircraft leading to a loss of 176 innocents. The region remains on tenterhooks.
(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army)