The embarrassment and entanglement that has marked the Iran-US imbroglio has continued to evolve and has now become a source for questions among many strategic analysts all over the world. It is casting a long shadow in international affairs in terms of strategic contention.
It started a few days ago with the assassination of Iranian Major General Kashem Solaimani, Head of Iran’s elite Al Quds Revolutionary Guards, Iraqi Militia Commander Mahdi al-Muhandis and several other functionaries through US organized unauthorized air-strikes near the Baghdad Airport. It was described by the US as a defensive strike.In this context Najmeh Bozorhmehr has noted in the ‘Financial Times’that Soleimani had become the leading military figure in the Shiite Islamic world by confronting US and Israeli interests in the Middle East.His killing was the most dramatic escalation yet in the paradigm of spiraling tensions between Washington and Tehran.
The Islamic State group (IS) however appears to have gloated over Solaimani’s killing and has commented in their on-line newspaper- Al- Nabaa that his death “pleased the heart of believers”. This was because the Iranian General had helped in the effort to eradicate IS from Iraq.
The severity of the situation was highlighted through nearly 50 Iranian mourners being stampeded to death during Soleimani’s funeral. It denoted his popularity among the Iranians. During this period of expression of sorrow, Iran promised to retaliate against the USA for this “criminal”act.
At that time France’s Europe Minister Amelie de Montchalin observed “in such operations, where we can see an escalation is underway.. we want above all stability and de-escalation.” US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted that the US strike against Soleimani had been carried out “without the consultation of Congress”. US Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, commented that while “Soleimani was an enemy of the United States” the killing could put more Americans at risk. OPEC’s Secretary General Mohammed Barkindo concerned about OPEC interests also drew attention to the growing uneasiness in the Gulf region but pointed out that while he saw no immediate risk to oil travelling through the vital gateway of the Strait of Hormuz, there was still need for not creating more tension.
As indicated by Iran, the Soleimani killing was followed by Iran attacking two US bases in Iraq with medium range missiles. It was a retaliatory measure. However fortunately, there were no casualties due to earlier leaked information that such a possible response from Iran was on the cards. The undertaking of such action was followed by Iran threatening that, if necessary, it would not hesitate to use long-range missiles against selected US targets. Such a threat was responded to by the Israeli Prime Minister with the comment that any attack on Israel would be responded to with “resounding”blows.
The whole world has been watching the situation with concern. This has led UN Secretary General to point out that the New Year had begun with “our world in turmoil” and that “we are living in dangerous times”. He has also urged both sides to exercise restraint.
Several other confrontational aspects have also been brought to the forefront. The Trump Administration has barred the Iranian Foreign Minister from entering USA by denying him necessary visa. At the same time President Trump has warned that the US is targeting 52 sites in Iran and will hit them “very hard” if Iran attacks American personnel or assets.
In the meantime the Iraqi Parliament has passed a Resolution that has called on the Iraqi government not only to end all foreign troop presence but that any use of drones by such troops need to have prior permission of the Iraqi government. However, the US State Department has flatly dismissed this proposal after it was put forward by Iraqi Prime Minister Mahdi.
President Trump and his senior Advisers appear at present to be in the cross-road of their strategy matrix due to the existing potential of a possible asymmetric shape of Iran’s retaliation.
Growth in complexity has been brought to the forefront through the latest unfortunate downing of a Ukrainian passenger aircraft near the Tehran Airport by Iranian missiles.
Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 crashed shortly after taking off from the Iranian capital Tehran on 8 January, killing all 176 passengers and crew members on board. The Boeing 737 was bound for Kiev and many on board had a connecting flight to Toronto, Canada's largest city and a transit hub. The passengers apparently included 82 Iranians, 57 Canadians and 11 Ukrainians, including the crew members. It also included 10 Swedish nationals, four Afghans, three Germans and three British nationals.
Initial claims from Iran about the crash contradicted those made by Ukraine and Canada. Iranian officials had claimed that the Boeing 737-800 had crashed due to mechanical issues. However, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau pointed out that Canadian officials had "evidence and intelligence" that "indicated that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile". US Administration led by President Trump also disagreed with the Iranian response. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also joined the Canadian Prime Minister regarding a possible investigation about the reason for the air crash.
It was obviously this growing dynamics of disbelief that eventually led to the Iranian military authorities to come out and state that the Ukranian jet had been “unintentionally” shot down by the Iranian military because the plane had flown near a "sensitive military centre" of the Revolutionary Guards. It was also clarified that it was because of human error. In the statement, the military apologized for downing the plane, and also assured that it would upgrade its systems to prevent such "mistakes" in the future. Those responsible for firing the missile, it said, would also be prosecuted. This welcome admission by Iran's military marked a stark departure from Iran’s previous denials.
This new dynamics has now led to a reversal of domestic support for the Iranian authorities on the streets of Tehran. To an extent, it has been replaced with strong protests in the streets of that city. There have also been demands that the current Iran Administration should hand over power- to whom, that has not been clarified. As expected, the United States has immediately conveyed their approval for such protests.
At a certain point it also led to the United Kingdom Ambassador to Iran being present in the street ostensibly as a sign of expression of sympathy for the three British nationals who had died from the plane crash. He however moved away from these assemblies when he noticed the political tenor. Nevertheless, contrary to diplomatic protocol, he ended up being detained for about half hour by anti-riot Iranian police on the charge of “inciting violence”. This has ended in the British government becoming more critical of the current Iranian regime.
Nevertheless, it would be significant at this point to draw attention to another worrying report. The media has also indicated that on the same night the US military killed Iranian General Soleimani, they also unsuccessfully targeted another senior Iranian military official in Yemen. The source for this report has however not given any details about the mission or how the US had attempted to carry it out. The US Department of Defense has also declined to discuss alleged operations in that region.
One needs at this point, to refer to general dissatisfaction within the US Administration with regard to the lack of “helpful” response from the European Union in the manner in which the US was tackling the Iran crisis- including their stand on the Iran de-nuclearization Agreement- from which the United States has withdrawn itself. Apparently, the US has also been warned that US actions might inflame regional tensions. Europe, it may be mentioned has been skeptical of recent US actions with regard to Iran.
Another significant measure has seen US lawmakers concerned about rushing to war adopting a measure on 9 January in Washington- aimed at reining in President Trump’s ability to take military action against the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Resolution was introduced by the Democrats and the mostly symbolic but politically charged vote was voted and adopted by 224 to 194.
It is being hoped that recent ups and downs on both sides will persuade both the United States and Iran to step back from the brink of war.
President Trump has already indicated that the United States at this point of time does not need to urgently import large quantity of oil from the Middle East. Apparently, the US now produces through different methods large quantities of oil and also possesses sufficient quantity in storage.
He has also announced through an Executive Order that fresh additional primary and secondary sanctions are being imposed on Iran. This will include sanctions on some senior Iranian members of their armed forces and also on Iranian steel, textile and construction industry. This also includes a network of three facilities based in China and the Seychelles. There will also be more effective sanctions on Iranian financial transactions.
These measures have been introduced aim at generating more pressure on the Iranian government (pertaining not only to nuclear proliferation but also to the nuclear deal and higher levels of uranium enrichment) and helping those protesting within Iran about their existing socio-economic difficulties. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has, in this regard also mentioned that Irani oil revenues are already down by 80 per cent and that Iran cannot access roughly to nearly 90 per cent of their foreign currency reserves.
In any case, the world in general and the adjoining regions- both the Middle East and South Asia- will remain worried about how the scenario continues to develop over the next few weeks. The last thing that we need is greater instability that might facilitate terrorism and fundamentalism within the region. This crisis might indirectly help President Trump and his Republican Party followers during the months leading up to the November 2020 Presidential election. It will however not resolve tension in Europe and in other parts of the world.
This evolving drama is also indirectly affecting developing countries like Bangladesh who are involved in sending expatriate workers to the region- Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and the different Gulf countries. It is having an osmotic effect that will affect their socio-economic development and will also generate anger and frustration.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance