Iran and the US: the deepening of the conflict

The dynamic unleashed by the Soleimani murder, intended as a shot against Iran, could have the opposite effect

Shahid Javed Burki January 20, 2020
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice-president of the World Bank

There is a consensus among those who watch the Middle East that the current tit-for-tat exchanges between the United States and Iran is the beginning of a new regional dynamic. These have consequences not only for the countries in the region but also for those that abut on it. Pakistan belongs to the latter category. In the article today I will examine how the conflict is shaping up and where it could take America’s relations with the Muslim world.

Donald Trump with the murder of General Qasem Soleimani can’t fulfil the promise he had made to his base to disengage from the volatile Middle East. He has left the task of understanding the region and making of the United States’ policy affecting it to Jared Kushner, his senior adviser and son-in-law. The assassination of Gen Soleimani means there will not be any withdrawal during the Trump presidency. “This is a massive walk up the escalation ladder, wrote Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute. “With Soleimani dead, war is coming — that seems certain, the only questions are where, in what form and when?” The same view was expressed by another Middle East expert, Bruce Riedel, who is now with the Brookings Institution after spending many years working in CIA. “The administration is taking America into another war in the Middle East, bigger than ever,” he said.

According to David E Sanger wrote in The New York Times that Iran’s “history suggests they will not take on the United States frontally. Iranians are the masters of striking soft targets, starting in Iraq, but hardly limited to that country. In the past few years, they have honed an ability to cause low-level chaos, and left no doubt that they want to be able to reach the United States. For now, they cannot — at least in traditional ways.” However, Iran’s ability to react will depend on its economic situation that is highly stressed because of American sanctions imposed on the country after President Trump entered the White House.

There were obvious objections from the Democrats to the new American strategy with respect to Iran in particular and the Middle East in general. “The question is this,” Senator Christopher S Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, asked on Twitter. “As reports suggest, did America just assassinate without any congressional authorization, the second most powerful person in Iran, knowingly setting off a potential massive regional war?” asked the Senator, who has been a critic of Trump, often appearing on the CNN to express serious reservations about the actions taken by the administration in foreign affairs.

Some of the impact on the Middle East of the Soleimani killing will depend on the reaction in Iraq. This is not easy to define. Politically, culturally, socially and economically the country is split in several ways. There is, of course, the deep Shiite-Sunni split. While in large majority — some 60 to 70 per cent of the country’s population belongs to the Shiite sect — the Shiite’s were treated brutally first by dictator Saddam Hussain and after the United States’ 2003 invasion and the death of Saddam Hussein, by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The Shiite community recovered, helped by both the United States and Iran. It is one of the many ironies of the Middle Eastern dynamics that Washington and Tehran fought on the same side in putting down Sunni extremism. The Shiites are not on the same side of the economic curtain. Those that are economically in a more advantageous situation are closely aligned with Iran; those at the bottom of the economic scale have become bitterly opposed to Iranian influence. For several weeks, there had been large demonstrations against the ruling Shiite clique that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi who remains in a caretaker position pending the selection of his successor. And then there is the Kurdish ethnic group on the border with Syria that was an important part of the coalition that beat back ISIS. While ISIS may have been beaten, Sunni extremists are still waiting in the wings. ISIS is likely to reemerge as a potent force once the impact of the death of Soleimani is fully comprehended.

The dynamic unleashed by the Soleimani murder, intended as a shot against Iran, could have the opposite effect. It could accelerate one of Iran’s long-term objectives: pushing the United States military out of Iraq even after the Trump administration reversed course and ordered more American troops into the area. “One sure result of the US strike is that the era of US-Iraq cooperation is over,” Richard N Hass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former American diplomat, wrote on Twitter. “The US diplomatic and military presence will end because Iraq asks us to depart and our presence is just a target for both. The result will be greater Iranian influence, terrorism and infighting.” This is a major turn in events that was not anticipated by the Trump team that met in Mar-a-Lago in the early days of January before Trump ordered the assassination of Soleimani . More than 16 years after the American invasion of Iraq, a devastating conflict for all those who got involved and cost America $1 trillion and 5,000 lives, Iran is now the dominant power.

Iran is deeply embedded in Iraq on many levels. “The United States has only one color, is the military color, that is all that it spends on,” said Qais al-Khazali, the leader of a pro-Iranian militia. “But Iran has many colors — in culture, in politics, in religion, in many spheres.” Emma Sky, a former adviser to American forces in Iraq and a senior fellow at Yale, said, “The American-Iraqi relationship is going to be really damaged,” by the Soleimani killing. “I think there will be more calls for the US to withdraw troops.” According to her, Americans will be hard-pressed to justify a continued presence in Iraq because the perception is that its objectives are not aimed at promoting a stable Iraq but the principle purpose was containing Iran. Ryan Crocker, a former United States ambassador to Iraq and now the diplomat in residence in Princeton, is similarly distressed about America’s prospects in Iraq. “All we have given Iraq and the Shias in particular could never have dreamed of before 2003. But that was then and this is now.”

Published in The Express Tribune, January 20th, 2020.

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