The shock of Qasem Soleimani’s assassination has passed. The commentators have chewed it over in measured or apocalyptic tones. The remnants of his body have been buried. Even his death cost lives, those of the mourners crushed at his funeral. Iran duly fired missiles into two large American air-force bases in Iraq to honour the deceased; in the aftermath 176 lives were lost as Revolutionary Guards shot down a Ukrainian plane by mistake. What have we learned? What comes next?
On the American side, a diagnosis of the US President’s mental state, sociopathic narcissism, has gained in credibility. Nothing inconsistent with that in the last few weeks. Mr. Trump has a need to draw attention and adulation to himself from his adoring Republican base. Hence the drone-strike outside Baghdad. Hence the promise of war crimes avenging a litany of Iranian-backed killing, and those hostages taken by Iranian revolutionaries some forty years ago. Behold the great timeless Warrior-Defender fierce in anger. But, at the drop of a few Iranian missiles, the Great Defender turns into the Great Deal-Maker, the peace-seeking statesman flanked by rows of grim generals weighed down with medals and the need to look fierce and peaceable at the same time. And hence the bullying of an ally to comply with his misguided policy towards Iran and tear up international agreements. The wonders of the consistency of inconsistency as strategy. Can we expect a future call to Rouhani for a Geneva meeting?
On the Iranian side we have Ayatollah Khamenei’s variations on ‘Death to America’ alongside a diplomatic attempt by the Iranian Foreign Minister to draw a line under tit-for-tat acts of aggression. Despite the cruelty, theocracy and the theology of martyrdom of the Shi’a clerics who are in power, Iran’s policies have a cold rationality. The overwhelming military advantage of the USA was reflected in the calibrated and limited nature of Iranian military retaliation.
It would be a mistake to imagine that this limited response indicated cowardice or that Iran’s “stepping down”, as Mr. Trump called it, indicated defeat and abandonment of Soleimani’s foreign policy of defence by proxy-aggression. The vast acreage of war cemetery along the road from Tehran to Ayatollah Khomenei’s mausoleum, with their poignant photographs of the deceased, the terrible death toll of the Iran-Iraq war, tell a different story: a nationalism hardened by a history of foreign control and invasion into a dreadful level of human sacrifice. A Hujjat-ul-Islam sitting next to me at dinner in Tehran, breaking into a harsh, hacking cough, reminded me of how apt the comparison was between Northern Europe 1914-1918 and Iran 1980-1988. “I was gassed in the war”, he said in an offhand explanation. And the gas chemicals had come from Europe while support for Saddam Hussein had come from the USA.
Many Iranians will place Soleimani’s death within the Shi’a worldview in the religious context of martyrdom. Others wanting to see an end to the velayat-al-faqih, clerical rule (by legal experts), will place his assassination in the context of Iran’s history, a proud Persian culture and now a fervent, secular nationalism. For Soleimani was, after all, a hero of the Iran-Iraq war. Trump can speak of the American hostages taken in 1979. Iranians can speak of the UK and US-instigated 1953 coup that deprived Iran of democracy under Mossadegh, and the Shah’s torture chambers. History and Religion matter. Neither Trump’s strong points.
The country has effectively two – interacting - parallel governments with President Rouhani seeking negotiation and reform and the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards opposing any compromise. There are Iranian clerics, even in the throbbing heart of clerical Qom, who have come to see the adoption of political office as the poisonous root of corruption and want out of politics. The streets of Iran fill up intermittently with citizens who want freedom from the Puritanism, cruelty, human rights violations and foreign adventures of the clerical regime, only to be gunned down and imprisoned.
The path to reform is long and hard. US intervention under Trump, giving the Revolutionary Guards a martyr and national hero, thwarting the considerable achievements of the JPCOA nuclear negotiators and making Rouhani look like a naïve fool, undermining his government with devastating sanctions, have blocked this path for a long time to come. The great strategic thinker is gone. The strategy survives.
There are three ways things can go. Business as usual: continuing chaos in the Middle East with growing Iranian desperation at sanctions and a grim determination not to be one of the only military powers in its region that lack nuclear weapons. JPCOA was a deal reneged on by the US, not by Iran; it was essentially a matter of ‘we’ll end sanctions if you end the uranium enrichment required for nuclear warheads’. Trump was determined on personal vengeance to reverse anything Obama had achieved. Or there is preferred path of the Washington hawks, Netanyahu, and the US military-industrial interests who seek more and more pressure and provocations that risk triggering full-scale war. Or there is what Trump pledged and Iran wants: to get troops out of the Middle East’s wars, and Iran’s reformers to gain in prestige. Lets hope Trump’s narcissism is best served by being the Great-Deal Maker.
See TheArticle.com "Iran: What Next? 07/01/2020