For instance, President George W Bush sent forces to Iraq in search of “weapons of mass destruction,” Obama sent troops in Syria to change the regime of Bashar al-Assad and fight the Islamic State (IS), and now Trump after withdrawing from Obama-era Nuclear Deal of 2015 is on a new collision course with Iran.
By Rajan Kumar
There is a contradictory impulse in US policy towards West Asia (Middle East) – the President must take a drastic step even when he knows that he is unlikely to succeed. All recent presidents have burnt their fingers in attempts to either install a favourable regime or bring “peace” in the region. For instance, President George W Bush sent forces to Iraq in search of “weapons of mass destruction,” Obama sent troops in Syria to change the regime of Bashar al-Assad and fight the Islamic State (IS), and now Trump after withdrawing from Obama-era Nuclear Deal of 2015 is on a new collision course with Iran. President Trump, guided by Secretary Mike Pompeo, authorised the killing of Qasem Soleimani, the second most powerful person of Iran. How could President Trump be seen behind his White House predecessors in the Middle East- even when the outcome is known to all ex-presidents of the US.
As the first term of his presidency nears its end, Trump’s report card on the Middle East is deplorable. The US did not succeed in displacing Bashar-al-Assad in Syria, could not ensure a semblance of stability in Iraq or Afghanistan, and Saudi oil installations were attacked by an Iran backed militia. Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as Iran Nuclear Deal, alienated its NATO allies in Europe. The “maximum pressure” sanction strategy failed to deter or cripple the Iranian regime. All of this could not have gone down well with the voters in the upcoming presidential election of November 2020. Trump had to appear decisive to his ardent supporters. A full-fledged conflagration was not an option for a war-weary nation mooted to withdraw ground-forces from the region. Therefore, Trump chose a sophisticated target of very high propaganda value, the one which carried zero-risk for the American military.
Trump seems to have succeeded in humiliating Iran and sending a positive message to his enthusiasts. This can be a cause of jubilation for uninformed citizens who barely knew Soleimani before this incident. In reality, however, Trump has killed the prospect of negotiation and truce between the two countries. The stability of West Asia has been jeopardised and only a diplomatic miracle can stall the pace of escalation of conflict there.
The real political benefit for incumbent Trump is yet to be established. But that it has endangered the interests of the US in the region is beyond any doubt. First, it has bridged the gulf that was emerging between the disgruntled population of Iran and the regime. Soleimani was an iconic figure in Iran, a national hero, and a patriot. The people who were turning critical of the Iranian regime due to the economic crisis and the recent killing of hundreds of rebels will rally behind Ayatollah Ali Khamenei following this incident. Second, the distrust between the US and Iran has grown so much that a Ukrainian civilian aircraft was accidentally shot down by Iran. Both sides blamed each other for the underlying causes, but the fact remains that the chances of miscalculations are high. Third, Iran has already initiated retaliatory measures by shooting dozens of missiles at two military bases of the US in Iraq.
Analysts believe that the next phase of revenge would take the form of proxy-wars between the two states. Assaults by the Iran-backed militia will intensify in the months to come. Fourth, Soleimani was instrumental in crushing the IS in Syria and Iraq. The death of Soleimani came as an unexpected New Year’s gift to the IS fighters. Soleimani was the key leader who sent forces and provided resources to the militia in Iraq and Syria against the IS. The IS leaders would be the happiest lot with the elimination of their dreaded rival. Finally, the most significant loss to the international community is the abandonment of the JCPOA and the nuclear agreement. Iran will move ahead with its uranium enrichment programme and seek to develop nuclear weapons unless European countries renew their efforts to renegotiate a comprehensive deal.
In the first of series of retaliation, Iranian missiles struck at US bases at al-Asad and Erbil in Iraq. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif described these attacks as “proportionate and in self-defense”- not intended to escalate the situation into war. In all probabilities, Iran was not seriously trying to take revenge at this stage. It merely sought to transmit a political message to the US and Iranian citizens that it had the wherewithal and resolve to attack US forces at will. Strategic experts believe that Iran backed Hezbollah forces may carry out subsequent strikes on installations of the US or its allies. Trump tried to play down the incident saying no casualty was reported and the damage was insignificant. Iraq’s parliament has already passed a resolution asking the US forces to leave. This may complicate counter-insurgency and anti-IS operations in Iraq.
The neighbouring countries dread the escalation of conflict in the region. They fear that oil production and supply will be severely hampered with the onset of war. Countries in South Asia will directly bear the brunt. South Asian states import maximum oil from West Asia and receive huge remittances from millions of their workers employed in the region. Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, and Kuwait are the largest suppliers of crude to India. With sanctions on Iran, and now troubles in Iraq, India will have to deal with restricted supplies and rising crude prices. This does not portend well for the slowing Indian economy. India’s ambitious transport project through Chabahar will also be derailed if the conflict escalates intensifies. The security of 8.5 million Indians in the region will become a real challenge for India’s diplomacy.
India will find it increasingly difficult to balance its relationships with Iran and Washington. If the conflict escalates, the importance of China for Iran and Pakistan for the US will grow, and these are ominous signs for India’s diplomacy. Delhi should not be seen as torpid and merely waiting for the parties to decide. It must use its trusted offices and networks in Washington and Tehran to diffuse the tension in whatever little ways it can. The EU, Russia, and India should play a proactive role in de-escalating tension and opening up channels of communications.
In short, the killing of Soleimani helps neither the US nor its allies in the region. Its political and military fallout will unfold over months and years, and the chances of strategic miscalculations will remain high. Even if there is no real war, there will be no peace in the region in the foreseeable future.
(The author teaches in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)