Yassamine Mather assesses the situation in the Middle East following the US assassination of Qassem Soleimani and Iran’s missile revenge gesture
This week has been a godsend for leaders of the Islamic Republic. First, the drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, the commander in chief of the Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Then Donald Trump’s subsequent threat to bomb 52 targets in Iran. We can say with a level of confidence that in the short term all this has done wonders for the Islamic regime.
Of course, everything could change suddenly if the United Sates decides to retaliate for the missile attack on two US air bases in Anbar and Erbil provinces in Iraq. But it seems there were no casualties and the Iraqi government had prior warning of the attack – there is speculation that the US military was also given notice to make sure there were no casualties. Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has announced that the missile attack has concluded the retaliation for Soleimani’s assassination. However, there is no doubt we are entering a period of prolonged tension and possible US air attacks.
Inside Iran, a mood of patriotism has grown, with rival factions within the government coming closer together, and even some opponents of the regime rallying to ‘defend the country’. Such views are expressed by the former foreign minister of the shah’s era, Ardeshir Zahedi – the son of general Fazlollah Zahedi, the commander of the 1953 CIA-backed coup that paved the way for the shah’s return from exile. Zahedi praised Soleimani in a January 5 BBC Persian programme, and his views find echoes amongst middle class nationalists, though they have never been supporters of the regime.
Inevitably the assassination, Trump’s threats and now the missile attack on US bases mean a new, dangerous situation is unfolding in the Middle East. On January 3, soon after the drone attack near Baghdad’s civilian airport, Iran’s foreign minister summoned officials from the Swiss embassy – which represents US interests – to express his outrage at the “assassination of general Soleimani”, stating it was a “blatant example of American state terrorism” (senior Iraqi Shia militia leaders, most notably Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, were also killed).
There are suggestions that the exchange also included threats to ‘take revenge’ on the US – a hardline stance that apparently prompted Trump to send off his January 5 tweet that the US is “targeting” 52 Iranian sites, some “at a very high level and important to Iran and the Iranian culture”. America will strike “very fast and very hard” if Tehran attacks Americans or US assets. Defense secretary Mark T Esper later promised to stay within international law and not to attack cultural sites, but Trump tweeted, in reply, “They’re allowed to torture and maim our people … and we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work like that.”1
The January 2 drone attack was the culmination of sabre-rattling that started in December of last year. Washington blamed Iranian-backed militia for firing rockets at a military base in Iraq used by US troops – an American civilian contractor was killed. Payback came in the form of US air strikes against Kata’ib Hezbollah, a pro-Iran Shia Iraqi militia. These killed 25 of its fighters. The Shia group’s response came on December 31, when it took over the vast US embassy compound in Baghdad.
US retaliation came in the form of the assassination of Soleimani. According to Trump, the killing was ordered to lessen the possibility of more wars in the region. In stark contrast, most of the world’s media predict the escalation of military conflict.
According to Iraq, Soleimani was in Baghdad on a diplomatic mission to discuss ways of easing tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Speaking in the Iraqi parliament on January 5, the country’s caretaker prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, said he himself had been scheduled to meet Soleimani on the day he was assassinated. Soleimani had been expected to deliver “Iran’s response to a previous message sent from Saudi Arabia to Tehran”. If this claim is true, one can understand the anger in Tehran and the calls for revenge. Despite the repeated threats, however, it is difficult to see how Iran’s leaders can take ‘revenge’ on the world’s most powerful imperial state. Nevertheless we should expect an unprecedented escalation of tension between the two countries. The Financial Times observes: “The death of the general … represents a ramping-up of the conflict between the US and Iran … Diplomats have long feared that a miscalculation on either side could ignite a war in the region.”
The New Yorker’s unease went further when it bluntly characterised the US attack as ‘‘an act of war“ and cited the comments of Douglas Silliman – US ambassador to Iraq until last winter and now the president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He assesses the assassination of Soleimani as “equivalent” to Iran killing the commander of US military operations in the Middle East and South Asia. He asks the obvious question – if Iran had killed the commander of US central command, “what would we consider it to be?” Restraint – the buzzword for the moment of Democratic Party senators in Washington, as well as of European and Middle Eastern politicians – is, however, in short supply. Iran, for instance, is comparing the event with the CIA organised coup d’etat of 1953.
Gift to regime
Indeed, it is difficult to understand the rationale behind the assassination, except when it relates to internal US politics and the need to distract attention from impeachment hearings in a presidential election year. If anyone in the Pentagon or the US national security council had any understanding of Iran’s Islamic Republic they would have known that the regime exalts in martyrdom – especially if it can pose as the victim. The entire Shia religion is based on this concept (the death of Mohammad’s grandson in Karbala defines the Shia version of Islam). The moment the drone blasted the general’s convoy, Iran’s regime had scored an important propaganda victory – witness the huge funeral processions in Iraqi and Iranian cities. For Iranians the attack and the nature of Trump’s threats have increased the fear of another war and therefore overshadowed the internal struggle against the regime, at least for the time being.
If the assassination was supposed to weaken or to damage Iran’s position in Iraq or Lebanon, that has also been a spectacular failure. Not long ago, citizens of Shia Iraqi cities were setting fire to Iranian consulates; the demand for Iran to keep its hands off Iraq had been one of the main slogans of protestors in Baghdad and elsewhere. Ali al-Sistani, leader of the Shia community in Iraq, was echoing such calls.
But by January 3, everything had changed. Shia Iraqis were uniting behind their own militia and Iran’s Islamic Republic. Ayatollah Sistani’s condemnation of the killing – read at Friday prayers – was in stark contrast to his previous messages and his sermon was followed by chants of “Death to America” in the main Shia holy shrine in Karbala. This was the first time such a call had been taken up by the congregation. Despite US propaganda to the contrary, it is clear that the first steps are being taken to withdraw troops from Iraqi territory.
In Lebanon, Christian Maronite leaders and Druze politicians are echoing Hezbollah’s claims that it was Soleimani who saved the country from the threat posed by Islamic State. In Iran itself, in the last few days the regime has seized the opportunity to demonstrate the extent of its mass support on the streets. Mobilised by yet another ‘martyrdom’, the crowds are up in arms against the US president’s threat to bomb their country. All this has effectively cut across months of protests against the regime’s involvement in Iraq, not to mention the workers’ struggle against its neoliberal domestic economic policies.
Particularly important was the size of the procession in Ahvaz – it stretched for 30km. Ahvaz is very significant, as it is the capital of Khuzestan province, and Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in supporting the Arab separatist movement in the region. An even larger procession took place in Mashad, in northern Iran, and on January 6 Tehran witnessed one of the largest gatherings in the capital since the Islamic Republic came into existence. Women wearing no headscarf (despite the fact that the Islamic hijab is compulsory) were photographed joining the procession with apparently no move against them from state forces.
Whatever we may think of Soleimani, opponents of jihadism in the region – including Sunnis and Christians in Iraq and Lebanon – believe that he played a significant role in defeating Islamic State. This claim was in fact made in the US press and media. Only two years ago, the Iranian general made the cover of Time magazine. Inside was the claim that he was the military mastermind behind the defeat of IS in Iraq and Syria. Around the same time The New Yorker produced a lengthy biography of Soleimani as the man fighting Islamic State.
The reality is more complex. It was the nameless fighters from many religious and national backgrounds who eventually defeated the brutal Salafi group. There are allegations that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards forcibly sent Afghan refugees to fight in Syria … However, at the end of the day both Iran and its opponents were keen to exaggerate the role of Soleimani as part of their propaganda war.
What is not disputed is that he was an effective military commander; a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Since the early 2000s he had been responsible for the external operations of the Revolutionary Guards – in Iraq, where he set up Shia militias, in Lebanon in working closely with Hezbollah and later in Syria fighting on the side of pro-government forces. There is no indication that Soleimani took an active part in the repressive activities of the Revolutionary Guards inside Iran during recent protests. However, writing in Middle East Eye, Maysam Behravesh states:
His name had grabbed public attention as a signatory of a notorious letter written by 24 IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps] to former reformist president Mohammad Khatami after the 1999 student protests in Tehran. The letter chastised Khatami’s administration for sympathising with anti-establishment protesters, warning that “we are running out of patience”.2
We in Hands off the People of Iran condemn Iran’s involvement in regional wars, from Syria to Iraq and Afghanistan. These conflicts have led to the loss of many lives. However, we should not forget that it was the imperialist wars of early 2000s – and in particular the war against Iraq – that paved the way for all this. The US and its allies (including the UK) bear main responsibility for the current situation in the Middle East.
In the beginning of this century, senior clerics and supporters of the Shia regime could not believe their luck when in two wars George Bush jnr (along with Tony Blair in the UK) overthrew their opponents in Kabul and Baghdad. In addition, regime change from above in Iraq brought to power Shia groups that were close allies of the Islamic Republic. It was in opposition to this sectarian government, a direct product of US occupation, that al Qa’eda gained support among a minority of the Sunni population in Iraq. US prisons produced the likes of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi.
The rise of al Qa’eda, and later IS, was very much in line with Saudi Arabia’s policy of demonising the Shia religion in its rivalry with Iran’s Islamic Republic. Throughout the period of dominance of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Saudi Arabia and a number of Persian Gulf countries transferred their propaganda machine from satellite TV stations to social media in order to promote Sunni fundamentalism and anti-Shia propaganda. There is no doubt that IS’s infamous slogan – ‘Today Damascus, tomorrow Tehran’ – if not actually devised in Riyadh, was very popular in the Saudi kingdom.
There is no need to remind anyone that during this period there was little real attempt by the US or its western allies to tackle the jihadist groups. No-one proposed sanctions against Arab countries whose leading figures and religious organisations were funding Islamic State. So it is no surprise that the Iranian military commander who is supposed to have led the resistance to IS became a regional hero.
Soon after the assassination, Trump tweeted that Soleimani was responsible for millions of deaths in Iran, Iraq and Syria. Even by the US president’s standards this is something of an exaggeration. On the other hand, Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Ghaani, started his military career in Iranian Kurdistan, before joining the war against Iraq. Those of us who have any experience of Iranian Kurdistan during that period cannot forgive anyone associated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Even when they were held as prisoners of leftwing forces, they boasted about murdering and raping “communist opponents of the Islamic Republic”. So I am afraid we should expect far worse from Ghaani – especially when it comes to the suppression of class struggles inside Iran.
In the United States, opponents of Donald Trump were quick to label his clear appetite for war with Iran as an attempt to divert attention from the impeachment hearings in the Senate. Ironically, in 2011 and 2012, Trump repeatedly accused Barack Obama of seeking war with Iran to help win the 2012 presidential election.
In Washington, Trump opponents are not buying the claim that the bombing was prompted by a concern to save “American lives”. CNN’s headline summed it up: ‘Skepticism mounts over evidence of “imminent” threat that Trump says justified Soleimani killing’.3
There are two additional reasons why Trump might want an adventure in the Middle East. First, his political opponents in the US, including commentators in the Washington Post and the New York Times, were writing that he has been weak in the face of Iranian attacks in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Second, the US was facing an imminent emergency vote in the Iraqi parliament on a motion calling for American troops to leave the country. A senior administration official said the US was working with its allies on the ground to “prevent it from happening”, adding that Iranian proxies were threatening Iraqis who were supportive of the US presence” “The government of Iraq right now is faced with a choice whether they want to be an Iranian satellite state or whether they want to be a sovereign nation-state of good standing in the international community.”4
In this respect, the Iraqi parliament’s vote on January 5 – calling on their government to work on a plan to end US troop presence in the country – was no surprise. In his death, Soleimani has achieved what he probably could not done alive. Those near the centres of power in Iraq must feel thoroughly embarrassed by the current situation. Almost 17 years after the US occupation of Iraq, the current Iraqi state has absolutely no power; it remains a pawn between two enemies who, ironically, managed to unite because both opposed Saddam Hussein. Both the occupation of the US embassy compound in Baghdad by pro-Iranian forces and individuals and the killing of Soleimani by US drones show that the entity I have repeatedly dubbed the “Shia occupation government in Iraq” is not in charge of its own destiny.
During president Hassan Rouhani’s visit to the Soleimani household following his death, the daughter of the general was heard to say that she hopes the Lebanese Hezbollah will revenge her father’s death. In a later TV interview she said: “I am asking the leader of Iran and my uncle Seyed (Hassan Nasrallah) to take revenge on my father’s blood.”5
This was a clear reference to possible attacks against Israel. However, Iran’s Islamic Republic is unlikely to take too many risks – especially not in the immediate future, as the current situation is in its favour right now. The missile attack on US air bases was symbolically significant. It was the first time any country in the Middle East has attacked a US air base. The propaganda inside Iran is very clear: ‘We don’t need to attack US proxies – we are brave enough to take on a superpower.’ On the other hand, they did make sure there were no casualties, so it is true to say that Iran does not want an escalation of military conflict and will concentrate on political steps.
Instead, we have the official announcement declaring a final step in reducing the country’s commitment to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (nuclear deal). According to a government statement, Iran’s nuclear programme “no longer faces any operating restrictions” – the enrichment level and the amount of enriched material would from now on be determined only by the programme’s own “technical needs.” However, the Iranian government confirms it is still committed to continued cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and his president, Hassan Rouhani, are now concentrating on a single slogan: ‘All US troops out of the Middle East’. Of course, they will not achieve this, but US troop withdrawals from Syria and Iraq, followed by a military reduction in Afghanistan, can be claimed as a victory ‘in revenge for Soleimani’, even though we know some of these withdrawals were already on the Pentagon’s agenda.
There is no doubt that the US will be wary of the current wave of patriotism in Iran and the fact that – far from losing support in Iraq – Tehran has managed to consolidate its role there. Thus, we can expect any excuse – eg, an action by a rogue group or the shooting of harmless rockets into the Green Zone in Baghdad – might possibly be used by the US as an excuse to launch an attack on Iran. If such a scenario unfolds, I doubt we will see China or Russia rush to support Iran. Their economic and political interests might demand indignant statements – but no action.
Fight on two fronts
Of course, after long and inconsequential wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, there is no appetite for a land invasion of Iran. In addition, the country’s large and complex landscape would make a successful invasion a very difficult task. Instead, if a war breaks out, we can expect relentless air bombardment intended to weaken the central government and pave the way for separatist movements to launch civil wars (Arab separatists in Khuzestan province, Kurdish demands for unity with Iraqi Kurdistan, calls for Baluchistan to join Pakistan and Azerbaijani demands to join Turkey). Given the size of pro-government processions in the last four days, we can expect any such civil wars to be very bloody indeed. However, while the Middle East is facing a situation far worse than ever before – in contrast the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya will look like a storm in a teacup – though I do not believe that we are on the brink of World War III.
We must condemn US aggression in the region and Trump’s reckless warmongering. However, we will not shed tears for the commander of the Quds force of Revolutionary Guards. We remain committed to the revolutionary overthrow of the Islamic Republic, as opposed to the kind of regime change from above supported by a plethora of rightwing Iranian, Israeli and Saudi forces. These disreputable groups – trying to encourage the US president to pave the way for their ‘alternative’ to come to power – have been silenced by recent events. For months they had been telling the world (and, one assumes, Trump advisors) that a small incident would be sufficient to pave the way for regime change. Millions would pour onto the streets supporting them. But the complete silence of Reza Pahlavi, the ex- Shah’s son, since the assassination of Soleimani and the current threat of war, speaks volumes. The fact that this week the US state department has put restrictions on its staff regarding meetings and discussions with ‘Iran regime change’ organisations – royalists, Mojahedin-e Khalq and the Council for Transition, as well a number of separatist nationalist groups – is good news. The Iranian people can and will deal with the Islamic Republic themselves.
This is why we must fight on two fronts. We unequivocally condemn the US’s war-mongering. At the same time, we will continue to defend the struggles of the workers of Iran against the oppressive neoliberal economic policies of the reactionary religious state that oppresses them.
- New York Times January 6 2020.