The US President has gambled on igniting anti-clerical protests in Iran and scaring away the Iranians from a retaliatory response to the Soleimani assassination. Should these calculations fail, US allies in Middle East may dissociate themselves from the war with Iran that Trump has launched.
New Delhi: With his ordering of the killing of Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani by the US military, President Donald J. Trump has embarked on a gamble that those advising him expect will lead to the meltdown of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Given the conventional “escalation dominance” of US forces in the Middle East, the expectation of President Trump is clearly that Iranian forces will either swallow the Soleimani escalation without going in for kinetic armed operations directed against US forces or citizens, restraint borne out of fear of being met by a non-proportionate response by the Pentagon to any such move on Teheran’s part. Either way, the calculation in the White House seems to be that the overwhelming bulk of the population within the Islamic Republic of Iran will shed its fear of the military and its auxiliary forces and move into the streets in large enough numbers to cause a gridlock that would severely limit the scope for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to initiate punishing retaliatory strikes against US assets. The intention behind the ever-increasing sanctions regime put in place by the US against Iran is to drive the population of Iran to desperation and onto the streets, as indeed took place recently after modest hikes in the prices of petroleum were announced. Those demonstrations have convinced those advising President Trump on Iran that “the structure (of power in the Islamic Republic) is so rotten that a hard kick would bring it tumbling down”— the killing of the individual who represents the hard internal and external fist of the clerical regime that has been ruling Iran since the clerically engineered collapse of the Bani Sadr government in 1981. The perception of those advising Trump on Iran (who in chemistry and composition share considerable similarity with those who guided the policy of President George W. Bush towards Iraq during 2001-2009) is that the clerical regime in Iran is by its very nature and composition an unreliable partner for peace, and that the same has to be replaced before a stable settlement between Teheran and Washington is arrived at. Of course, public statements and even the tweets of the 45th President of the US mask this stark view of the Khomeinist regime in Iran. The problem with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) arrived at by the UN Security Council Permanent 5 plus Germany, according to the Trump White House, is that its clauses do not in any way address what in its view is the overriding need for regime change in Teheran. Hence the demand by Washington that Teheran agree to conditions, the acceptance of which would result in a steep fall in respect for the clerical regime, especially among its closest followers. Not surprisingly, the clerical regime has declined to commit suicide, thereby making its annihilation the only option possible for the current US administration to follow. There is, therefore, the logic of regime change in the apparently “reckless and poorly thought” steps being taken by the Pentagon on the instructions of President Trump, who would like to witness the meltdown of the clerical regime in Teheran (together—separately—with the much more consequential outcome of ensuring that China does not overtake the US in either GDP or technological prowess for the foreseeable future). Whatever be the perceived idiosyncrasies of President Trump (such as his apparent subservience to the wishes of Turkey’s Wahhabi Head of State R.T. Erdogan), it must be admitted that the 45th President of the US has not gone the way of Barack Obama in flinching from seeking to change the course of geopolitical currents, whether in the case of China or in Iran. The only forceful external intervention by Obama was in the Arab Spring of 2011, but that was mostly the consequence of the activism of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, rather than her nominal boss.
CALCULATION BY U.S.
It is not happenstance that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been repeatedly talking of promoting “freedom” and “democracy” in Iran. The expectation is that the clerical regime is so detested by the bulk of the population of that very consequential country that there would be joy and support for the taking out of a ruthless head of a service known to be the enforcer of the clerical order in Iran. That large sections of the Iranian public would head to the barricades to protest against an acceleration towards a conflict with the US. Clearly, there are individuals within Iran who seek the overthrow of the system of governance headed not by President Rouhani but by Ayatollah Khamenei, and it is possible that the intelligence on the whereabouts of Quds Force Commander Soleimani came not from Iraq (as has been assumed) but from within Iran, from those unhappy at the vice-like grip over authority of the IRGC and its commanders. The operation to kill Commander Soleimani seems to have assumed not just the certainty of some retaliation from the side of the clerical regime, but an outpouring of relief at the passage of the combat veteran. This latter event seems not to have occurred, and those mourning Soleimani seem to be in much greater number than those happy at his passing, and who seem to be in no hurry to advertise their joy lest they be sent to Evin prison. The expectation of the White House appears to have been that the spectacular takeout (in full videographic view) of Soleimani would create panic and confusion within the clerical regime. Instead, it has moved swiftly to install a replacement for an individual regarded by some regime change planners in the US as irreplaceable. As has happened with North Korea, the blocking of transparent means of securing funds has led the regime in Teheran to enter channels that are opaque, yet which generate sufficient funds to ensure that core diplomatic and security needs get met. Where the Iranians seem to have erred is in the assumption that President Trump would not risk a kinetic escalation of the conflict between Washington and Teheran by providing a casus belli in the form of the killing of Commander Soleimani. In order to retain its credibility as a deadly fighting force, and therefore the longevity of the clerical regime, the IRGC will need to inflict serious pain on US military and diplomatic assets in the vicinity of the attack that killed the Quds Force supremo.
Unlike the ideologues with which he has surrounded himself, and for whom the destruction of the clerical regime in Teheran is a sacred mission, Donald J. Trump is a pragmatist willing to gamble on methods and outcomes. Hence his signing off on the decision to kill Soleimani. The worry is if the expectation of popular anger in Teheran at the clerical regime does not manifest itself. That would leave the regime free to devise and carry out countermeasures after what in essence is a declaration of war by the White House against Ayatollah Khamenei and his subordinates. Judging by developments in Iraq, it seems likely that the present US administration has ranged itself on the side of members of the Wahhabi and Sunni community in Iraq who are unhappy at the loss of primacy since 2003 to the Shia majority in the country. In Syria from 2011 onwards, Wahhabi elements and a section of the Sunni community were prodded into launching a “freedom struggle” designed to dislodge Bashar Assad. That struggle directly led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives and to the exodus of millions to Europe and elsewhere. The entire blame for such happenings has been placed at Assad’s door, for the “crime” of fighting to protect his regime and his life from the same fate as befell Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The worry for countries that are reliant for their petroproduct needs on the Middle East is that the regime change champions around Donald Trump will go the way of then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and engineer an armed “freedom struggle” in Iraq against a Shia-majority government that (unsurprisingly) is close to Teheran. The intention behind such a struggle would be to ensure that any alternative regime in Baghdad distance itself from Teheran and move closer towards the Sunni regimes that are close to the US in matters of economics and security. The agitation against the Iraqi regime that is being extensively covered by BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera has created suspicion in the minds of authorities in Baghdad about US-EU intentions, aware as they are of the antipathy that both sides of the Atlantic have towards Shia groups and causes generally. The Sunnis in Iraq (especially the Wahhabi fringe) are eager to assume a leadership position within the Central government in Baghdad, if not the dominance that they had during the period of Saddam Hussein Tikriti. Any effort at reproducing a repeat of the 2011-2018 operations in Syria in Iraq will this time lead to sectarian conflict across the Middle East. However, this would suit the ambitions of Erdogan, who has ensured that Turkey has replaced Saudi Arabia and Qatar as the principal regional backer of the Wahhabi International. The Trump White House seems as unconcerned (or as clueless) about the certainty of such collateral damage should it persist with overt and covert efforts at diluting the power of the Baghdad regime. This time around, given that the clerical regime in Teheran is by now aware that the single-minded focus of the Trump White House is on regime change in Iran, sectarian tensions are likely to flare up in several GCC states, including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The IRGC has had decades in which to establish deep-rooted proxies and sleeper cells in the region, and the taking out of Qassem Soleimani has (in their view) proven that a state of formally undeclared war now exists between the Teheran regime and Washington.
CIVIL WAR IN IRAQ
Should the US military use bases in Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait or elsewhere in the Middle East to launch strikes against Iran, these would almost certainly result in efforts by the clerical regime in Teheran to undermine such regimes through either sectarian strife or acts of violence. Any intensification of the Syria-model “freedom struggle” against the Iraqi government will come on the heels of similar public manifestations in Lebanon against a government that (as in Iraq) has Hezbollah or its variants as a key component. The support given by Trump to the movements in Lebanon and Iraq against the governments there, together with the kinetic action against Soleimani, indicates that President Trump has decided to go all the way in backing the ongoing struggle against Shia power that is being waged not so much by Sunnis as by the Wahhabi component within that substantial global grouping. Just as President George W. Bush (through his obsessive focus on Saddam Hussein Tikriti) opened the way for Iran to gain Iraq as a primary ally, so also the tactics being followed by Trump are likely to result in a Syria-style civil war in Iraq that will generate tens of thousands of casualties and many more times that number refugees from that country. It is also likely to make the US the second non Muslim-majority country in the world after Israel to be the focus for attack by the terror groups within the Shia Middle Eastern Shia community. Another blowback would be a sharp reduction in stability in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, as well as in Kuwait and Qatar, should those countries continue to permit US forces to conduct offensive operations against Iran and its allies from their territory.
Both Vladimir Putin as well as R.T. Erdogan seem to have captured the respect and imagination of President Trump. The US President has gambled on (a) igniting massive anti-clerical protests in Iran and (b) scaring away the Iranians from a robust retaliatory response to the Soleimani assassination. Should these calculations fail, current US allies such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar may need to dissociate themselves from the war with Iran and its allies that Trump has launched. This would open the door for the Sino-Russian military alliance to move into some of the bases that will need to be vacated by the US in a situation where public anger at Washington’s actions leads to severe risk for US nationals throughout the Middle East. Just as George W. Bush opened the door for Iran in Iraq, President Trump may just have given a pathway for the Sino-Russian alliance to replace the US as the predominant external power in the Middle East. In a context of all-out war between Iran and its allies and the US and its diminishing stock of allies, most Middle Eastern powers would be hesitant to host US forces in a way that they would not be to base forces from Russia (which has already proven its reliability as a friend in Syria) and Moscow’s partner, China. Where India will fit in such changing equations is uncertain.