Why The Middle East Is Being Set Aflame
Can we, for a moment, go back to the time when Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal or JCPOA) and recall the logic behind the fanciful step? The logic of the Trump administration was that it was scrapping the agreement and advancing on a path to put more sanctions on Iran, so as to force it to the negotiating table again. What is more vivid now was clear way back then too – that Trump’s logic has no footing and that he is framing his Iran policy on the bases of advice from ideological hawks.
On Friday, the 3rd of January, the news emerged that a direct order from Trump led to the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, 62, the most revered general in Iran. By far, the assassination is a devastating and deplorable act on the part of the US. For now, the logic is that the US acted in self-defense to protect its interests in the region. Again, it is confirmed that the line of argument from the Trump administration is inherently hawkish, aggressive and baseless.
As the situation escalates in the Middle East, with each day adding more poison, it needs to be asked: where is that negotiating table to which the Trump administration always pointed to?
Trump appears bent on using unilateral military actions and economic might against Iran and will not waste any opportunity to harm Iran’s interests.
Before we move further, it is important to ask: are decisions to choke Iran’s economy in general and assassinate Soleimani in particular a part of general US policy and interests, or is it purely a Trumpian phenomenon? One needs no special expertise to be able to answer that most of it – if not all – has to do with the current President and his base instincts.
Take the example of the JCPOA. For years, when it came to Iran, the world community has been aligning their opinions and sentiments generally with the US. In the case of the JCPOA, therefore, it was the US along with China, Russia, France, UK, and Germany. But the Trump administration unilaterally pulled itself out of the agreement, causing more harm than benefit to US interests.
However, for Trump it didn’t matter what precisely US interests are. Trump’s logic is simple. What hurts Iran, in the end, benefits the US. So, here is the irony: in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, the opinion of the international community, to a considerable extent, started aligning with the Iranian viewpoint. The symmetry that existed in favour of the US in the course of the JCPOA signing and implementation has flipped.
However justified the underlining US apprehensions were, the unilateral act to withdraw from the agreement provided the Iranians with the moral high ground. However, there is another dimension more consequential than this, it is that the world started questioning the US commitment to strict non-proliferation regime. As the only nuclear agreement that binds Iran to limit its nuclear activities has come to a virtual end, and Iran faces increasing threat to its security, it finds itself compelled to restart its nuclear program. So much for bringing Iran to the table!
Emerging balance of power in the Middle East
To be sure, clear boundaries of spheres of influence are not clearly demarcated in the region.
Up to the end of 2019, Iran was chiefly in retreat in the region. Time and again, Iraq, the stronghold of Shi’ite Islam, has shown its distaste for Iran’s proxies roaming freely within its borders. Also, the current caretaker government is facing relentless protests and rallies against the state’s continuous failure to ensure the welfare of ordinary Iraqis. Moreover, being an essential part of the US alliance system in the region, Iraq cannot openly adhere to dictates and prescriptions from Iran. However, Iraq has a strong and unbreakable relationship with Iran, too. So, Iraq’s strategy in the meantime has been to seek a balance between the US and Iran. But that balance does not seem a practicable reality from now on.
One must remember the fact that the airstrike against Gen Soleimani also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iraq’s most powerful militia. Responding immediately to the assassination, therefore, Iraq’s caretaker Prime Minister, took a strong position, saying, “The assassination of an Iraqi military commander is an aggression on Iraq as a state, government and people. Carrying out […] operations against leading Iraqi figures […] is a flagrant violation of Iraq’s sovereignty and a dangerous escalation that triggers a destructive war in Iraq, the region and the world.” Also, it needs to be carefully evaluated what he added further: the airstrike was a “flagrant violation of the conditions authorizing the presence of US troops” on Iraq’s soil.
So, Iraq has signaled the possibility of asking the US forces to leave the country. By far, Iraq will be most affected in the evolving situation. It is clear that the assassination of Qassem Soleimani will become a battle cry for the local militias and Iranian proxies. They will come to find, more than ever, Iran as their natural ally.
Bashar al-Assad’s Syria is a country whose loyalty to Iran is no secret. Ravaged by a prolonged civil war, the country stands firm in its support for the Iranian regime. The assassination will strengthen the bond between Iran and Syria and both will try to chart out a shared strategy against the US.
Much like Iraq, it is now difficult for Lebanon, too, to maintain balance between the US and Iran. It is a well-known fact that Hezbollah holds great sway in Lebanon. However, forced to make adjustments for its economic revival and regional connectivity, Lebanon is keeping close connection to the US. The cold-blooded attack on Soleimani will surely have a freezing impact on Lebanon’s relations with the US. So, after Iraq, Lebanon will be another country which will be compelled to draw closer to Iran.
There is much to see in Yemen – it will be of great significance as how the Iran-backed Houthi militias respond to the emerging situation. There are a number of precedents which can guide us through to evaluate the Houthis’ future course of action. Helped and armed by the US, the Saudis have been spending much firepower, will and money to exhaust the Houthi militias, but to no avail. In all those years of fighting and facing the wrath of the Saudi-led coalition, the Houthis could count on Gen Soleimani’s support. So, there are enough reasons to believe that the Houthi militias are at the disposal of Iran and its policies. If Soleimani’s killing has done anything, it has further tightened the relationship between Iran and the Houthis.
Therefore, the balance of power is shifting all the way more to favour Iran.
The notion of US credibility
In one way or another, the US claimed the strike as preemptive and defensive in nature. Given the deep-seated history of the US manipulating counter-terrorism language and orchestrating the notion of “imminent threats” to provide legitimacy to its blunt use of aggressive force, one can easily assess how convincing current US claims are.
Mike Pompeo also invoked the notion of credibility of the US actions and resolve. The logic is that the US reserves the right to protect and project its interests in the region and beyond and, therefore, if it feels that its interests are threatened then it will not refrain from using the force. So, if we, for a moment, believe in that logic, it will mean that by eliminating Soleimani the US tried to bolster its credibility – in terms of its actions and intentions. Small wonder, then, that the Israel is the only state to celebrate Soleimani’s death and line up behind the US narrative.
Had the US President been at all interested in genuinely upgrading US credibility in the region, he could rather have focused on bringing Israel and Palestine closer to a two-state solution. The US has long held credibility, especially in the Israel-Palestine dispute, as a “mediator”. However, Trump has put US credibility on a nosedive by openly supporting Israel’s excesses, aggression and settlement policy.
What motivates Trump in this course of action?
Soleimani had been on the radar of the US military and intelligence agencies for many years. Many reports confirm that Bush and Obama administrations also considered Soleimani a dangerous person in the region. Time and again, those administrations had been contemplating on whether to kill him or not. But considering the cost that the killing would entail, the previous administrations rightfully and pragmatically refrained from physically eliminating Soleimani. Even, Mike Pompeo too, during his tenure as the Director of the CIA, moved back and forth on the decision to physically neutralize Soleimani, opting, in the end, restraint as the most suitable choice.
What, then, motivated the Trump administration to embark upon the airstrike?
The answer to the question does not lie in the Middle East. Instead, it is linked to the crises of credibility, legitimacy and impeachment that Trump faces at home.
To be sure, in the aftermath of the airstrike, many questions will be raised during election campaigns on Trump’s ability to honour his commitments on ending wars and bringing the US troops back to home. However, such considerations resonate primarily with Trump’s opponents.
As for Trump supporters, they want to see him strong and boastful. The Soleimani assassination, in a way, provides that opportunity to Trump. Driven by ultra-right-wing sentiments, Trump’s support base has little concern for international norms or ethics.
So, Trump is willing to let hostilities get worse in the Middle East. His administration is aware that Soleimani’s death will worsen the conflagration in the Middle East. In a US election year, Trump will try to present the emerging situation in the Middle East so as to shore up his position at home.
The view from Pakistan
Certainly, during my conversations and interviews, I found that a few Pakistanis are still finding it difficult to truly contemplate Trump’s intentions and the overall situation. There is an easy way, though, to understand this: that is, if one thinks back to the Abhinandan saga. Until February 2019, it was becoming clear that India’s PM Narendra Modi was facing trouble with reelection in India. Then came the fateful Pulwama attack on a convoy of security vehicles which killed nearly 40 personnel from the CRPF, the reserve force in Jammu and Kashmir. The Modi government found a moment of great opportunity in the attack to muster up political support from his ultra-right support base. Furthermore, Modi played the Abhinandan episode, in the ensuing months, so as to project resolve and strength among his base. The result: Modi won a resounding victory in the election.
Trump is playing the same sort of dangerous game in the Middle East.
As for the role of Pakistan, it must be remembered first and foremost that Trump does not have the brainpower to deal with the crises. Secondly, no one in Pakistan should rely on or place confidence on the Trump administration’s capability to ensure things move in the right direction. Thirdly, after scrapping JCPOA and assassinating Soleimani, a Trump-led US is largely a party in the emerging contradictions and conflicts in the region and beyond. Therefore, it is wise for Pakistan to stay away from the crises on one hand, and urge the warring parties to show restraint on the other.