A forlorn hope in US-Iran confrontation

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei leading the prayer before the coffin of Qassem Soleimani, Tehran, Jan. 6, 2020. To his right, President Hassan Rouhani, Speaker of Majlis Ali Larijani and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander Gen. Hossein Salami.

A new dynamics is forming in the week since the assassination of the charismatic Iranian general Hassan Soleimani on January 2. This is apparent at three levels. 

The staggering scale of the outpouring of public feelings within Iran during Soleimani’s funeral makes it one hundred percent certain that with the mourning period ending Tuesday, Tehran will begin work on fulfilling Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s vow to take “severe revenge” against the US. 

Quite obviously, the emotional scenes at Soleimani’s funeral meeting yesterday underscored that the charismatic commander was more like a son for Ayatollah Khamenei, whose grief is intensely personal. 

What form it takes remains to be seen. Iran does not seek a war with the US but may leverage the “Axis of Resistance”. Multiple statements by Iranian officials suggest that the targets will be US military assets and personnel regionally and worldwide. 

As of now, Iran has no intentions to take on the US’ regional allies, especially Israel. (Importantly, not a single Iranian official has pointed finger at Israel for involvement in Soleimani’s murder.)

The Gulf Arab regimes have independently sought assurances from Iran, which explains the hurried trip to Washington by Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khalid (brother of Crown Prince and Defence Minister Mohammed bin Salman.) Prince Khalid met Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Mark Esper.

Riyadh is publicly urging restraint on the part of the Trump administration. Two days ago, Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani (who belongs to the royal family) was in Tehran and was received by President Hassan Rouhani. The Gulf Arab states have concerns about collateral damage in the event of Iranian retaliation against any direct US attacks.   

Meanwhile, a second template has surged in the form of the Iraqi demand to the US military to vacate. Washington failed to pre-empt the move by Iraqi parliament and is hard-pressed to respond to its demand. 

There is confusion in the Beltway. The US commander in Iraq Brig. Gen. William Seely addressed a communication informing the Iraqi military that “in due deference to the sovereignty” of Iraq, the US-led coalition would be “repositioning forces over the course of the coming days and weeks to prepare for onward movement… to ensure that the movement out of Iraq is conducted in a safe and efficient manner.” 

The general added that “we will conduct these operations during hours of darkness to help alleviate any perception that we may be bringing more Coalition Forces” into Iraq. 

But the Pentagon has since scrambled to disown this letter saying it was “poorly worded.” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Mark Milley hastily denied that US is pulling troops out of Iraq. 

Of course, it is inconceivable that Gen. Seely or Gen. Milley and Esper took such contradictory decisions on own authority without Trump’s approval. Evidently, Trump can’t make up his mind. 

The Pentagon commanders should be acutely conscious of the huge groundswell of anti-American sentiments in Iraq following the killing of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was the de-facto commander of Iran-backed (but Iraqi state-sanctioned) Popular Mobilisation Forces comprising battle-hardened Shi’ite militia groups.  

They would realistically assess that continued US military presence in Iraq is becoming untenable. But the optics of a pullout just at this point will be extremely damaging for Trump politically. 

On the other hand, the 5000-odd US troops scattered in bases in Iraq will face attrition. One cannot rule out a replay of the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings — the attack on a Marine compound in Beirut  in the night of October 23 in which 241 US personnel were killed, forcing Reagan to order withdrawal of troops from Lebanon. 

Trump must be calculating that he can threaten Iran and force it to rein in the Iraqi militia groups. But that is a mistaken notion. Besides, several armed freewheeling Iraqi militia groups are in the fray, some of whom fought in the Shi’ite insurgency after the 2003 US invasion. 

However, at a more fundamental level, there is a third template that is struggling to be born which hasn’t received due attention: Iran’s announcement on Sunday regarding the fifth and final step it had pledged to take in response to the US’ withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal (known as JCPOA) in May 2018. 

Iran has announced that it will no longer abide by the limitations put on it under JCPOA with regard to the “number of centrifuges… production including enrichment capacity and percentage and number of enriched uranium and research and expansion.” 

This is a calibrated decision. It does not mean Iran is scrapping the JCPOA, but has rendered the matrix ineffective. According to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Iran will continue to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to review its nuclear research, and would be willing to rejoin the JCPOA if sanctions against it are removed. 

Arguably, this could mean the final bow to the JCPOA, but then, it needn’t necessarily be so. Iran reserves the right to immediately raise its enrichment levels to 20%, but may not do so and would allow the IAEA to maintain inspection access. 

This measured approach on nuclear policy could have bearing on the escalating tensions with the US. It is extremely important that Tehran made this announcement during the period of mourning. Make no mistake, the decision carries the imprimatur of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. 

It suggests that Tehran is keeping a narrow window for diplomacy. The EU has invited Zarif to meet in Brussels on Friday with the foreign ministers of UK, France and Germany. 

Whether this window will open wider or will be slammed shut shortly is the crucial question. For, if it remains open, Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach (sanctions against Iran) will  inevitably be brought into it at some point, and an entirely new dynamics can be generated vis-a-vis the overall US-Iran standoff. 

Trump is under withering criticism from the Democrats and the US mainstream media for his decision to precipitate the present confrontation. As things stand, his re-election bid might even be in jeopardy if the confrontation exacerbates in the months ahead.

What may still be possible is that Iran’s “severe revenge” can be of a scale that Trump can live with, allowing the door to open into the pathway leading to negotiations. It is a forlorn hope but better than no hope at all.