By Dr. Rajesh Krishnamachri
The year has commenced ominously with increased US-Iran tensions triggered by the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani, the long-term head of Iran’s Quds Force. In this note, we address three questions raised by this event:
- What was the status of Qassem Soleimani inside Iran – in particular, does his killing lead ineluctably to the escalation of conflict?
- The Western position on Iran is well-documented and understood, but what is the Iranian position on the imbroglio, both as explicitly stated by its interlocutors and as subtly discerned by their actions and concerns?
- How are different regional powers in West Asia positioned regarding a potential conflict between Iran and United States?
Qassem Soleimani as Viewed in Iran
To access Soleimani’s stature within Iran, one can refer to three observations:
- “Lt. Gen Soleimani” was a senior member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Force (IRGC) and the head of the Quds Force. A rough American analogue to the head of the Quds Force would be someone who was the combined chief of the CIA and the JSOC. He reported directly to Ayatollah Khamenei and was instrumental in projecting Iranian influence across the broader Middle East.
- “Sardar Soleimani” gained popularity within Iran through his role in the Iran-Iraq conflict and later in quickly advancing the fight against ISIS ahead of Western entry. This was expressed through persistent rumors about his political ambitions (which he denied) and anecdotally illustrated by how he was lionized in the animated movie “Battle of the Persian Gulf II” released in 2017.
- “Haj Soleimani” remained personally close to the clerical establishment – indeed, Ayotalloh Khamenei not only officiated in the wedding of his daughter but also publicly referred to him as a “living martyr”, in an ode to Shia veneration of shahadat or martyrdom,
Accounting for Qassem Soleimani’s stature within Iran increases pressure on the Iranian establishment to reciprocate in an appropriate manner to prevent a loss of face – this position is now further hardened by public gestures in the past week such as the raising of a symbolic “flag of revenge” at the holy city of Qom. Hence, it is unfortunately prudent to anticipate a sharp jump in the Kahnian “ladder of escalation”.
To understand the Iranian position, it is important to understand their stated position as well as to decipher the unstated historical background that drives their thinking.
The stated grievance commences from the deposition of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 – with alleged CIA and MI6 support – when he attempted to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). At that time, AIOC was the largest company within the British empire and the Iranian parliament had voted unanimously for this nationalization in view of the company hiding its financial records from Iran. The coup against Mossadegh was indeed followed by a close entente between US and Shah Reza Pehlavi-led Iran – the best exemplar being the provision of a nuclear reactor in 1957 as part of Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. This segment of time is now viewed negatively in Iran following the revolution in 1979 overthrowing the Shah alongside the establishment of an anti-American semi-theocratic rule.
The decade of 1980s – following the hostage crisis in the US embassy in Tehran – witnessed a horrendous Iran-Iraq conflict in which chemical weapons were allegedly used against Iran; incidentally, Qasem Soleimani first rose to fame through his role in this war. The sanctions regime in the decades that followed has extracted a heavy toll on the Iranian economy, an example being the fall in Iran’s contribution to world GDP from 1.9% in 1980 to roughly 1.3% now, despite it having one of the largest natural gas reserves in the world.
Beyond the above stated and expressed grievances lies an unspoken pain that permeates the discourse. The rapid fall in Iran’s hard and soft power status over the past decades has created a sharp incongruence between present-day reality and the traditional pre-eminent role the nation played in its region – an observation seldom acknowledged in Western erudite thought.
As an example, modern commentators often refer to a rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Historically though – the region of Nejd/Hejaz alongside Eastern/Southern parts of the Arabian Peninsula was peripheral to the political consciousness of the Muslim world, dominated as it was at different times and at different parts by rulers in Cairo, Baghdad or Istanbul. In contrast, Iran inherits a powerful state apparatus that has wielded tremendous influence through the ages – from the Achaemenid/Parthian/ Sassanid dynasties in the Zoroastrian phase to Safavids / Afsharid (recall: Nader Shah) in the Islamic era.
Even more critical is the drop in “soft-power” status. Indeed, centuries before Joseph Nye coined the phrase “soft-power”, Iran, anchored by its Persian plurality, acted as a “civilization-state” in the sense of Huntington, much more than a mere “nation-state”. Its influence is exemplified by the observation that various Turkic dynasties, ranging from the Ottomans in Anatolia to the Mughals in India, had deeply internalized the Persianate way of thinking. Further, intellectual dependence on Arabs for religion was sharply reduced by the promotion of the Twelver sect of Shia Islam by Shah Ismail I in the early 1500s with the conversion process being brought to a logical completion by the mid-1600s. This process also eliminated any possible extra-territorial loyalty to the Sunni Ottoman Turks amongst its populace and has contributed to a strong sense of Iranian nationhood. Awareness of this background is critical to both understanding Iran’s past actions as also to anticipate its next steps in the event of conflict escalation.
Positioning of Regional Powers on the Conflict:
The killing of Qassem Soleimani has come in a time when rapid moves of the past decade on the political chess-board of the wider Muslim world are now resolving into clear bipartite blocs. These bipartite blocs are not split by sect/religion as glibly assumed by some commentators, but by competing national interests.
Amongst prominent Sunni powers, Turkey under Erdogan’s AKP continues its drive to regain Ottoman-era dominance over the Muslim world. It initiated a recent conference in Malaysia bringing together Muslim-majority nations including Qatar and Iran- in an attempt seen by some analysts as creating a competitor to the Saudi-dominated Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Turkish interests coincide with Iran on stopping the emergence of a sovereign Kurdish state given Kurdish minorities in both states; both states have also used prominent and public opposition to Israel as a means to strengthen their position within the Muslim ummah. Their interests diverge on support to Assad (Shia-led; if only of the Alawite sect, not Iran’s Twelver) within Syria. Any Turkish role is further complicated by current tensions with the West regarding the issues of migrants entering Europe, Gulen’s extradition, US arms embargo and NATO disagreement on Kurdish question. In addition, Turkey’s entry into Libya last week in favor of the GNA (Government of National Accord) aligns it against LNA (Libyan National Army) supported by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Despite Erdogan’s personal predilections favoring Iran, Turkey’s actual tilt in any Iran-US conflict will strongly depend on the chance of success of the Iranian regime; which in turn will depend on the extent of support/participation offered by China and Russia to Iran.
The Saudi position opposing Iran is clear from both official pronouncements of concern, leaked documents (the “head of a snake” comment) and via the proxy Yemen conflict underway. Any escalation of conflict between Iran and US would test the Saudi strength in persuading critical Arab neighbors, like Iraq and critical non-Arab neighbors like Pakistan to align in its favor.
The Pakistani position remains unclear though tilted in favor of the US-Saudi alliance. The Pakistani ambivalence against antagonizing its geographic neighbor Iran is principally motivated by its fear of importing the Shia-Sunni conflict onto its own citizens. Shia role in Pakistan remains prominent. Historically, many leaders such as Jinnah, Liaquat, Yahya and Iskander were Shia, and Shias are assumed to constitute between 15 and 20 percent of the Pakistani population. Bonded through common participation in the Western bloc after 1947, Pakistan benefited from Iranian support in its 1965 and 1971 conflicts with India to the extent that Iran contemplated a union with Pakistan in the 1960s. However, relations deteriorated in the 1970s with the Shah declining Zulfikar Bhutto’s invitation to the 1974 OIC inaugural, and went further downhill after the rise of Shia clerics in Iran after 1979. In recent years, Pakistan has come to be dependent on China through debt incurred on the CPEC project. Notably, China has tilted towards Iran. Indeed, China just held a tri-partite military exercise with Iran and Russia. In spite of these pro-Iran pressures, Pakistani dependence on US, as illustrated in the phrase – “Army, Allah and America” running Pakistan – and Saudi influence on its Sunni-majority population bias it against Iran. An indication of the Pakistani inclination is Imran Khan pulling out of the Turkey-Iran-Malaysia conference with some media reports ascribing it to Saudi pressure.
Iraq’s relations with Iran remain contentious – as an example, the resolution by the Iraqi parliament asking US personnel to vacate Iraq in the aftermath of Soleimani killing was brought about in a session attended by only half the lawmakers. Its identity as both Arab (bringing it closer to Saudi Arabia) and Shia (bringing it closer to Iran) alongside a contentious history of relations with Iran (collaboration in the pre-Baath era followed by conflict under Saddam) raise the risk of a civil war in the event of an Iran-US conflict. One would expect the Shia establishment in Iraq to align with Iran in spite of reported differences between Iraqi cleric Ali al-Sistani and the Iranian Ali Khamenei; we saw evidence past week with open participation of the Iraqi leaders in funeral of the Iraqi commander killed alongside Soleimani in the drone strike.
The discussion above leads to policy implications for India as well. As well-recognized, India has two deep connections to the region, through oil imports and through the presence of a large number of expatriates. The past week has seen protests from Shias in the Kashmir valley, Chennai and Lucknow. Indian commentators would also recall the attack of Israeli diplomats in New Delhi – an incident attributed by media to Iran and referenced in a recent tweet by the US President. Any escalation of conflict is deleterious to Indian interests – given its current cordial relations with both Saudi Arabia (caveat: a proposed OIC meet on Kashmir in 2020) and Iran (caveat: Khamenei’s occasional statements expressing concern on Kashmir). The Indian government must avoid a reprise of the ill-advised episode from the first Gulf War, where one saw I.K. Gujral embracing Saddam publicly a few months before the US-led alliance attacked Iraq. While further decision making would depend on the evolution of currently fluid and rapidly changing events on the ground, the Indian state will likely find alignment with the US-led western coalition to be in its long-term self-interest.
*Dr. Rajesh Tembarai Krishnamachari is based in New York City and can be reached at [email protected]. The views expressed here are strictly personal and do not reflect those of institutions that the author is associated with.]