By Sushant Sareen
In 1998, after a rampaging Taliban conquered the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, around a dozen Iranian diplomats posted in the Iranian consulate went missing. For weeks it was believed that they were in Taliban custody. A livid Iran demanded their immediate release. Iran pressured the Taliban handlers in Islamabad who, as is their wont, insisted that they had no control over their own proxies.
To mount further pressure, Iranian Revolutionary Guards held the largest ever military exercises along the border with Afghanistan. Quite like dire predictions of a wider war breaking out being peddled by even seasoned analysts and observers after the assassination of the shadowy Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, there was a consensus back then that Iran would do something pretty drastic against the medieval monsters, a.k.a. Taliban, who had continued to deny any knowledge about the whereabouts of the missing Iranian diplomats.
A couple of weeks later the news broke that nine of the eleven Iranian diplomats had been killed when the Taliban captured Mazar. There was outrage in Iran. Massive demonstrations were taken out, including outside the Pakistan embassy in Tehran. There was universal condemnation of the killings. Iran now had a casus belli and war seemed inevitable. The then Pakistan army chief Jehangir Karamat feared a disastrous war that would devastate the Islamic world. But nothing of the sort happened. After making a huge song and dance, the Iranians piped down. Forget ‘proportionate’ retaliation, there was virtually nothing that Iran did against the Taliban.
Against the backdrop of the assassination of Soleimani and the over-the-top predictions of how Iran will respond and retaliate, the Mazar-e-Sharif episode is instructive. Iran might have convinced the world, especially the usual suspects in Western media and academia (yes, the same lot that seems to think that India is in the throes of an Arab Spring like movement over the Citizenship Amendment Act) that they will exact ‘harsh revenge’ from the US. But unlike those bracing themselves for Iran’s retaliation which could embroil the entire region in a wider war, the Iranians are neither stupid, nor suicidal.
While it is never smart to underestimate an adversary like Iran, it is also foolish to overestimate the ability and capacity of a country like Iran which has over-extended itself in the region, has an economy which is on the ropes, and is confronting serious internal challenges. This is not to say that the Iranian regime is fragile or tethering on the brink of collapse. Certainly not. But it also doesn’t have a whole lot of space to mess with a superpower like the US and its regional and global allies and partners. Iran cannot really expect either Russia or China to have its back in an open confrontation with the US. There is just too much at stake for everyone, including Russia and China, to support any reckless action by Iran.
Therefore, while there is a reasonably high probability that there will be some response (over and above the impotent shows of defiance and threats of fires of hell engulfing the US and its allies), Iran will in all likelihood try and ensure this response doesn’t violate the threshold of tolerance of the US, and thereby putting both sides on an escalation spiral and finally ignite a war that no one really wants, no one can really afford and no one can really win.
Chances are that Iran will double down on its asymmetric, and to an extent deniable, assets to retaliate. Instead of targeting the US directly, these non-state or para-state assets will be used to target US allies and/or interests. Of course, the US would have factored this in before deciding to take Soleimani out. On Iran’s part, while it is likely to calibrate its retaliation to not violate US red-lines, it always runs the risk of violating the red-lines of US allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. Until now, the Saudis have absorbed the blows delivered by Iran without retaliating. But for how long?
Iran has for long been upping the ante in the Middle-East through its proxies, and other countries haven’t really been able to counter Iranian provocations effectively. The Saudis along with Emiratis tried in Yemen but failed. The Israelis have serious concerns about the Iranian assistance and influence on Hamas and Hizbollah. Iran has therefore felt emboldened to keep pushing the envelope. Until Soleimani was killed, whatever pushback there was against Iran was not really making a difference. It was always below the level at which Iran would start getting deterred. It might seem counter intuitive at this point, but the possibility of the Soleimani killing actually make the Middle-East more stable, or even manageable, cannot entirely be ruled out.
A lot will depend on the calculations, and of course miscalculations that are inherent in the obtaining situation. The sort of fear-mongering and petrified analysis of American politicians and analysts might actually end up convincing Iran to take some action which otherwise it would be extremely reluctant to take. On the other hand, the sort of hysterical rhetoric emanating from Tehran could force the Iranian regime into a commitment trap, and push it to enter into an escalation spiral that leads to war. Even so, Soleimani isn’t likely to become the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the 21st Century.
This commentary originally appeared in Mail Today.