The assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani on January 3 has set in motion a series of horrifying scenarios.
The staggering scale of the outpouring of public feeling within Iran during Soleimani’s funeral makes it 100% certain that with the mourning period ending on Tuesday, Tehran will begin fulfilling Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s vow to take “severe revenge” against the United States.
What form it takes remains to be seen after US President Donald Trump ordered the drone strike that killed Soleimani.
Iran does not seek a war with the US but may leverage the “Axis of Resistance” – Iran, Syria, and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. The targets will be US military assets and personnel regionally and worldwide.
As of now, Iran has no intention of taking on Washington’s regional allies, especially Israel. Importantly, not a single Iranian official has pointed a 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.
Riyadh has let it be known that it is 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 is a member of the ruling royal family, was in Tehran and was received by President Hassan Rouhani.
The Gulf Arab states nonetheless have concerns about collateral damage in the event of Iranian retaliation against any direct US attacks. Trump cannot ignore these concerns.
Meanwhile, a second factor has emerged in the form of the Iraqi demand for the US military to leave the country. Washington failed to stymie the vote by the Iraqi parliament and is hard-pressed to respond to Baghdad’s demand.
There is confusion in the Beltway. The US commander in Iraq, Brigadier General William Seely, accidentally released a draft letter 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 General Mark Milley hastily denied that the US is pulling troops out of Iraq.
Of course, it is inconceivable that Gen. Seely or Gen. Milley and Esper would have conceived of such contradictory decisions without Trump’s approval.
Evidently, Trump can’t make up his mind. In the meantime, Pentagon commanders are 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.
The Pentagon may have realistically assessed that a continued US military presence in Iraq was becoming untenable. But Trump overruled them since the optics of a pullout at this point will be extremely damaging politically.
On the other hand, the 5,000-odd US troops scattered across bases in Iraq will be sitting ducks if the Iraqi militia launches a war of attrition. One cannot rule out a replay of the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings — the attack on a Marine compound in Beirut on the night of October 23 in which 241 US personnel were killed, forcing Reagan to order the 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, as several armed freewheeling Iraqi militia groups are in the fray with previous experience of fighting in the Shi’ite insurgency after the 2003 US invasion.
At a more fundamental level, a third factor is emerging that 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 it will no longer abide by limitations outlined in the 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 carefully 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 were removed.
Arguably, this could mean the final bow for the JCPOA, although it needn’t be. 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 has bearings on the escalating tensions with the US. It is extremely important symbolically and tactically that Tehran made this announcement during the period of mourning. Make no mistake, the decision carried the imprimatur of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Window for diplomacy
To be sure, Tehran is keeping open a narrow window for diplomacy. The EU senses it and has invited Zarif to meet in Brussels on Friday with the foreign ministers of the United Kingdom, France and Germany.
Whether this window will open wider by the weekend is the crucial question. If it does, Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach (sanctions against Iran) will inevitably be brought into it, and an entirely new dynamic can be generated in the overall US-Iran standoff.
Trump is under withering criticism from the Democrats and the US mainstream media for his decision to precipitate the current confrontation. His re-election bid could be in jeopardy if the confrontation intensifies in the months ahead. Most certainly, the law of diminishing returns is at work in Trump’s maximum pressure strategy.
The emotional scenes at Soleimani’s funeral yesterday underscored that the charismatic commander was more like a son to Ayatollah Khamenei, whose grief appeared intensely personal.
What may still be possible is that Iran’s “severe revenge” can be on a scale that Trump can live with, allowing a door to open toward negotiations.