This combination image shows US President Donald Trump, and President Hassan Rouhani. Photo: AFP / Nicholas Kamm / handout

Known as the epicenter of global conflicts for ages, the Middle East is not unfamiliar with crises and wars. At multiple times, cataclysmic events erupted in the region even from minor escalations and skirmishes. The year 2020 started with an ominous development when, on January 3, US President Donald Trump authorized the killing of the head of Iran’s Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani. With the killing of the second-most-revered person in Iran, the speculations of another war in the Middle East run high. For many reasons, the unfortunate death of the Iranian general marks the climax of a US-Iran confrontation that has been simmering for quite a long time.

For Iran and its populace, Soleimani had many faces: the sacred warrior, guardian of some of the holiest sites of the Muslim world, vanguard of Iran’s regional ambitiousness and the right hand of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini. From Iraq to Syria and Yemen to Lebanon, the general played a pivotal role in undermining the US role in the region.

He also built a strong foundation to erode the US victories in the region by introducing other powers to the Middle East chessboard. According to a Reuters report, Soleimani argued the case for Russian involvement in the Middle East by “unfurling a map of Syria in front of the Russian hosts and explaining it to them how Bashar al-Assad’s defeats can be turned into victory – with Russian help.” It was his popularity and concerns about a consequent backlash that prevented the previous US administrations from taking any drastic action against him.

Besides, having faced major setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, engaging in another war is not a wise option for the US right now. Having failed miserably in Afghanistan, a US withdrawal was in the offing. Calling out Washington’s warpaths-to-nowhere, the Trump administration seemed set to put an end to America’s military adventurism. So certainly the question arises as to why it decided to take this cataclysmic action.

Throughout his years in the Oval Office, Trump’s mantra of “America First” has remained hollow and shallow. Having not much in hand while facing impeachment in the US Congress, a pre-election stunt was much needed. Second, for quite some time, the transactional nature of Trump’s presidency gave birth to a budding “bromance” with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. This manifested on multiple occasions especially after the tragic murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Another obvious tilt in his administration is toward the Israeli lobby. In this context, his decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem sparked a worldwide response in the UN General Assembly, leaving the US envoy to the United Nations flustered.

All three factors have contributed to the tensions that have been building up in the Persian Gulf region lately and now have climaxed in the form of killing one of the most revered persons in Iran.

With Soleimani’s targeted killing on Iraqi soil, the US conveyed a very clear message: It does not want a direct confrontation with Tehran but apparently is no longer going to tolerate the Iranian proxies that run counter to US interests

With Soleimani’s targeted killing on Iraqi soil, the US conveyed a very clear message: It does not want a direct confrontation with Tehran but apparently is no longer going to tolerate the Iranian proxies that run counter to US interests. Moreover, it is also evident that in the event of direct confrontation with the US, the consequences could be extremely drastic for Tehran. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s calling to the major powers and the important regional players corroborates this thinking.

For a long time, the US, Israel and Iran’s biggest regional rival, Saudi Arabia, wanted to thwart Tehran’s regional ambitions and hurt its national and civilizational pride. With Soleimani’s assassination, this purpose has been served.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded the killing but reiterated that it was an “American event” and emphasized his support for America’s right to “self-defense.” The state media in Saudi Arabia praised Trump’s action but, in more of an official gesture of suggesting restraint, the Crown Prince directed Vice-Defense Minister Prince Khaled bin Salman to visit Washington and London. Now, the efforts of two of the strongest enemies of Iran are committed to intervening if there are extreme escalations but, until then, suggesting the exercise of “self-defense” only and restoring regional peace and stability (however nominal that might be). Trump’s latest “all is well” tweet, after Iran targeted US bases in Iraq, indicates that the use of force is not going to be the immediate response.

Furthermore, the oil economy that is the major curse of the Middle East becomes a blessing during conflicts like the latest one. After the general’s death, the oil price increased by 3.5% and has been predicted to reach as high as US$70 a barrel. With a negative impact on Wall Street and especially the American manufacturing sector, stocks were down in Asia, Europe and Africa. It is an undeniable fact that no region is immune to the shockwaves that the US-Iran confrontation is sending to the energy markets of the world. Amid increasing trends of protectionism and emerging trade wars, the price hike and the possible disruption of oil supplies from the Middle East point to a nightmare that the capitalist economies and business sectors around the world cannot bear to think of.

While thousands attended the general’s funeral processions, Iran’s Supreme Leader vowed to take severe revenge, but the official statements came with utmost caution. Iran’s government spokesman threatened a “crushing response” to “aggression” but stated clearly that the country was not “seeking a war.”

As expected, Tehran targeted US military bases in Iraq and made a big show of it by claiming heavy casualties of US personnel and equipment. A wounded and livid Iran needed this to appease its people. But already a struggling economy hurt by severe sanctions, Tehran will soon find itself joining the voices calling for restraint and de-escalating tensions with Washington. This will imply curtailing Iran’s regional involvement, but only to a certain extent.

The UN, as with other unilateral actions by Washington, did not condemn the illegal US drone strike, and that too inside a sovereign country, while most countries were restrained in giving supportive statements for Iran. The aggressive response, as unfortunate as it is, came from militant groups. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed to target US forces as an act of revenge for Soleimani’s assassination.

Already a most turbulent region, the Middle East from now on will enter a new era of regional proxies that may mark tough times for US presence and interference in the region.

Ghazanfar Ali Garewal

Ghazanfar Ali Garewal is Lecturer in International Relations department of the National University of Modern Languages in Islamabad (NUML). He holds an MS degree in International Cooperation from Yonsei University, Seoul, an MSc in international relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, and an MA in English from NUML.

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