Last week’s joint statement on Iran from the Macron-Johnson-Merkel triumvirate reiterates what everybody already knows but wishes they didn’t have to accept. That is, regardless of the heavy dose of realism à la geopolitical reconfiguration, “Europe” still clings to a backward, 20th-century view of “Pax Americana” and the larger project of neoliberalism that underscores much of how the West still views Asia.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reaction from the international community to General Qasem Soleimani’s assassination has been one of condemnation, with all parties expressing the necessity of defusing tension and preventing escalation. And given recent events so far, this seems to be the general trend.
Yet the reaction from analysts and pundits has been a cascade of inconsistencies, diverging opinions, and knee-jerking.
For better focus, the current case of long-term US-Iranian relations reflects the emergence of three distinct layers of analysis – each growing with sophistication, and each highlighting a core tension with the larger sociological debate over agency versus structure.
The big whodunit
First, there are analyses that focus on the power scenes of political drama. US President Donald Trump, backed into a corner by a looming election and an impeachment process, pulls a Wag the Dog move.
Such a calculated risk puts the attention on Trump the man, deranged and in need of a major distraction. Mainstream media conveniently stop here, but we can go further.
We might again point to what everybody knows but blindly ignores – that the Israeli establishment and the House of Saud wanted Soleimani dead for years but were afraid (and rightly so) of taking him out. That both countries have extensive lobbying and financial ties with the US political establishment and have been cultivating a personal relationship with Trump for years. That maybe – just maybe – they finally found the perfect delusional leader to pull off the unthinkable.
Yet while this narrative is fun in terms of political-sports commentary, the simple fact remains that the mainstream media in the US have been on non-stop overdrive to manufacture the bogeyman of Soleimani as an evil terrorist, hell-bent on killing Americans, who deserved to die.
This is not to support Iranian aggression, or the larger activities of the Quds Force, or to demonize the US foreign posture at all costs. It’s simply to highlight the dirty truth: that before 2020 most Americans had no clue who Soleimani or Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were – and this is because the media were doing their job of manufacturing a convenient discourse around American foreign policy.
What the narrative in the US press reflects is not so much a justification for Trump’s decision, but an implicit fallback mechanism to avoid having to address the real elephant in the room.
And this elephant is the general geopolitical strategy that can be traced back to Dwight Eisenhower, altered through Henry Kissinger in the wake of the Vietnam War, remixed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, made sexy by Ronald Reagan, unipolarized by Bill Clinton’s New World Order, tragically recapitulated by the members of the Project for the New American Century, made humanitarian by Barack Obama, and now made hopelessly delusional by Mike Pompeo.
Many geopolitical analysts have focused on whether the Deep State gave the order to kill Soleimani and have, in the process of analysis, underemphasized the role of Trump the person. The general hostility toward Iranian encroachment came out of the same neoconservative playbook that sought to divide Riyadh from Tehran, make a clean break with Iraq to leverage the oil-rich fields near Kirkuk, and establish a strong posture on the west flank of the Persian Gulf.
The world island of Eurasia again comes up as the structure to explain state behavior. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein meant destroying the western buffer against Iran, which led to a political vacuum the Quds Force was able to fill. And Obama’s failed policy of conducting war from above in Syria was just an extension of the George W Bush administration’s strategic ambitions in the Middle East without physical occupation.
These strategic ambitions meant reformulating the “cops on the beat” doctrine to meet the realities of the changing 21st-century world – namely, a rising China that sought an alternative to unstable oil politics centered on the US financial system and the status of the dollar as the international currency.
Since 2008, China has explicitly attempted to strengthen its influence over South and Central Asia – the area east of Iran (and more importantly the Persian Gulf) – to counter America’s attempted control over the west. And with Russia as a strategic partner, both parties have made efforts to assert geopolitical and institutional might in Central Asia.
And where the threat or use of physical force failed, economic sanctions conveniently took over. This helps explain Trump’s almost pathological insistence on sanctioning Iraq for wanting to kick the Americans out. It ties in perfectly with the larger structural element.
Nietzschean moment of geopolitics
But as many have pointed out, it doesn’t matter where the order came from. And even more radical, it might not matter whether agency (the first layer) or structure (the second) is better at explaining these events.
The simple reality is that we humans may not be in control of geopolitical strategy as much as we think we are. Call it the Nietzsche moment – but instead of God it is our scientific faith in international-relations theory that we have finally killed.
The downing of the Ukrainian plane in Tehran on January 8 has taken commentators by more surprise than Soleimani’s assassination. It just doesn’t make any sense. Why would Iran shoot down a plane that had little connection to the US? And how can it be just a coincidence when the event happened only a few hours after the bombing of the Al-Asad base in Iraq? How could this be just an accident?
One possible answer is that the administrative independence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps led to miscommunication in the technological systems of Iran’s military infrastructure. Missile defense systems were activated to anticipate any American counterattack, some error occurred with respect to the commercial flight, and the plane was shot down.
Yet scratching one’s head for a logical answer reveals that the whole enterprise of explaining state behavior through scientific concepts may be much more limited than we analysts want to believe.
Informed by positivistic epistemology, sociology replaced the free-will-versus determinism-debate with a larger debate over agency versus structure. Except that what was once the unknowable god (determinism) became the knowable, albeit limited, social structure.
Key sociologists of the 19th century from Karl Marx and Max Weber to Georg Simmel and Émile Durkheim were really attempting to explain the relationship between the two – utilizing structural concepts from economy, politics, religion and culture to frame how social organization worked.
At the core of this epistemic approach is a new means of processing and understanding information. Geopolitical analysis built from this scientific edifice by inventing concepts to stabilize a fragmenting relationship between empirical data and rational categorization with respect to state institutions and state actors. This, the ultimate of human activities, rooted in our biological, neurophysiological, and anthropological past, striving against a meaningless world and crying out for some order or structure, became the basis of international relations theory that continues to teach young leaders today.
This doesn’t mean that either the first or second layer is irrelevant or should be discarded. Or that geopolitical analysis or even science is totally bogus and without any purpose. What it does mean, however, is that refinement of discourse through critical analysis must take into account the limit of geopolitical thought in order to move forward. And one hopes that the recent tragedy in Iran will help us realize this.