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The Killing of Qassem Soleimani: The US Misreads the Tea Leaves

The killing of Mr. Soleimani is bound to boost the hardliners in Tehran who are now expected to win next month’s Iranian parliamentary election.

Credit: Serhii Lohvyniuk - Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • The killing of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani proves the point: The US has perfected the art of strengthening Iranian hardliners.
  • There is an apparently ingrained misreading of Iranian politics and strategy in Washington circles that has been sustained over decades.
  • The Trump administration may have walked into a trap in which spiralling tension between the US and Iran will be played out on Iranian terms.
  • Soleimani’s killing could spark a tit-for-tat war in which Iran has the advantage of being a master of asymmetric warfare.
  • The future of US forces in Iraq is now at risk, 17 years after US forces toppled Saddam Hussein and $1 trillion later.

The killing of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani proves the point: The United States has perfected the art of strengthening Iranian hardliners.

This unfortunate ability is fuelled by an apparently ingrained misreading of Iranian politics and strategy in Washington circles that has been sustained over decades.

It also suggests that the Trump administration may have walked into a trap in which spiralling tension between the United States and Iran is likely to be played out on Iranian rather than U.S. terms.

Iran is banking on the assumption that taking the United States to the brink of yet another Middle Eastern war will ultimately persuade the Trump administration to return to the negotiating table. It’s a high-risk gamble that so far has produced results.

Chess game under way

Last week’s killing of an American contractor on an Iraqi military base constituted Iran’s latest chess move. It first sparked a U.S. military strike against an Iranian-backed militia, then the killing of Mr. Soleimani and the leader of the militia, Abdul Mahdi al-Muhandis, and the targeting of a militia convoy.

The Iranian move led to the siege of the U.S. embassy in Iraq that conjured up images of the humiliating 1975 evacuation of the U.S. mission in Saigon towards the end of the Vietnam war and the 444-day occupation of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979.

As a consequence, the future of U.S. forces in Iraq is now at risk, 17 years after U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein and $1 trillion later. Iraq’s parliament is about to discuss moves to remove foreign forces from the country.

Iraq: Now a no-go zone for Americans

“A humiliating departure for the United States from Iraq now seems inevitable,” said International Crisis Group Iran expert Ali Vaez. Pro-Iranian militias are counting on the fact that they are Iraqis with close ties to the Iraqi security establishment, which they expect will exclude them from the moves that would primarily target the United States.

Iraq’s influential Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has so far limited himself to calling for restraint in the wake of Mr. Soleimani’s killing. Yet, Mr. Al-Sistani could prove to be the player who definitively sways the pendulum. “How long before Ayatollah Sistani issues a fatwa (religious opinion) asking U.S. troops to leave?” Mr. Vaez asked.

In a similarly humbling development, Iraq, long a primary venue for an ongoing U.S.-Iranian proxy war, has become in the wake of Mr. Soleimani’s death a no-go zone for Americans with the Trump administration urging U.S. citizens to leave immediately to avoid becoming targets.

Saudi nervousness

Earlier, an attack in September on two key Saudi oil facilities, widely believed to have been instigated by Iran, coupled with U.S. president Donald J. Trump’s hesitant response to the assault and the earlier downing of a U.S. drone by Iran, persuaded Saudi Arabia to tone down its rhetoric and explore ways of reducing tension with Iran.

The “sequence of events shows that, thus far, the Iranian strategy of calculated counter-escalation is working… By escalating on its own, Iran forced a number of key players to change their cost-benefit calculus,” said Eldar Mamedov, an advisor to the Social Democrats in the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

While that may be a positive development in and of itself, it also means that regional U.S. allies, with the exception of Israel that wholeheartedly endorsed the killing of Mr. Soleimani, are likely to be more circumspect in their support of the United States amid escalating tensions.

Already, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have called for restraint in the wake of Mr. Soleimani’s death.

Mr. Soleimani’s killing has widened the opening for a tit-for-tat war in which Iran has the advantage of being a master of asymmetric warfare and at playing in grey areas.

Amid massive speculation about how it will respond to the killing, Iran is likely to take its time and strike out of left field, potentially prompting an American response that again risks playing into Iranian hands.

“The Iranians will definitely respond, but not in a way that triggers an all-out war, which they know they would lose,” said Iran expert Dina Esfandiary.

US actually helping Iran’s hardliners

In a further indication of U.S. misreading of the tea leaves, the killing of Mr. Soleimani threatens to amount to a gift for Iranian hardliners who are now expected to win next month’s parliamentary election in Iran.

A hardline victory would spotlight the United States’ repeated shooting of an own goal by adopting policies that undermine its own long-standing aim of persuading Iran to moderate its policies and tone down its revolutionary rhetoric.

Rather than provide incentives, like with the 2015 nuclear accord, U.S. policy has more often than not reinforced perceptions in Tehran that the United States’ real goal was regime change.

Preventing regime change

Mr. Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton reinforced those perceptions in response to Mr. Soleimani’s killing: “Hope this is the first step to regime change in Tehran,” he tweeted.

U.S. policy prompted Iran to adopt a defense and security policy that compensated for the Islamic republic’s intrinsic weakness by emphasizing the very things the United States has long wanted to see change. These include Iran’s successful use of proxies across the Middle East.

Conclusion

The strengthening of Iranian hardliners not only undermines U.S. policy goals but also risks putting the United States in difficult, if not impossible and at times humiliating position, and sucking it into a conflict for which it is ill-equipped.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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