What I expected has happened. Iran responded to the killing of its legendary General Qassem Soleimani with military strikes against US bases in Iraq. The strikes were timed to coincide with the time that Soleimani was assassinated, and during his burial. It was a weak response, living up neither to the level of the killing nor the level of the fierce post-assassination rhetoric; no Americans were killed nor did the US suffer any significant losses.
Iran apparently informed the Iraqi government about the attacks before they took place, explaining that they would be hitting Ain Al-Assad and Erbil Air Bases, according to the Iraqi Prime Minister. He in turn told the Americans, so all US personnel were evacuated from the bases. It is as if this is what both sides wanted; a weak Iranian military operation to pacify the anger of the masses and make Iran look good in front of its citizens and allies, and a strong US threat to Iran if it attacks any of its military bases or kills any soldiers so as not to damage America’s prestige in the world.
The world awaited the US response to the Iranian attacks, just as we waited for the response to Soleimani’s assassination. We all wondered how the US would react and we listened carefully to President Donald Trump’s statement. He delayed his announcement to create suspense; it was pure Hollywood. Trump appeared with his Secretary of State and generals behind him, looking as if he was going to declare war, but his words were also weak and did not match the occasion. He avoided a direct threat of military action against Iran and instead called for dialogue with Tehran.
This suggested to the many conspiracy theorists among us that it was all a charade agreed upon in advance by Iran and the US, but it was not. They agreed on a limit beyond which neither of the archenemies would go, and a meeting of common interests despite the enmity between them.
I suspected that this would happen; that this may well be a move to try to elicit popular support for the government, given that Germany and Britain — both signatories to the 2015 deal — have expressed their support for Soleimani’s killing. I believed last week that we will now see international intervention and mediation to get Tehran and Washington back to the negotiations table to resolve outstanding matters, beginning with Iraq and Syria, followed by Yemen and a new nuclear deal. Meanwhile, political analysts believed that there was the potential for a partial or comprehensive war in the region.
A policy of implicit understandings is hidden behind the overt hostility between Washington and Tehran, or what they call an “honour agreement” between the conflicting countries, and Iran’s pragmatic policy is dominated by a culture of trade. Iran has employed it purely to walk away from Soleimani’s death with the greatest gains possible. The incident happened; the man was killed and buried; and so was the Pandora’s Box of secrets regarding Tehran’s relations with America for the past thirty years.
What has Iran gained from Soleimani’s killing? Domestically, there is anger at the regime which reached its climax over the poor economic conditions and demonstrations across the country. After Soleimani’s death, the masses rallied behind the leadership in Tehran; we saw this clearly on the day of his funeral. The same can be said for Iraq, which witnessed protests for months calling for Iran’s departure from the country. This angered the Iranians because they lost their influence over their neighbour, but the revolution was killed by Soleimani’s death.
This is the most important gain, as all of Iraq will be under Iranian control following the Iraqi government’s request for US troops to leave. Trump agreed to this on condition that it is by an understanding and payment of the costs of the air bases, which run to billions of dollars. This would mean Iran’s absolute domination over Iraq without an American partner. This domination would extend of course to Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. These gains were unimaginable without Soleimani’s death.
In this situation, Iran will surround the Gulf States on three sides, which means that its strategic depth has returned for the first time to the borders of the one-time Persian Empire.
On the geostrategic level, Iran has succeeded for the first time in gathering together a strong alliance that stands on its side, including Russia and China, both of which hold America responsible for the current escalation and have warned Washington about igniting a war. They both made contact with Iranian leaders, which is a major political gain that would not have been achieved without Soleimani’s assassination. Iran now appears to be a major player with great weight that has been wronged, granting it unprecedented international support.
Iran has announced that it has suspended the nuclear agreement reached by Barack Obama and the EU countries, and that it will enrich uranium without a ceiling. Soleimani’s murder was the reason given.
Finally, Iran has managed to establish its status as a major regional power feared by its neighbours. They must now co-exist with it, as the power that was protecting them or which they had imagined protected them — the US — has been attacked and did not respond in kind.
What Qassem Soleimani was seeking and wished to achieve, which was to restore the glory of the Persian Empire, will be achieved by his tainted blood after his death. How ironic.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.