Iran playing for more than revenge
Soleimani killing an opportunity for Iran to boost falling influence in Iraq
If the Iranians played the game the same way that Donald Trump does, then their revenge for the American assassination of Iran’s leading general, Qassem Soleimani, would have been a simple tit-for-tat. For example, just kill U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the man who actually organized the hit and then boasted about it.
If Pompeo was too hard to get at, the Iranians could have got even by murdering any one or two of a hundred other senior U.S. officials. Probably two, because the U.S. drone that hit Soleimani’s car coming out of Baghdad airport also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of Kata’ib Hezbollah, the most powerful proIranian militia in Iraq. An eye for an eye, and so forth.
But Iranians are playing a much longer game than tit-for-tat, and their targets are political, not personal. Instead, they launched a dozen ballistic missiles at two U.S. air-bases in Iraq — after warning the Iraqi government a few minutes before that the strikes were incoming, knowing that the Iraqis would instantly warn the Americans.
So Iranian “honour” has been satisfied — they shot back at the Americans — but no Americans were killed or injured. As they hoped, Donald Trump’s speech one day later effectively signalled that he will not go to the next level of escalation. He’ll just impose more sanctions on Iran, if he can think of any that were previously overlooked.
In practical terms, Iran has already taken its revenge. Its first response, last Sunday, was to announce that it will no longer respect the limits placed on its nuclear programmes by the 2015 nuclear treaty, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Trump pulled the United States out of that treaty in 2018, and Iran has given up hope that the other signatories (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and Germany) would defy the United States and go on trading with Iran. It signed the deal in order to end the sanctions, but all the sanctions are effectively still in place
Tehran didn’t say that it is now going to start working on nuclear weapons, but it will resume producing enriched nuclear fuels in quantities that would make that possible. Iran knew that it would to have to pull the plug on the JCPOA eventually, but Trump’s assassination of Soleimani let it do so with no international uproar. Everybody was busy with the fallout from the assassination instead.
And there’s a second, less visible benefit for Iran from Soleimani’s murder. It greatly strengthens Iran’s political influence in Iraq, which has been falling fast in recent months.
Ever since the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraq has been the scene for intense competition for influence between the United States, which dominated the country militarily, and Iran, whose state religion, the Shia version of Islam, is also the faith of the majority of Iraqis.
There are still about 5,000 American troops in Iraq, but they are now vastly outnumbered by local pro-Iran Shia militias, who did the heavy lifting during the 2014-17 military campaign to crush Islamic State militants in northern Iraq. Lately, however, the proIran faction had been losing ground.
When popular protests broke out in September against the huge corruption of Iraqi politicians and the impoverishment of the general population, the pro-Iran militias started killing the protesters. That was General Soleimani’s idea, and a very serious mistake on his part: the street protests began to target Iranian influence as well.
But Soleimani’s murder has largely erased that resentment: he is now yet another Shia martyr to the cause, and an extraordinary session of the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution on Sunday demanding the expulsion of U.S. troops from Iraq.
The Iraqi political elite may or may not carry through on that policy, but there is genuine outrage that the United States, technically an ally, would make an airstrike just outside Baghdad airport without telling Iraq and kill an invited guest of the Iraq government. This is what contempt looks like, and it rankles.
In just one weekend Iran has had two big diplomatic wins thanks to Soleimani’s assassination. It felt it had to do something militarily as well, but it did the very least that it could, and it seems to have worked.
Iran doesn’t want an all-out war with the United States. The U.S. could not win that war, but Iran would suffer huge damage if there were a flat-out American bombing campaign using only conventional bombs and warheads.
Apocalyptic outcomes to this confrontation are still possible, but they’re not very likely. The Iranians will probably just chug along as before, staying within the letter of the law most of the time and waiting for Trump to make his next mistake in their favour. He’s reliable in that, if in nothing else.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is “Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).”