Chaos and calm in Iran

The Guardian Weekly - - Front Page - By Martin Chulov

Pre­dic­tions about the con­se­quences of Qassem Suleimani’s death started to re­bound across the Mid­dle East, while his wrecked car was still smoul­der­ing. There would be chaos, out­rage, in­sta­bil­ity – maybe even war. Among those who op­posed the killing and those who cheered it on, there was more or less con­sen­sus: things would never be the same again.

A week af­ter Suleimani’s death, that maxim held in a re­gion still grap­pling with its im­pact. Yet the af­ter­math of the as­sas­si­na­tion did not im­me­di­ately cre­ate the tur­moil that many pre­dicted. If any­thing, the heart­land ar­eas of the Ira­nian gen­eral’s ex­tra­or­di­nary sphere of in­flu­ence were eerily calm. His home front, on the other hand, re­mained un­set­tled and reel­ing – not so much as a re­sult of his death, but be­cause of those of 176 pas­sen­gers on­board a Ukrainian air­liner shot from the sky in the pan­icked days that fol­lowed.

Hav­ing lost its most for­mi­da­ble gen­eral, then its col­lec­tive face in a muted coun­ter­strike partly chore­ographed with Wash­ing­ton, Iran’s vaunted mil­i­tary had lost its nerve. And so over­whelm­ing was the

ev­i­dence, it fi­nally had to ad­mit to it.

In­ter­na­tion­ally, Iran’s Revo­lu­tion­ary Guards’ even­tual ac­knowl­edge­ment that its gun­ners had mis­tak­enly shot down the pas­sen­ger plane played rel­a­tively well. The mea culpa stood in stark con­trast to Rus­sia’s per­sis­tent de­nials that it had downed the Malaysian air­liner MH17 five years ear­lier – and the ad­mis­sion was seen as a re­set af­ter a week of fear, loathing and disas­ter.

The home front is very dif­fer­ent though; there the IRGC’s about-face has played poorly, as has the colos­sal mis­take in shoot­ing the plane down. The out­pour­ing of grief and pride that gal­vanised Iran’s regime as Suleimani’s re­mains were car­ried around Iran has given way to em­bar­rass­ment. The mis­sile salvos fired against US bases in re­sponse had mostly missed – pos­si­bly in­ten­tion­ally. One of the few rockets to find a tar­get had hit the wrong one. And now the Revo­lu­tion­ary Guards, the most pow­er­ful in­sti­tu­tion in Iran, are fac­ing scorn.

The lead­er­ship’s cal­cu­la­tions – that it had less to lose by ad­mit­ting its mis­take than it did by deny­ing it in the face of such com­pelling ev­i­dence – may still win the day as the anger of its cit­i­zens sub­sides. But the ex­po­sure of the Revo­lu­tion­ary Guards to ridicule is not some­thing that sits com­fort­ably – es­pe­cially so soon af­ter the demise of a man who had been long con­sid­ered in­de­fati­ga­ble at home and un­touch­able abroad.

Suleimani’s death was a vis­ceral shock to those who both feared and revered him dur­ing the 20 years he be­strode the re­gion, im­pos­ing his will and ad­vanc­ing Iran’s in­ter­ests. All of Iran’s re­gional am­bi­tions were man­i­fested in one man – a mes­sianic fig­ure who few would dare say no to, let alone kill. His vi­o­lent end would, it was thought, surely spark bed­lam.

Yet, with Suleimani buried, Iran hav­ing stood down, its mil­i­tary deal­ing with hu­mil­i­a­tion at home and abroad, a strange sangfroid has de­scended. Iran’s pow­er­ful prox­ies, which were thought to be the apex of its re­sponse, have been mute. Its en­e­mies, on high alert since the drone strike in Bagh­dad in the early hours of 3 Jan­uary, have started to re­lax. And its po­lit­i­cal ri­vals are quickly get­ting used to life with­out the for­mi­da­ble pres­ence of a man who of­ten stood in their way.

Turkey, Is­rael, Rus­sia and Saudi Ara­bia, who tus­sled with Iran for power and in­flu­ence across the re­gion, all knew Suleimani well. Con­ver­sa­tions with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of all four re­gional pow­ers over the past week re­veal a mix of sur­prise that he was killed and re­lief at an af­ter­math that, in their minds, has sharply weak­ened Iran’s re­gional hand.

In Syria, where Suleimani had jos­tled with Vladimir Putin for in­flu­ence over Bashar al-As­sad, Moscow now ap­pears to hold a much eas­ier hand. Never com­fort­able with Iran’s view of what a post-war Syria should look like, Rus­sia’s ef­forts to as­sert its will look as though they will be rel­a­tively unim­peded un­til Suleimani’s re­place­ment es­tab­lishes some au­thor­ity of his own – a process that is un­likely to be quick.

In Le­banon, the most sig­nif­i­cant arm of Iran’s for­eign pro­jec­tion, Hezbol­lah, is tak­ing stock af­ter the loss of its main pa­tron. Its leader, Has­san Nas­ral­lah, long con­sid­ered un­touch­able in the same vein as Suleimani, is now more vul­ner­a­ble than ever, with the Is­raeli po­si­tion that he is too risky a tar­get out­side of a war per­haps now be­ing re­con­sid­ered.

Saudi Ara­bia, an arch foe of Suleimani but one which had feared where his death may lead, has been greatly re­as­sured by the rel­a­tive lack of come­back in the re­gion, by last week­end at least. Turkey too has a freer reign in north­ern Syria and with the re­gion’s Kurds, whose con­nec­tions

‘For so many years of crimes, down with this theoc­racy’

to Iran it had found dif­fi­cult to man­age in re­cent years.

In Iraq, which had buck­led un­der the weight of Suleimani’s tute­lage, his demise is be­ing care­fully cal­i­brated by the ex­ten­sive proxy net­work he built in the wake of the US in­va­sion. Iran’s prox­ies had de­vel­oped a whip hand over much of the coun­try’s af­fairs. But that too is now weaker than it was a week ago. The re­gional pro­ject that Iran had so painstak­ingly built no longer looks as sus­tain­able as it was. In some parts, it looks pos­i­tively shaky.

Few of these im­pli­ca­tions had been gamed out prior to the killing and some of them may be dis­proved if Suleimani’s re­place­ment as com­mand­ing gen­eral of the Quds force as­serts his au­thor­ity quickly. But given the breadth and depth of his pre­de­ces­sor’s work, that seems un­likely. Suleimani’s death was in­deed a defin­ing mo­ment in the Mid­dle East. But per­haps for dif­fer­ent rea­sons than friend or foe had re­alised.

EBRAHIM NOROOZI/AP

▲ Tear­gas fired by po­lice bil­lows at a rally in Tehran to re­mem­ber vic­tims of the Ukrainian plane shot down by an Ira­nian mis­sile

EBRAHIM NOROOZI/AP

▲ In­ves­ti­ga­tors search the wreck­age of the Ukrainian plane brought down by an Ira­nian mis­sile

Fatal tra­jec­tory What hap­pened to Ukraine In­ter­na­tional Air­lines flight 752

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