Western powers do not want an open war with Iran, but Trump’s zeal may bring one anyway.
On the 3rd of January, while most people were still enjoying the optimistic ‘New Year spirit’ lingering in the air, the killing of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani made headlines around the world. The commander-in-chief of Iran’s Quds Forces was killed in Baghdad, in a US operation that formed the apex in a series of escalations between Washington and Tehran.
Despite the fact that the two nations had gone through several tensions, with the US bombing an Iran-backed militia and Iranian militants storming the US Embassy in Baghdad, nobody expected Trump’s administration to undertake such a provocative and resolute operation.
The killing unleashed unprecedented rage from Tehran, with Iranian leaders vowing to retaliate — beginning with the launching of missile attacks on US military bases in Iraq, less than one week after Suleimani’s assassination. According to many analysts, the killing of Suleimani opens a new phase of US-Iran relations, and possibly, a new chapter for the Middle East as a whole.
The General was undoubtedly one of the most powerful and influential men of the Iranian regime, having had a crucial role both as a military general and as a diplomatic figure. Indeed, he was the leader of the Quds forces, an Iranian military organisation specifically dedicated to foreign operations in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. He also engaged in political negotiations with these countries, trying to place Iranian allies in power.
For Iran, maintaining relationships of power with neighbouring countries remains essential and the regime dedicated crucial resources to expanding and maintaining its influence over Iraq, Syria and Lebanon in order to counter Saudi Arabia, its regional opponent, in the struggle for hegemony. The Quds forces undertook countless operations to reinforce Iran’s allies abroad, and, as one example, played a crucial role in maintaining Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad in power during the civil war. It’s clear then that Suleimani’s role was crucial. Indeed, he was one of the most hailed and feared military man in the country and in the whole Middle East.
Trump’s decision to have Suleimani killed was therefore likely motivated by the necessity to reassert US power in the region, especially after the announcement of the withdrawal of US troops from Syria. Washington probably felt that it was losing ground against Iran’s expansionist project and that a bold action was necessary to regain the upper hand. Moreover, Trump is currently going through an impeachment procedure, and the 2020 election is getting closer. Presenting himself as the ‘strong man’, as he did countless times before, and showing off the US’ military power, will appeal to his constituencies and boost his ratings. He could build an entire campaign on how the US needs a strong president to deal with the Middle East, while simultaneously diverting the public’s attention from the impeachment process.
Having said this, despite the internet frenzy about a possible future war, it is unlikely that the Trump administration wants to enter another high-cost and bloody conflict. Let’s not forget that one of the core themes of the President’s 2016 campaign was the promise of taking US troops back home. The killing of Suleimani and the successive provocations (Trump declared that the US army was ready to strike Iranian cultural heritage sites at the first sign of retaliation), do represent a dangerous gamble. If won, it could boost Trump’s popularity and weaken one of the staunchest and most dangerous US antagonisers. If lost, it could unleash unrest and proxy conflicts in an already highly unstable region.
This process has already started, with the Iraqi Parliament voting to expel US troops from its territory, clearly siding with Iran. It is unclear how the US will respond, especially if Iran continues attacking its airbases, and whether it will extend sanctions on Iraq as well. Moreover, the Hizbollah group in Lebanon has already declared its full support for Iran and its willingness to go to extremes in order to avenge Suleimani. And though Iran would never wage an open conflict against the US, given that its military power is far inferior, its militias and numerous allies could. A series of proxy wars and attacks across the Middle East, Israel, and possibly even at strategic sites in the United States is something that we should all be prepared for. Such a situation would be a nightmare for the civilian population in the Middle East. It could also provoke the resurgence of ISIS cells still active in the territory, which would directly benefit from the chaos and lack of security forces.
This deterioration in interstate relations is not limited to the US, Iran and its allies. According to the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the response of the UK, Germany and France (historical allies of the US since the Second World War) has been underwhelming. Germany, in particular, has been less than cooperative, recently announcing that it will reduce its troop in Iraq due to security reason. According to The Guardian, British military personnel is being relocated from Baghdad. Even NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, has not endorsed the US’ operation. Considering that the US is one of the founding and most prominent members of NATO, Stoltenberg’s stance exemplifies the increasing isolation of Trump’s administration.
As the situation continues to evolve, many questions remain and more will surely arise. For now, Iran hasn’t caused serious damage to the US — the American bases it attacked were on alert for months. But, unfortunately, this may just be the beginning. In case of a more serious attack, will European nations side with the US or will they abandon their historical ally? Moreover, Russia’s role in the possible conflict remains unclear. Will it stay impartial, or will it support its Syrian ally Assad who, as already mentioned, has close ties with Tehran? Given Russia’s strong disapproval over the killing of Suleimani it is unlikely to side with the US. What’s more, it’s not presumptuous to assume that Putin would only benefit from a power vacuum in the Middle East.
The picture so far is one where the US is resolutely set to assert its power over Iran, but also finds itself increasingly isolated in this intention. Its Western allies seem unwilling to back Washington in its extreme enterprise. Trump is known for his impulsive decision-making and bold risk-taking, but if this strategy fails, will he back down, or will he continue to push — privately hoping that the backlash will not be too great?