An Uneasy Pause In The U.S.-Iran Standoff
Ten days after the assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani there have been expected and unforeseen consequences. Iran was compelled to react, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei ordained a “direct” and “proportional” response. This came in the form of Iranian missile barrage on three military airfields, one in Iraqi Kurdistan capital Erbil. The last appeared to be due to Kurdish members of parliament boycotting a vote in the Iraqi parliament on a resolution calling for the exit of American troops.
Accidents In The Fog Of War...
Interestingly, the attack on Al-Assad air-base was preceded by Iranians giving a heads-up to the Iraqi leadership who, in turn, alerted U.S. commanders. The aim seemed to be almost identical to the Pakistani retaliatory attack after Balakot last year, near an Indian brigade headquarters. Both appeared to avoid causing loss of life, thus more to make a point than have lethal consequences. In both cases, there was domestic public opinion to appease.
But they also share a tragic common factor. In the fog of ongoing military operations, the Indian Army shot down its own helicopter. Iran did worse by bringing down a Ukrainian civilian airliner, causing massive loss of life.
Indian defence services and the then election-bound Modi government decided to delay the release of a report confirming the gross mistake till after polls were over. Iran tried to hedge but found that international reaction and allegations from leaders like the Canadian prime minister of an Iranian missile bringing the flight down just could not be countered. Thus Iran decided to confess to the tragic mix-up involving a battery commander mistaking the flight for a U.S. cruise missile or bomber. Besides global condemnation, many nations diverted their civilian flights away from Iranian airspace.
The unforeseen consequence has been huge, with angry demonstrations in Iran against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or IRGC and, even more significantly, against the Supreme Leader. This has turned the Iranian people’s ire away from the U.S. for killing an iconic and popular Iranian general towards domestic targets. In fact, Iran had been having even earlier widespread public protests over economic distress, caused by strangulating U.S. sanctions.
The killing of Soleimani had united the Iranian nation behind the regime, which has again ruptured.
Moving Pieces On The Nuclear Chessboard
That leads to the question as to what happens next. The tit-for-tat U.S.-Iran spat has passed for the time being without escalating to open warfare. But fundamental discord over nuclear and strategic issues persists.
Firstly, as regards the nuclear issue, Iran will keep ramping-up its nuclear enrichment programme in a calibrated manner just as this year the five-yearly Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review comes up. North Korea is already defying the U.S. on its nuclear weapons programme despite all the cajoling by President Donald Trump.
A recalcitrant Iran is a poor advertisement for the success of the NPT. For the time being, the U.S. has opted for even more brutal sanctions against Iran rather than engagement in the hope that either Iran will buckle or popular protests will destabilise the regime.
The second issue on which the U.S. wants Iranian restraint is the Iranian missile development programme. The fact that Iran retaliated by firing missiles, which largely hit designated targets showed Iranian advancement in this field.
Iran is emulating the North Korean example of indigenously developing both the delivery capability and nuclear enrichment programme that can, if required one day, turn its stock of fissionable material into a weapon.
The U.S. is now putting pressure on its European allies to also abandon their support for the 2015 nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action, in line with America’s abandonment of deal in May 2018. The U.S. calculation is that a beleaguered Iran will cross all nuclear red-lines, forcing other P-5 members and Germany to declare it dead anyway.
Playing Out Iran’s Next Moves
The final issue at the root of the standoff is Iranian influence across what is called the Shia crescent running from Iran through Shia majority Iraq, Shia-run Syria, albeit with a Sunni majority and its all-weather Shia ally Hezbollah in Lebanon. General Soleimani forged an alliance of forces and militias from within this swathe of territory to dethrone ISIS and destroy its caliphate.
With U.S. interests no longer converging with Iran, the U.S. and its allies led by the Saudis want to put the Iranian genie back in the bottle. For Iran, this is historically its area of influence and common religious affinity, divided by colonial powers after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I ended in 1918.
The hardest issue to resolve will be the post-ISIS distribution of power across West Asia.
Therefore, what is being seen now is a pause before further U.S.-Iran contestation. The danger is that IRGC may seek ‘real’ revenge from the U.S. via its proxies, as was done in Beirut in the 1980s and at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. Both resulted in a heavy loss of U.S. military lives. This is playing out against the backdrop of Trump’s impeachment, which moves to the U.S. Senate this week and the U.S. presidential election in November. Hopefully, Trump’s advisers would remind him that the Iranian Islamic regime cost U.S. President Jimmy Carter his re-election in 1980 by refusing to release American diplomats, held hostage since 1979.
New Delhi’s Tilt Toward Washington
Indian interest in the stability in the Gulf is critical, for six million members of the diaspora, energy supplies, and trade. But India is marginal to the game being played out.
This week, the Iranian and Russian foreign ministers would be in Delhi for the Raisina Dialogue, an Indian attempt to rival other security dialogues in Asia. Truth is, India today is perceived as tilting towards the U.S.-Saudi-UAE axis, which is driving the crusade against Iran. Russia and China are the counterweights and seen by Iran as critical to its security and its economic survival.
Iran would want India to be more even-handed though it suspects India would ultimately pander to American wishes to the extent it does not impact India’s core interests.
That is why the U.S. ambassador, unlike European Union envoys, happily joined the Ministry of External Affairs’ guided tour of Jammu and Kashmir.
A day later, the U.S. State Department balanced matters by reiterating the need to lift curbs and release interned senior politicians.
India is in the unenviable diplomatic position of being caught in the middle of this U.S.-Iran battle of wills. There is a race to see whether Iran will bend before Trump’s November election. Or Iran will set him up, as it did President Carter.
Watch | KC Singh On India-Iran Relations, Fallout Of U.S.-Iran Tensions
KC Singh is a former Indian Ambassador to Iran, and was Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.