Blundering into War: What Trump doesn’t know about Iran
At the time of his assassination, General Qasem Soleimani’s strategy in Iraq and other countries in the Middle East with large Shia populations had become counterproductive. He is now guaranteed the status of a great Iranian warrior and a Shia martyr, in spite of the mistakes he made in the last years of his life. The violent repression, orchestrated by Soleimani, of small-scale protests in Iraq last October provoked something close to a mass uprising by the Shia community. Iran and its proxies were blamed for the deaths of more than five hundred protesters and injuries to another fifteen thousand; demonstrators chanting anti-Iranian slogans burned the Iranian consulates in the Shia holy cities of Kerbala and Najaf. Later the same month in Lebanon, vast crowds filled the streets of Beirut, demanding an end to a political status quo that Hizbullah, Iran’s local ally, has fought for decades to create. In Iran itself, protests over fuel price rises were ruthlessly suppressed in November: according to Amnesty International 304 people were killed. At home and abroad, the Shia coalition built up by Iran with immense effort since the revolution of 1979 was falling apart; the Iranian state and its two most powerful regional allies, Hizbullah in Lebanon and the Hashd al-Shaabi (the Popular Mobilisation Forces) in Iraq, were losing their legitimacy as defenders of their communities and opponents of foreign interference in their countries.
Soleimani’s assassination on 3 January has rescued the Iranian leadership from this mounting political crisis. Trump ignored military wisdom – ‘Never interrupt your enemy when he is in the middle of making a mistake’ – at a time when Soleimani, and those who thought like him in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, had made a grave misjudgment in responding to political unrest with extreme force. As the largest crowds since the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 filled the streets of Tehran and other cities to mourn Soleimani, senior members of the Iranian government seemed astonished by a renewed sense of national solidarity. Demands by demonstrators that the government stop wasting money on foreign adventures, like those organised by Soleimani, gave way to calls for vengeance against the US. Since he withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, the purpose of Trump’s Iran policy, and particularly the imposition of sanctions, has been to ramp up popular pressure on the Iranian leadership, forcing them to accede to US demands if they want to remain in power. There was plentiful evidence that this approach was working until the Soleimani killing revived support for the government.
In Iraq, the effect of the assassination is less straightforward: protesters involved in the recent round of demonstrations are unlikely to shed tears for a man who spent the last three months trying to kill them. Yet, perversely, his death undermines the protests. The political elite, which had begun to look as if it might buckle under popular pressure, can now claim that it is defending Iraqi independence and that the greatest threat to sovereignty comes from the US, not Iran. Iraqi leaders sympathetic to the protesters will be more cautious: President Barham Salih, for instance, who recently rejected two nominees for the post of interim prime minister (to replace the discredited Adel Abdul Mahdi) on the grounds that they were too close to the pro-Iranian camp. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader whose support – or tolerance – is essential for any Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, has backed fresh elections. These moves may continue, in a minor key. ‘No Iraqi leader,’ one commentator said after Soleimani’s death, ‘will want to expose himself to accusations of being too pro-American.’ Pro-Iranian paramilitary groups have claimed from the start that the protests were part of a plot by the US and Israel or the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to stage a ‘velvet revolution’ and overthrow the government. These conspiracy theories will gain traction and repression will intensify: on 5 January protesters in the southern city of Nasiriyah were shot at after refusing to take part in funerary rites for Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Hizbullah leader who was killed with Soleimani.
Since Soleimani’s death, Trump and his cabinet have demonised him as a terrorist mastermind responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers. In Iran and Shia communities across the region, he has been presented as a hero, martyred for his country and his faith. The two approaches combine to produce a somewhat exaggerated picture of Soleimani’s significance and a distorted image of his two-track role as the head of the Quds Force, carrying out covert operations and pursuing open diplomacy in parts of the Middle East with significant Shia populations. He would certainly have given the orders for the drone and missile attacks on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and al-Khurais last September, but he was also a highly visible regional politician, acting as an intermediary between different national, ethnic and religious leaders. The Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi says that Soleimani had flown into Baghdad to discuss measures to reduce hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia: ‘He came to deliver a message from Iran in response to the message we had delivered from the Saudis to Iran.’ Trump has denied this, but it is highly likely that what Mahdi says is true.
The US likes to hide the degree to which it has been Iran’s de facto partner, as well as its rival, in Iraq ever since Saddam Hussein (effectively a US ally during the Iran-Iraq war) invaded Kuwait in 1990. The Iranians, for their part, have been discreet about their co-operation with Washington. After the US invasion in 2003, the Americans often dealt with Soleimani, knowingly but at a distance. Both Washington and Tehran had to agree on all Iraqi presidents and prime ministers before they could be appointed. In 2006, the US ambassador proposed Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister: he was thought at first to be close to the Americans, but later shifted towards Iran. This system remained in operation until 2018. Both sides had an interest in maintaining a stable Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, even if they vied to bring it under their influence. Tehran and Washington were closer than they have ever been after Islamic State captured Mosul in 2014; both were determined to stop IS fighters advancing on Baghdad. As the Iraqis put it: ‘They shake their fists at each other over the table, but shake hands under it.’
Soleimani was important in Iraqi and regional politics, but not quite as significant as he liked to pretend. Iraqi politicians in Baghdad were irritated by his grandstanding, especially his habit of having himself photographed with pro-Iranian paramilitaries and implicitly claiming credit for victories over IS that leaders in Baghdad saw as their own. Iraqi leaders were not alone in their criticism. Last year the online magazine Intercept published secret cables from officers of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) stationed in Iraq between 2013 and 2015. Many of these documents concern Soleimani and one of them speculates that maintaining a high profile on the battlefield was a way of preparing his future bid for the Iranian presidency. Of course, feuding between rival intelligence agencies like Quds and MOIS is notorious in every country, but the portrait of Soleimani drawn by MOIS agents is convincing. They were particularly troubled by the degree to which Soleimani’s exploitation of Shia militias fighting in Iraq’s Sunni areas was fuelling sectarianism and leading Sunnis to blame Iran for atrocities. In one cable, an intelligence agent describes a successful attack on the strategically crucial IS-held town of Jurf al-Saqr close to the main road south of Baghdad. Among those taking part were fighters from Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a paramilitary group close to Iran. Victory had been followed by a massacre of Sunni inhabitants. ‘It is mandatory and necessary to put some limits … on the violence being inflicted [on] innocent Sunni people in Iraq and the things that Mr Soleimani is doing.’ He adds that whatever might happen to Sunnis, directly or indirectly, would be blamed on Iran.
Soleimani was undoubtedly a good tactician in the kinds of militarised politics and low-level guerrilla warfare in which Iran has always specialised. ‘They have a PhD in that type of war,’ one Iraqi politician said to me. But Soleimani was not the first or the only commander in the Middle East to attempt to engage a militarily superior enemy at their weakest point. In its confrontation with the US, Iran has been eager to maintain a sense of crisis, while stopping short of all-out military confrontation (including with Israel). Its limited ballistic missile strikes on US bases in Iraq on 8 January show that this strategy remains in place. Iran may also want to halt, or at any rate reduce, its pinprick attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and concentrate instead on forcing the American military out of Iraq by exerting political pressure. But in the long run Iran has no choice but to resume low-level warfare, whatever the risks, as its only viable response to sanctions.
How that might unfold remains unclear, but there is no question that Soleimani’s death has made it much easier for Iran to project its influence in Iraq. His viceregal airs and high visibility, the arrogance of the pro-Iran Hashd and their unrestrained violence towards protesters, have seriously damaged Iran’s reputation, particularly among Iraq’s Shia population, which until recently had looked on Iran as its saviour from IS. Polls indicate that the proportion of Iraqis with a favourable view of Iran fell from 90 per cent in 2015 to less than 50 per cent in 2018. Those who said they saw Iran as a threat to Iraqi sovereignty rose from 25 per cent to 58 per cent over the same period. As the end of last year, one Iraqi analyst in Baghdad was quoted as saying that the Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, should put Soleimani in jail for the damage he had done to Iran’s reputation in Iraq.
Soleimani miscalculated the effect of his repression of the Iraqi protesters, who refused to leave the streets or respond in kind to gunfire. Since every Iraqi family owns a gun, this showed great restraint. He similarly underestimated the likelihood that Trump would eventually react strongly, and might even be prepared to go to war, if Iran kept up its needling attacks, including allowing pro-Iran protesters to penetrate the outer gates of the US embassy in Baghdad, as they did in December. The belief that Trump would avoid doing anything that might lead to war had become conventional wisdom among Iranian leaders and their Iraqi allies. When I interviewed Qais al-Khazali, the leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, in September he said confidently that ‘Trump will not go to war’, adding that Iran knew how to keep any confrontation from becoming a full-scale conflict. But Trump is impulsive, ill-informed and keen not to appear weak. He is surrounded by neoconservative interventionists, equally ignorant, but instinctively aggressive. The result is that US policy in the Middle East – the on-off US withdrawal from Syria last year was typical – is a chaotic compromise between different factions in Washington.
Last summer Iraqis were predicting that a new crisis was on its way, even though the country was more peaceful than at any time since 2003. After Trump withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, they feared that Iraq was bound to become the arena for an Iran-US confrontation. Some friends in Baghdad were already making plans to buy houses or apartments in Turkey. Iraqis tend to take a pessimistic view of the future after forty years of crisis and war, but their forecasts rapidly turned out to be correct. They recognised that any quarrel fought out in Iraq is unlikely to produce a decisive victory because power in the country is divided between the government, the religious hierarchy, the paramilitary forces and the tribes. But even this is an oversimplification, since Iraq is split between Shia, Sunni and Kurds. The Sunni and Kurdish communities will try to exploit any breakdown of relations between the US and the Shia to increase their own power. But they will not want to be used as pawns to exert leverage against Baghdad and then abandoned, as they have good reason to suspect that they would be.
It does not take much to destabilise Iraq and the signs are that Trump wouldn’t care if he did. The US approach today is much like the mindless hubris shown by the Americans in Baghdad after the invasion of 2003, when they had no idea what they were doing or whom they were offending. In the face of Trump’s threat to target Iranian cultural monuments, some Iraqis recalled that the last people to do this in the region were IS, when they destroyed Assyrian statues in Mosul and blew up temples in Palmyra. Many cultural sites in this part of the Middle East are religious monuments and any threat to them is likely to have calamitous consequences. When the Golden Mosque in Samarra was bombed in 2006 it triggered a wave of sectarian violence in which tens of thousands were killed.
For Trump, one advantage of Soleimani’s assassination is that the Iranians will be more cautious about launching limited attacks on the US and its allies, though this isn’t to say that they will cease altogether. Iran cannot permanently de-escalate as long as sanctions continue. The intensity and length of the crisis means that accidents are likely to happen, as demonstrated by what appears to have been the unintentional shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane. At the same time, Trump and his administration are peculiarly ill-equipped to judge the likely outcome of any escalation of the conflict, or predict how the Iranians are likely to respond. This makes blundering into war a more than usually likely outcome. Iran has drawn the greater profit from the crisis so far, since Soleimani’s death goes some way to re-energising the nationalist and religious credentials of the regime: Trump’s policy of ‘maximum pressure’ and economic sanctions is now less likely to force Tehran to negotiate what would amount in effect to a capitulation. In Iraq, it is too early to say whether the demand for revolutionary reform expressed in mass street protests will be marginalised or capsized by the crisis, but it will certainly be weakened, perhaps permanently.
Posted on London Review of Books January 2020