The killing of Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Al Quds Commander, by the United States, has left the pundits and the public alike pondering what further escalation is in store for the two countries and for the region. It heralds an exciting new year. The U.S. decision to target the most conspicuous symbol of Iran’s military as well as asymmetric power abroad certainly represents a new threshold in the already exceedingly fraught U.S.-Iran relations. Iran made clear, at the highest level, that there will be merciless revenge. A retaliation came five days later, with missiles launched directly from Iran targeting two bases in Iraq housing U.S. (and International Coalition) troops, causing insignificant damage and no casualties. Iran’s leadership has signaled this completes the initial response. The US President read this as “standing-down”.
Viewed on its wider trajectory, this episode does not seem to have come totally out of the blue.
Here is the story behind the big news. The current moment’s dynamics can be tracked through two simultaneous processes. They relate to the 2015 nuclear deal and to Iran’s growing presence in the region.
The nuclear agreement reached between the six powers and Iran was seen as a landmark, as it put limits on Iran’s nuclear activities in return for sanctions relief. But this deal was never only about those provisions written on paper. The whole issue of Iran’s nuclear program has long been a function of its overall strategy in the region. Otherwise, why is all that talk centered around the warhead? The underlying sense of the agreement was to bring Iran out of its international isolation which would in turn hopefully entice it to be less confrontational in its neighborhood and beyond. Yet the region, from Israel to Saudi Arabia to the Gulf States to Egypt, remained unconvinced that the agreement represented a genuine change of heart on Iran’s part and that the limitations brought on Iran by the agreement were sufficient to stop it from eventually acquiring the weapon.
The Trump Administration resolved the issue also for them by withdrawing from the deal and by reinstating sanctions.
Even until that point, Iran’s regional behavior had not moderated towards a less ambitious posturing. On the contrary, it became more deeply involved in the war zones of Syria, Iraq and Yemen through its proxies or directly, even as it reinforced its assets in Lebanon. Yet, in the process, Iran’s regional footprint grew to a point which substantially heightened its exposure too. All the same, Iran continued to capitalize on its battlefield gains. Deriving political dividends out of them and, by so doing, seeking to diminish American presence and influence in the region became a priority.
This was the rising curve for Iran. From the opposite end of the conceptual chart however the line of U.S. resolve was soaring. It began to rise from the moment the USA withdrew from the nuclear deal and gained momentum as Iran took greater advantage of the region’s turmoil. Now they have intersected.
The U.S. perception of security in the Middle East should be read as U.S.-Israeli perception of security. And Iran knows it has been poking both. Both Israel and U.S. have never stopped responding militarily to the presence of or harassment from Iranian and Iran affiliated elements in relative proximity. For a long time, the unwritten rule of engagement between the two sides provided a good enough safety by Middle Eastern standards. Iran would make inroads and consolidate, and Israel together with the U.S. would show the limits of that infiltration.
Now, that has changed. Soleimani’s killing took the U.S. response to the Islamic regime’s core. If there was a grey area for Iran in which it could operate with relative ease (including the leisurely traveling habit of Mr. Soleimani) in the region, that has been eliminated.
I therefore maintain that this was not a rash move. Every consequential foreign policy decision in Washington may have a domestic dimension, and again, President Trump may have had behind his mind the impeachment process and his standing in this election year. But, the decision, though a high-risk one, fits comfortably into the current U.S. overseas involvement context. Mr. Trump has the habit of coloring his decisions with strange tweets, but they are often his mere afterthoughts to the policy choice made in the institutional framework.
Two factors, one specific to the latest escalation, and the other related to the evolving global posturing of the U.S. may have been the primary sources of inspiration for the decision. The first one is Iran’s choice to target the US Embassy in Baghdad. Iran probably thought that a break-in attempt (it doesn’t matter if it was real or mere display) to the Embassy grounds would give US a pause, against the backdrop of its 1979-80 Tehran hostage crisis experience. The United States however, thinking precisely in the light of that very experience, seems to have arrived at the opposite conclusion. By instigating the attack on the Embassy, Iran was in fact directly confronting the USA. A response of the same nature, but which would hurt more, hence became an option.
Second, as part of its evolving global distribution of military power, guided to a considerable degree by its Asian pivot, the United States’ military presence and involvement in the Middle East region rests on limited engagement on the ground and precision intervention from afar. This certainly allows Iran to move around more easily in the region, but not to the point it assumes it can. This is probably what U.S. wanted the Iranian leadership to carve in their minds. Taking the matters from the playing field to their living room was apparently meant to serve this purpose.
Iran has begun to fire back. Its initial response confirms that the sides have already moved to the new phase of direct targeting. Iran’s new declared objective is to end the US military presence in the region. That is not likely. Future confrontation between the two may take different forms, but from this point on, homelands are in the equation.
In dealing with Iran’s revolutionary Islamic regime, one would be well advised to remember that there is an apocalyptic core in their thinking. What we consider a war’s devastation can well be conceived by them as the welcome circumstance for ultimate reckoning. Also, martyrdom perpetuates the revolutionary spirit. And, given the context in which this escalation took place, the issue for Iran’s regime goes beyond vengeance. Its credibility in the eyes of its followers and sympathizers is at stake, not to mention its stature at home. It needs to do things measurable on that scale.
In another respect though, the process ahead will highlight the solitude of Iran in the region, beyond its few friends. The official Shiite character of the Iranian State dates not to 1979, but to 1600. It is as national as it is a religious pillar. One should also remember that, after its initial fervor, the 1979 revolution did not have any meaningful traction in the Arab neighborhood despite its leaders’ frantic attempts. The biggest single expansion of influence for Iran came with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which made Iran the sole net winner. But even that acquisition has not been an unmitigated blessing. Iraq’s majority Shiites are deeply divided over how they see Iran. Iraq is a land with a glorious history of its own. Anyone who invests in Sunni-Shiite divide should know its limits especially in the light of 2011 when the Arab status quo was shattered. I shall repeat what I shared in an earlier article; Iran’s long history is replete with cases of overstretch which turned sour.
Crisis management diplomacy should focus on how a framework of disengagement can be devised in the region as the current entanglement has proven unsustainable. This can give a glimpse of how the life will have to be for all military and paramilitary in the region, and may probably induce parties to reflect before they unleash further salvos.
Şafak Göktürk is a retired Turkish diplomat and is 62 years old. During his career (1979-2019), he held numerous positions including those of First Secretary in Athens, Deputy Chief of Mission in Tehran, Consul General in Frankfurt, Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Deputy Director General for the Middle East, Director General for Policy Planning and Ambassador to Egypt, Singapore and Norway. He is married with two children and lives in Ankara.