It has been 24 hours since America droned Qasem Soleimani near Baghdad airport. Now both Iran and the United States are getting ready to deal with a new reality in the Middle East that has (quite literally) exploded into being.
There is a mutual recognition that when Soleimani died, the old rules of the game died alongside him. What is instructive about his assassination is not that it happened, but that it took so long. After all, this was a man whose carefully posed portrait spread across Twitter every time he visited yet another of Iran’s many wars in the region. If I knew when Haji Qasem was in Syria, then the Americans surely did too.
He had survived because, under the Obama and early Trump administrations, Washington feared the consequences of a dead Soleimani more than the malignancy of a living one. That has ended. The message is clear: American toleration for Iranian excess is not endless, even if it comes with a price.
If you hit Soleimani you must, at least, prepare to be hit back. A fact Washington appears to have accepted. Late yesterday, the US announced the impending arrival of around 3,000 more troops to the Middle East, mostly from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Donald Trump claimed he ordered the strike to “stop a war, not start one” but there’s no harm preparing just in case.
On the Iranian side their reaction was almost as expected. As soon as the death was announced the Martyrdom operation kicked into play. The printers whirred and out spewed hagiographic posters of the now dead Soleimani, tacked onto walls and street corners and placed into clutched fists; then came the ubiquitous videos of senior regime officials openly weeping at the news. This particular ‘quirk’ has long confused Western pundits culturally conditioned to see crying as weak or unmanly. In Iran, and indeed the Middle East, this touches on a deep performativity contained in mourning, particularly within Shiism. Put simply: Barbarous revolutionary guard commanders weep because they are expected to.
Then, they fight. And this is what Iran has been promising pretty much constantly over the last day and a half. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has threatened “severe retaliation” against the “criminals” who killed Soleimani. The comparatively reformist-minded President Hassan Rouhani has thundered that, “Iran and other freedom-seeking countries in the region will take his [Soleimani’s] revenge.”
This is to be expected, they could say nothing less. Yet the fact remains that Iran is suffering internal dissent forcing it to do what, as a revolutionary state, it never did for fear of overthrow: massacre protestors in the streets en masse. The economy is broken; governance is dysfunctional; war is surely unthinkable.
And here is where the respective interests between Tehran and Washington converge. Iran would love to defeat the United States in a war but knows it can’t. Yet it must try to punish it. The United States wanted to punish Iran, and did so, but does not want a war with it.
Donald Trump is not a man overburdened with principles, but one consistent belief has held throughout his time in public life: an instinctive aversion to war. This stems not from moral but mercantile reasons (they are expensive and he questions to what end), but it is there nonetheless. He will strike and bomb but when someone, like former national security advisor John Bolton, tries to push him to war he has so far refused.
What has emerged since the hit is a performance from both sides – almost balletic in its synchronicity. Iran is talking tough but in reality, has not threatened specific measures nor moved around forces. It’s early but this is likely to remain the case. It knows it has to strike, but unless it’s foolish – and it is rarely foolish – this will be limited in nature and likely to be more of the same violence, using proxies against targets not intolerable to the United States. This retains Iran’s credibility, while – hopefully – avoiding an escalation too extreme.
The United States for its part wanted to punish Iran. It did so, and it may strike again soon – rumours are that it already has – to complete the message. But the main act is finished and it must now perform its own rituals. First off, the US expects retaliation and must accommodate that. And so it has begun. “Due to heightened tensions in Iraq and the region, the U.S. Embassy urges American citizens to heed the January 2020 Travel Advisory and depart Iraq immediately,” announced the State Department yesterday afternoon.
Coupled with that is Trump’s recent public assurance that he is not seeking “regime change” in Iran (the Iranians’ perennial fear since the 1979 Islamic Revolution). Meanwhile, US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo told an interviewer, in no uncertain terms, that Washington is now committed to “de-escalation.”
That is how the two sides have set out their play. The big unknown for the time being is what exactly Iran will do to retaliate for Soleimani, which is all about saving face – that most important of things for all autocracies. If they miscalculate, or something goes wrong, then a risk of a wider conflict drawing in proxies and allies on both sides, remains a disturbing possibility.
But for now, each side knows their role and remains suspicious of the other. Nonetheless, on they go together in a Middle East for which a new decade has truly brought forth a new dawn.
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