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Iran And The Price For Maintaining Order

Iran And The Price For Maintaining Order

Monday, 13 January, 2020 - 10:45
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The assassination of General Qassem Soleimani and the Iranian response have raised many questions. There is a lot of analysis, while the information is scarce about what’s cooking in the Iranian mind.

It is widely believed that the future of Iranian-US relations will depend on how Tehran will read the successive letters it has received recently.

There are many questions and few answers. Why did Washington choose a message of this caliber, despite knowing what Soleimani represented for the regime in general and for the spiritual guide in particular? Did Washington really have information that Soleimani was planning to strike US embassies and targets to try to destroy Donald Trump’s aspiration for a second term?

Did the US agencies fear an Iranian action that would put Trump in a position similar to that of Jimmy Carter the day he had to deal with the US hostage crisis in Tehran? Why didn’t Washington fear that Soleimani’s assassination would lead to war, especially since Iran can kill Americans here or there whenever it decides to push the response to the level of strong confrontation?

Was Soleimani targeted because the US agencies consider him responsible for killing hundreds of Americans? Or to send a message that the problem with Iran is not limited to its nuclear ambitions, but rather to its large-scale intervention in the region, of which Soleimani was the symbol and leader, and that the US has regained the deterrence capacity that was lost in the Obama days?

Did the Trump administration consider that adding the security threat to the maximum economic pressure could push Iran to reconsider its calculations, as it used to view the US military presence in the region as fragile and that the Americans were more concerned with the Chinese rise than with the Middle East and its oil?

Soleimani was highly present in the security and political backbone of the Iranian regime. While the system does not certainly depend on a single person, the man’s importance to Tehran cannot be belittled.

It is not easy to create a symbol and use it as a recourse in times of distress. So why did the proxy faction that targeted Al-Qaeda in Kirkuk make the mistake of killing an American – a mistake that Iran was avoiding in the last period? Was it to test the ability of proxies to kill Americans and to determine the Trump administration’s aptitude to respond to such attacks? Why did Washington choose to punish the proxy so badly, while putting the blame on the mastermind and then attacking it directly?

Diplomats following Iranian developments believe that Tehran is still reading the Soleimani assassination message, and has so far responded to it by various means.

The first response was to transform Soleimani’s funeral into a show of support to the man and the regime through the presence of large crowds.

The second reaction was firing rockets at US bases in Iraq, while refraining from killing Americans, in order to avoid a strong US response that Trump had threatened to make if US soldiers get killed.

As for the third response, it was the launching of an Iraqi operation to oust US forces from Iraq.

However, the attempt to transform the funeral of Soleimani into an opportunity to show popularity, unity, and ability turned into bad luck. More than 70 people were killed in the stampede. Moreover, the bombing of targets in Iraq was followed by a humanitarian tragedy, the explosion of the Ukrainian passenger plane.

After a period of silence, the Iranian authorities were forced to acknowledge the IRGC’s responsibility, which constituted a new blow to the image of the regime and its security apparatus, in addition to Soleimani’s wound.

Then a new message emerged following the Ukrainian plane disaster. Massive protests recalled images of previous demonstrations and the extreme cruelty used to suppress them.

Added to all this is the persistent message about the increasing economic deterioration caused by the US sanctions, which led officials to admit that the Iranians are living in the most difficult days since the revolution four decades ago.

For observers, the messages sent to Iran are not limited to Iranian territories. Iraqi protests also carry some meaning. Iraqi developments that accompanied Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation showed that the political structure which Iran sponsored in Baghdad collided with a massive public rejection, leading the protesters to raise anti-Iranian slogans, even in Shiite cities that are considered a stronghold of the Popular Mobilization factions.

Moreover, the absence of Kurdish and Sunni representation from the session, in which the Parliament voted for the withdrawal of foreign forces, has indicated the fragility of the Iraqi situation.

During his visit to Kurdistan, Abdul-Mahdi heard that removing the Coalition forces could have dangerous repercussions because the threat of ISIS was still lurking.

It is obvious that Iran cannot do much to improve the situation in Iraq, despite its strength there. It’s not about military and security power, but rather the ability to find solutions.

Another message came this time from Damascus following the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

According to available information, Putin wants to keep Syria out of any possible US-Iranian confrontation.

Some observers noted that a significant portion of the Syrians now believes that accepting Russia’s Syria was a natural prelude to returning to self-control, which entails curbing Iranian influence.

The Lebanese message is also clear. Iran’s allies have the last say in Lebanon. They have chosen the country’s president and enjoy a parliamentary majority. However, the country is searching with difficulty and tension for a new government, amid increasing economic decline and talk of hunger and bankruptcy.

It is clear that Iran cannot provide anything that changes the situation in Lebanon, just as in Yemen, where Houthi missiles deepen the country’s tragedy rather than solving it.

It is difficult to guess how the Iranian mind will read internal and external messages.

Very optimist observers believe that Iran will tend to reduce escalation and oversee the battle to remove US forces from Iraq while awaiting the results of the US elections.

Others go further, saying that the successive messages will renew the controversy in the narrow circles of both the Iranian Revolution and State, especially if it turns out that maintaining order requires holding back the impulsiveness in the region to avoid paying “Soviet prices.”

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