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The ‘Crescent General’ and Regional Change

The ‘Crescent General’ and Regional Change

Monday, 4 January, 2021 - 07:45
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

Iran is counting the days for when Donald Trump leaves the White House. It is firing one warning after another at the departing administration, promising surprises from within America. It is raising the stakes, the level of uranium enrichment and threats all at once, while also refraining from granting the leader of the White House an excuse to launch a military operation against it.

On the first anniversary of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, Iran is reminding the world of its ability to keep part of the Middle East in a state of tension. Its rockets and drones are present in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. The militias it has developed in these countries appear prepared to take part with it in going the distance, should it choose to, regardless of the difficult economic conditions these countries are enduring. There is no need to resort to numbers to underscore the suffering of the people amid the economic collapse in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen, all of which was compounded with the coronavirus pandemic.

It is clear that Iran holds the cards in several capitals and maps. It is also clear that it is unable to respond to the massive loss that was Soleimani’s killing. Harassing an American position in the Middle East will favor American hawks who support the use of force against Iran. Such a clash will not be simple, because it will not only impact ties with the Trump administration, but the incoming Biden one. Moreover, any retaliation will lead to the continuation of economic sanctions in a setback to Iran, especially since they have proven that the world would choose ties with America over Tehran.

Iran could have gone in a different direction, towards a limited war with Israel. This choice too seems difficult because such a war would be too much for Lebanon to bear, especially amid the severe crisis it is enduring. Iran also does not have free reign to launch rockets from Syrian territories. This is not limited to the current state of the Syrian army, but also due to the Russian role in the country. The situation in Iraq also does not encourage Iran to use its territories so liberally.

Ultimately, Iran will choose, even without declaring so, to continue to adopt the policy of undermining American relations with several countries in the region. This could take on the shape of demanding America to completely pull out its forces from Iraq, continue to tighten its grip over Lebanon’s decision-making power and use the Houthi proxy more extensively in the Red Sea.

A year ago, Donald Trump took a decision that no one believed an American president could take. He ordered the killing of General Qassem Soleimani.

This killing was different than taking out Usama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Soleimani comes from a different background. He comes from a country that refuses to abandon the heated revolution in favor of establishing normal or regular state institutions. He is a general whose country’s constitution orders its armed forces to “export the revolution”. As commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards, Soleimani was tasked with leading the widescale offensive in the region. He soon took on powers that went beyond his title, arming himself with the breakthroughs he made in several countries and constantly relying on the support from supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Such was born talk that Soleimani was the Iranian regime’s top figure, second only to Khamenei and irrespective of which president was ruling the country.

An Iraqi politician who worked with Soleimani was asked about what he believes were his achievements for Tehran. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he replied: “Iran viewed the American invasion of Iraq as an extraordinary gift. The Saddam regime – even with its nails clipped by the boycott and sanctions - was a barrier against the flood of Iran’s policy and militias in the region. Tehran did not have the ability to impede the American invasion, but it took the decision to prevent the establishment of a stable, pro-America government in Baghdad. It used all means to do so. This is how Soleimani tried to turn the Americans’ stay in Iraq into hell. At times he crossed all red lines by even mobilizing groups that are hostile to Iran itself.”

“Some two years later, after the assassination of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Iran will take the decision to prevent the establishment of a stable Lebanese government that is friendly with the west and moderate Arabs. From this angle, one can perhaps understand the 2006 war against Israel and the so-called May 7, 2008 developments that regulated Tehran’s inheriting of the role the Syrian regime used to play in Lebanon before Hariri’s assassination,” added the official.

“When the Syrian revolt erupted, Tehran took the decision to keep Bashar Assad’s regime in power at any cost. Soleimani was tasked with fulfilling this goal. From this angle, one can understand the Lebanese Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria. Soleimani then brought in militias from several countries without which the regime could not have been saved. Russia alone could not have saved it,” he remarked.

On Yemen, Iran decided to intervene as part of a policy to surround main countries in the region. On the Palestinian scene, Soleimani was the architect of the relationship with the Palestinian “resistance” that led to the establishment of the entity in Gaza, he added.

There is no doubt that the region is on edge. It is no secret that the final weeks of Trump’s term will be boiling with tensions. The question, however, is what will the Biden administration do when it receives these hot files? There is no doubt that Trump has left a strong mark in the American-Iranian confrontation. Soleimani’s assassination itself was gamechanger as was the withdrawal from the nuclear deal and imposition of stifling sanctions.

There is nothing to imply that chanting death to “the great Satan” will lead to its demise. There is also nothing to imply that keeping capitals constantly on the boil will earn Iran the position of “great partner” to the “great Satan.” There is nothing to imply that the heated anniversary of the killing of the “crescent general” will lead to any change. It is no secret that change hinges on Iran accepting that living as a normal state inside a map with internationally recognized borders is better for the future of Iranians than interfering in the affairs of other countries.

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