The US-IRAN standoff

Sub Title : The standoff has dangerous portents for the world

Issues Details : Vol 13 Issue 6 Jan/Feb 2020

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM & BAR (Retd)

Page No. : 38

Category : Geostrategy

: January 28, 2020

The US Iran standoff has dangerous portents for the world. Gen Ata Hasnain details  a comprehensive  back drop to the stormy  relationship between the two nations,  likely future events, global repercussions and the implications for India

The Event which Sparked it All

The assassination on 3 Jan 2020, of Maj Gen Qasem Soleimani Commander of Iran’s Quds Force considered the second most powerful leader in Iran’s complex hierarchy commenced the new decade with portents of a major war in the Middle East. There was speculation of the possibility of a much larger conflagration due to diverse interests of the big powers and the possibility that the major source of energy for big energy consumers, China, Japan and India would dry up. The US-Iran standoff has been a long standing conflict in the Middle East. Its latest avatar was triggered at the end of 2019 in a spiral of exchanges between the US and various Iran controlled militias in Iraq. It resulted in the targeted assassination of Qasem Soleimani in a drone attack just outside Baghdad airport. Soleimani had just arrived from Damascus in a delayed flight but his movements were covertly reported, and an armed drone flown from a US airbase remained ready in the air. As soon as Soleimani left the airport his car was struck most likely by a Hellfire R9X Ninja missile fired by a MQ-9 Reaper drone flown from the US Al Asad airbase. Along with him Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, founder leader of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi equivalent of the Lebanese Hezbollah, was also killed. Although no tears were shed for Qasem Soleimani in the US, President Trump’s decision to authorize the targeting of Qasem Soleimani was roundly criticized even within the US strategic and political communities on the presumption that the operation was not through in  terms of strategic implications and that the President directed the strike only to divert attention from his falling approval rates.

US-Iran Relationship – The Backdrop to the Current Status

Iran and the US were allies until 1979, the year in which three landmark events took place:-

  • The Revolution in Iran which overthrew the pro-US Shah of Iran and replaced him with rule by the Ayatollahs; a rule that has endured since then.
  • The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan which led to a ten year long proxy war in Afghanistan sponsored by the US and Saudi Arabia, resulting in the defeat of the Soviet Union.
  • The takeover of the Grand Mosque at Mecca by the renegade Ikhwan movement leading to operations to evacuate the occupation by French Special Forces.

The three intrinsically connected events led to a surge in the sectarian divide within Islam and rise of both Sunni and Shia activism to dominate the Islamic narrative. The core centres of the sectarian divide were Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shia) with the US throwing its weight behind Saudi Arabia. The main strategic reasons for the US decision was the necessity to keep its control over the energy belt of the Middle East, prevent Iran’s activism and secure Israel which was its strategic partner and ally since its foundation in 1948.

The Iranian Revolution and the events in its wake involving the taking of 52 hostages from the US Embassy for a period of 444 days, the abortive and disastrous US attempt to rescue the hostages through a Delta Force operation, and the defeat of President Jimmy Carter in the US Presidential election in 1979, severely impacted the prestige of the US and the psyche of its subsequent leaderships. Iran remains a pariah to them and efforts to undermine its economic and strategic capability are almost an ongoing obsessive US intent with regime change as the core aim.

Iran has constantly sought to neutralize the Sunni influence by attempting to enhance its strategic space and expand what has come to be termed the ‘Shia Crescent’ through increase of influence among Shia dominated areas. Demographically the Shia Crescent extends from Azerbaijan through Iran to Syria and Southern Iraq. It has also championed the cause of Palestine thus bringing it into favour with the Palestinian Sunni group Hamas.

Iran’s ambitious clandestine nuclear weapons programme has been the cause of much worry for the big powers and the Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, as well as Turkey; leading to fears of uncontrolled proliferation. Through a long process of sanctions and negotiations which emasculated its economy Iran finally agreed to place its nuclear programme under controls through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of Jul 2015 signed with the P5+1 in return for progressive lifting  of sanctions. However, the coming of President Trump upset this as he unilaterally withdrew the US from the agreement in May 2017 and re-imposed sanctions. The US commitment towards the containment of Iran has since gathered greater energy leading to testing of nerves by each side with acts against merchant shipping and other actions by proxies including targeting of Saudi installations, culminating in the drone attack on the Saudi Aramco oil facility which paralyzed 50 percent of Saudi production capacity for over a fortnight.

A  major irritant for the US has been Iran’s close relationship with the Bashir Assad regime in Syria. Syria is ruled by the Alawites  a quasi-Shia sect which is in minority to the Sunnis. It is, however, the all-powerful sect backed by Iran and Russia. The US has over time improved its ties with almost all Arab countries except Syria.

A silver lining in this progressive ratcheting tension between  the US and Iran over many years, towards an enlarged standoff has been the role Iran played in defeating the Islamic State (IS) with the assistance of Russia and the Iraqi militias. The US too contributed its bit as did the Syrian Government Forces and the Kurdish militias. It was the only time that Iran and the US were weighed on the same side. It was Qasem Soleimani’s coordinating effort of the various forces, the Syrian Army, Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shia militias and the Kurdish elements strongly backed by US airpower which actually helped defeat the IS, although there is no finality about the defeat. IS could always bounce back if other conflicts break out and controls over it are eroded.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)

Iran’s strategic play is masterminded by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a component of Iran’s security set up, created to safeguard the Revolution. Within it another specialist entity is the Quds Force, a 20,000 strong element of the IRGC combining the rare capability of intelligence, liaison, networks and striking power. It is the Quds Force under Major General Qasem Soleimani, which since 1998 have led Iran’s proxy efforts in the Middle East, expanding its strategic reach. The creation of Hasan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah in Lebanon and now its cousin the Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, the Syrian Forces under Bashir Assad and other Shia militias in the region, was the handiwork of Qasem Soleimani who acquired a larger than life image within the Shia communities around the world.

While perception prevails that the US has diluted its concern for the Middle East because its own shale oil  production is providing it a degree of self-sufficiency, the US interest in the region has a strategic dimension far greater than just energy. President Trump’s   three years in office have been characterized by his constant projection that he wants the US adopting a lower profile in the Middle East. However, while he has withdrawn troops from Syria his confrontation with Iran belies any intent of lowering the US involvement there. The US aim is twofold. First remains regime change through which it perceives that the IRGC’s powers will be severely curtailed if a democratically elected political rather than an ideological regime comes to power. That it hopes will lead to dilution of threats within the Middle East scenario. The second US intent is to cap and roll back Iran’s nuclear programme through economic sanctions and as a last resort the physical destruction of the assets that have been created. Short of the use of tactical nuclear weapons to target the ‘deep in the earth’ installations there appear few conventional options of achieving this. One of the major considerations for Iran’s intransigence against the US is the awareness that the US public is war weary with the long engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan and the leadership knows that victory through conventional war is near impossible.

Recent Developments

It is with the backdrop of this long standing dynamics of the US-Iran standoff that a situation exists where both sides remain cautious in attempting an overreach in targeting of the other; anything which will cross the hazy line of tolerance. Clearly the Aramco attack on 14 Sep 2019, although not proven to be originated from Iran, crossed that line and it was a matter of time before which something would go out of hand. That happened at the end of Dec 2019 and witnessed a chain of events starting with an Iraqi Shia militia (Kataib Hezbollah) attack on the K-1 Kirkuk airbase killing a US civil contractor. The US retaliated with three attacks; US warplanes bombing three sites in Iraq, one of them the city of Al-Qaim, and two sites in Syria’s Euphrates River Valley. 25 people were killed and 50 wounded. In further response militia backed protestors attacked the 100 acre compound of the US Embassy raising the spectre of the 1979 attack in Iran on the US Embassy. The escalating spiral led to the assassination of Qasem Soleimani by a drone ambush at Baghdad airport on 3 Jan 2020, again raising the chances of a spiral of escalation. Iran chose to be circumspect in response, using a military-information-diplomatic strategy to fire 22 ballistic missiles at the Asad airbase near Baghdad, claiming 80 US soldiers dead and not pressing beyond. The US denied any human losses and both sides found it convenient to de-escalate. The events gave Iran opportunity to raise passion in the streets while it also provided President Trump an escape route from further escalation.

De-escalation from a position of high intensity can at best be a temporary reprieve. The twenty two year control Qasem Soleimani enjoyed over the proxies may dilute with many attempting to play out their own intent thus endangering peace. The US on the other hand is hell bent on regime change and capping of the nuclear programme.

India’s  Concerns and Interests

It’s a yet developing situation and has not seen any early signs of conflict stabilization with progression still rife. India is severely impacted by the rise in tension in the Middle East which has not yet touched thus far peaceful areas of some of the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) countries where majority of the Indian 8 million diaspora resides and annually remits approximately 40 billion US$ to India. On the energy front more than 50 percent of our oil requirement comes from the Persian Gulf area. Prices have not risen to the extent they could. Every $10 a barrel rise in crude oil prices expands India’s current account deficit (CAD) by 0.4 per cent of GDP. Every 10 per cent increase in crude oil prices can push up the inflation rate by 20 basis points. Every dollar increase in crude prices will increase India’s annual oil import bill by over $1.6 billion. At better times India could absorb this with a racing economy. With the downturn in recent times increase in energy cost will be one of the major contributory causes for higher inflation. The other challenge for India remains the stand of neutrality that it has attempted to take, a risky one where benign diplomacy may hurt Indian interests.

Assessment on Future Course

The US-Iran standoff cannot remain an isolated phenomenon. The entire Middle East is affected by the shift of focus from the Palestinian issue to this conflict which has been progressively taking shape. Much that President Trump may wish to drawdown US presence and decline to fight what he calls other people’s wars, it is US interests which are deeply in connect here. The Middle East is the core centre of the strategic world. East-west connectivity, the future course of the sectarian conflict within Islam, Israel’s future, economic stability based upon energy needs of other nations and Russian interests all make for deep US interests. Even as it attempts to detach itself from the Middle East and focus on the erstwhile pivot of Asia and now the Indo Pacific theatre the more it will have to realize that it will need to keep one leg on the ground there. There are unresolved conflicts which have the potential of erupting without warning. A clear danger comes from Iran’s various proxies who may remain on hold temporarily after the loss of Qasem Soleimani but resurgence is likely very shortly. In the interim the proxies may also attempt independent strategies which could be premature and hurt both US and Iranian interests. A message arising from here is the feasibility of Trump attempting to cut losses in Afghanistan and ensuring an early withdrawal. Some indicators of a deal with the Taliban are already available with Pakistan once again emerging close to the US. Pakistan is also exploiting a cleavage in the Islamic world resulting from the Turkey-Malaysia attempt to subvert Saudi importance and its hold over the most prominent Islamic grouping, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The US-Iran standoff and the Aramco attack by proxies have cautioned Saudi Arabia and Pakistan’s strategic significance appears to have enhanced. There are yet no clear indicators of its mediatory role between Iran and Saudi Arabia but serious attempts are being made. US consultation with Pakistan at the height of the recent crisis indicates that its importance is in no way eroded.

Iran is clearly on the back foot after the spurt in internal turbulence arising from the mistaken identity shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner which resulted in 176 fatalities of mostly Iranians. The remorseful stance adopted by the leadership may help in staving off the public dismay without it going over the top. However, it has shattered the IRGC confidence with the people and this may tempt President Trump to press sanctions even more strictly so that economic woes add to public anger.

The indirect impact of these events will be felt on the battle to finally decimate the IS which continues to have a rump capability. The Kurds have been marginalized by Turkey and the Quds Force would be without the same effectiveness as it enjoyed under Qasim Soleimani. With Iraq involved in some form of non-cooperation with the US the homogeneity earlier achieved no longer exists. A long rope to the IS is likely to emerge. The IS will probably reduce its activities in Af-Pak region and concentrate again in the Middle East looking for other ways of proliferating its influence.

A country with deep strategic interest in the region is Israel and it has been least spoken about during the recent crisis. It did brace itself for some strikes by proxies or even direct retaliation by Iran, but the latter probably did not wish to escalate the issue. That was quite evident from the nature of response which was more a disinformation based psychological event for the sake of internal consumption. Non validated claims of 80 US servicemen killed, served two purposes; de-escalation and attempted retention of internal pride. A strike against Israeli interests would have led to a major escalation.

Iran did make a passing threat that it retained the freedom to target US military bases anywhere in the Gulf region. That lay open the bases in UAE (7000 troops), Qatar (10,000 troops) or Kuwait (13000 troops). These are areas unaffected by developments thus far. If at any stage Iran considers it prudent to escalate the standoff once again and employs proxies for deniability rather than direct targeting the relative peace and tranquility enjoyed by these states would be severely challenged. That would be a situation which would predominantly be against Indian interests; majority of the Indian diaspora exists in these states and Saudi Arabia which too would get embroiled. However, relations with UAE and Qatar have been on the mend and are economically beneficial to Iran.

Is there a feasibility of the US undertaking any further unilateral military action against Iran? That appears unlikely under normal rational considerations because the US cannot take it beyond to higher levels of escalation without a commitment to deploy sufficient troops. President Trump, even with his known inconsistencies is unlikely to do that in an election year.  However, in a typical hybrid war situation there will many non-military offensives to prevent Iran gaining any kind of strategic advantage; these will be mostly in the diplomatic domain.

The country most likely to be in the eye of the storm could well be Iraq. It is suffering economically and wants both the US and Iran out of its territory. That may not be possible anytime in the near future because it’s the strategic space which is crucial to the US, Iran and the IS. The mismatch of desires could lead to turbulence of another kind reminiscent of the period 2003-2011 which also gave rise to the IS. This is where the threat of deterioration of the situation actually lies and the management of Iraq more than any other region will need mature handling with no knee jerk responses.

Iran perceives that it must see President Trump out of office to regain some semblance of an agreement again. The US in turn is working on regime change. In the event of both intents not being achieved this conflict stands potential of greater escalation beyond 2020. The chance of internal purge in Iran peripherally appears possible especially after the recent run of internal turbulence. However, much will depend upon how the economy performs under sanctions. Russia, Japan, China and India may favour Iran but have yet adhered to sanctions. Further tightening of the noose may well see internal disturbances in Iran which could see the end of the rule of the Ayatollahs. Who replaces them remains the million dollar question because even a change at the helm would not guarantee adherence to US calling.