Updated on 6 January, 2020
USA - Iran Conflict - US President Donald Trump's decision to authorize a drone strike that killed Iran's most powerful military commander has seen tensions between the two nations escalate.
- The strike against Mr. Soleimani and several Iraqi Shia militia members when they were leaving the airport, was apparently in retaliation for the storming of the American Embassy in Baghdad by protesters earlier this week.
About USA- Iran conflict
- The Islamic revolution in Iran: Iran became an Islamic republic in 1979 when the US-backed monarchy was overthrown and clerics assumed political control under supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini.
- Ever since the Islamic revolution Washington and Iran have been daggers drawn.
- The vast majority of Iran's population are Shia Muslims, and the country is the leading Shia power in the region.
- The 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq overthrew Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab who had been a major Iranian adversary. It opened the way for a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and Iranian influence in the country has been rising ever since.
- Iran’s main goal was to save the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and defeat the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, which was threatening the Baghdad government in 2014.
- Iran backed ‘Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF)’ fought alongside the Iraqi Army, with the U.S. providing air cover, and liberated Iraqi cities in the north and west from the clutches of the IS.
- But once the IS Caliphate was destroyed and tensions were on the rise between Iran and the U.S. after the U.S. pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, the PMF militias started targeting U.S. forces in Iraq.
- Iran has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his fight against opposition groups and the so-called Islamic State (IS). USA is opposing him.
- Iran also believes US-backed Saudi Arabia is trying to destabilize Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Shia movement Hezbollah is part of the government.
- Iran has also successfully mobilised the support of Russia and China and has constructed a regional coalition with Turkey, Qatar and Syria against the US and its allies.
The Cold War between Iran and US-backed Saudi Arabia
- Iran and Saudi Arabia are not directly fighting but they are engaged in a variety of proxy wars (conflicts where they support rival sides and militias) around the region.
- The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is waging a long war against Iran backed Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen.
- Saudi Arabia also backs rebels in Syria and wants to remove its president, Bashar al-Assad, who is a key ally of Iran.
What is Iraq’s position?
- Caught between the U.S. and Iran:
- The U.S., since Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled, has been a major security partner of Iraq.
- On the other side, Iran is Iraq’s more powerful neighbor. Most Shia political parties and leaders in Iraq have deep, historical ties with the Iranian regime.
- The U.S.’s unilateral use of airpower within Iraq targeting Iraqi militias without the permission of the government has upset Baghdad.
- Iraq's parliament has called on the government to order US troops out of the country, following America's killing of the Iranian General Suleimani and a top Iraqi commander.
- In theory, the Trump endgame is forcing Iran back to the bargaining table for a "better deal" that takes into account not just Iran's nuclear ambitions, but its missile program and regional behavior as well.
- It might help an impeached President in an election year to divert attention from his domestic woes and mobilise political support.
- Iran has seen staggering inflation rates and devaluation of their currency.
- Having fought a losing battle on the economic sanctions front, they decided to open a new front - Military strikes against oil tankers and facilities.
- Self-preservation or protecting the lives of the top leaders is the primary objective of any regime. A failure means a hole in Iran’s deterrence.
- So it is upon Iran not only to take revenge for Gen. Soleimani’s death but also to bolster its deterrence.
Both the antagonists have their respective domestic compulsions: Mr. Trump faces a Senate impeachment and re-election and Iran has its parliamentary elections next month. These factors would, hopefully, limit their options to low-intensity skirmishes.
Significance of Soleimani’s assassination
- State actor: Unlike other persons killed by US strikes in the past, Gen. Soleimani, was an officer of a sovereign state.
- Iran’s strategist in the Middle East: He managed to leverage the disarray in the middle-east to enhance Iranian influence in Arab countries with a significant Shia population such as Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
- Role in Syria and defeating IS: Mr. Soleimani was also the main architect of Iran’s recent foreign operations, mainly in Syria and Iraq, which were crucial in saving the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and defeating the Islamic State (IS) in both countries.
- Commander of the Quds Force: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps IRGC including the Quds Force led by him has contributed roughly 125,000 men to Iran’s forces and has the capability of undertaking asymmetric warfare and covert operations.
- Challenge for USA: The U.S. and its Sunni allies saw his successes being at their cost. In 2011, the US Treasury Department placed him on a sanctions blacklist. In 2019 USA designated the IRGC including the Quds Force as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
- It can be argued that had the U.S. not invaded Iraq in 2003 creating the mother of all chaos, Qassem Soleimani and his Qods Force would have largely remained a sideshow in Lebanon.
- A tit-for-tat between the U.S. and Iran could easily go out of hand and this, in turn, puts the entire Gulf region, the world’s largest supplier of hydrocarbons, at-risk and with it, the already fragile global economy.
- Blow to renegotiation of nuclear deal: The attack has already killed off even the possibility of renegotiating the nuclear deal. Iran might see this as an act of war like any sovereign country would do.
- Blow to USA’s withdrawal from the Middle East: It is unfortunate that the U.S., which is struggling to get out of Afghanistan after 18 years of war, which destroyed the Iraqi state 17 years ago, turning parts of the country into fertile ground for jihadists, is triggering another conflict in the Muslim world.
- The resurgence of IS: A full-scale war between USA-Iran could trigger multiple attacks across the region, destabilizing it further, causing heavy casualties and help the jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda and the IS regroup and re-emerge.
- Instability in Iraq: It is likely to destabilize Iraq, a country with a caretaker government convulsed by nearly three months of youth protests against undue foreign interference by both Iran and the U.S. In a worst-case scenario, Iraq could turn into the new Syria.
- Oil sector as target: This may involve resumed attacks on oil tankers and other low hanging but high value economic targets, particularly in the oil sector. Global oil prices have already seen a 4% rise within hours of the incident.
- The emergence of a new Proxy Front - Russia has already declared support for Iran after the assassination. There is danger of extension of cold war where Russia and China would certainly intervene.
Potential fallout, on India: While we need to be on the right side of the U.S., our ties with Iran, apart from being “civilisational”, have their own geostrategic logic.
- A rise in our oil import bill: Considering India imports more than 80% of its oil requirements, any increase in crude oil price is always a cause for concern.
- Difficulties in oil supplies: Tehran has promised to retaliate, and one place is particularly vulnerable: the Strait of Hormuz, off Iran's southern coast. The channel, which is only 21 miles wide at its narrowest point, is the only way to move oil from the Persian Gulf to the world's oceans.
- The safety of an estimated eight million expatriates in the Gulf may be affected.
- Rise of inflation in India: Any increase in the price of crude oil will also impact the wholesale price index (WPI) inflation commensurately. Crude oil and its products have a weight of 10.4% in the WPI.
- Fiscal stress: Increase in oil price can also pose a challenge for the government on the fiscal side, and the assumption made for the upcoming Union Budget.
- Affecting the US-Taliban peace process: Iran supported by Russia has the capacity to influence the U.S.-Taliban peace process in Afghanistan, a neighboring country. It can have security implications for India.
- Radicalization in India: After Iran, India has perhaps the largest number of the world’s Shia population and the possibility of some of them being radicalised by this event cannot be ruled out.
- Indian investments in Iran like the Chabahar port in Iran which would now become more vulnerable.
- Challenge for India’s Middle East policy: Delhi will also be under pressure to take a fresh look at its regional policy that sought to overcome the multiple contradictions in the Gulf by trying to be friends with all.
- Given these factors, the regional actors should work towards crafting fresh solution to their long-standing issues collectively.
- The Indian economy is still at a take-off stage. We need a stable energy security. India has to do some tough-talking with USA about our own long-term concerns in the immediate and extended neighbourhood (Iran and Russia included).
- India can leverage its strong ties with P5 countries and significant players of the region like France and Russia to constructively intervene and curb tensions.
- India should also prepare an emergency plan for the safe evacuation of its expatriates in case of conflict.