So much have been said and written in the wake of the assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S airstrike in Iraq on the 3rd of January 2020. The most significant of the worries being that the most important military assassination in the Middle East in the last ten years might lead to another global war. While the fears expressed by observers are quite palpable, the complexities of modern global politics stack the odds against the escalation of the US-Iranian conflict into WWIII.
The Iranian-US animosity dates back to the Iran hostage crisis of 1981 when the United States declared Iran a pariah state, the Reagan administration providing intelligence and resources to Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, Bill Clinton expanding sanctions and ban of exchange of goods and services between the US and Iran, and the US designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization owing to the continued Iranian aggression and expanding influence in the Middle East politics.
However, here is a quick recap of the event that led to the assassination of the man whom the CIA once considered untouchable. Qassem Suleiman orchestrated the attack on the US embassy in Baghdad led by the Iranian backed militia group Kataib Hezbollah. Following the attack, President Donald Trump issued a direct threat to Iran on Twitter saying Iran “will pay a very big price.” President Trump added “This is not a warning, it is a threat,” which provoked a retort from Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, quoting Trump’s tweet saying “you can’t do anything.” It was a provocation that would prove fatal considering the fact Iran has shot down a US drone, hit a US base and attacked a major Saudi oil facility without a response from the US. Iran was acting on a bloated self-confidence.
The motive behind the airstrike against Suleiman’s convoy seems clear, but can the murder of the second most important man in Iran lead to a major Iranian reprisal attack thus leading to a world war? The Iranians will hit back, but not in an open confrontation against the United States. Iran cannot go against the US in a conventional battle. Crooked warfare is how Iran fights especially because of the real cost of escalation against a superpower like the US in a hostile mood. Rather, Iran will retaliate using its sophisticated network of proxies throughout the middle-east to haunt US interests in the region, and even the possibility of carrying out cyber-attacks on key United States institutions.
Furthermore, it is always important to analyze the past when addressing Iran-US conflicts. Iran has always attempted to punch above its weight when dealing with the United States but equally has always been circumspect when faced with an extant US aggression. The ascendancy of defiant Reagan to the white house immediately ensured the release of American diplomats held as hostage by the Iranians after 444 days. The displacement of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein by George Bush sent shockwaves throughout the region which made Iran halt its nuclear program. Also, Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei didn’t become one of the longest-serving rulers in the Middle East by brazenly going to war with the United States. The Mullahs understood the imbalance between a global hegemony like America and a surviving regional actor, they are yet to understand President Trump, who is working to decimate the Iranian economy. The sanctions reimposed by Trump’s administration after Obama’s deal are taking their toll on the Iranian economy, coupled with massive internal demonstrations against the regime in Tehran, going to war against a belligerent minded Trump would call into question Khamenei’s foreign policy priorities domestically.
The social media is awash with the possibility of a war between Iran and America, albeit a global war. These postulations are quite exaggerated because the two countries can neither win properly nor even afford to. Though we have not seen the last of the conflicts, and the trajectory of the Iranian-US conflict might still degenerate into unintended results, one thing is certain, we have entered a new decade of Middle East politics, and it might be more troubling than the last.