Published February 7, 2020 in Warp & Woof
What Happens in Iraq Stays in Iraq?
What Really Did Happen in January?
On January 3, we received news that a U.S. drone had killed Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimaniwhile he visited militias in Iraq. He was allegedly the second most powerful man in Iran, a national hero branded by the U.S. as a terrorist. For about one week, the news cycle was dominated by fear of all-out war between the U.S. and Iran.
Iran responded by launching 16 missiles into a U.S. occupied Iraqi air base near Baghdad, with injuries but no fatalities. Diplomatic notes relayed by Swiss intermediaries indicated that this would be the full extent of Iran’s retaliation, for now. Then, as if by Karma, an Iranian missile mistakenly downed a Ukrainian airliner near Tehran’s airport, killing all 176 aboard (many Canadians but no Americans). Street protests in Tehran again turned against the government – as they had been before the drone assassination – giving little respite for the Ayatollah.
News media promptly abandoned talk of potential Iranian cyberwarfare attacks and other doomsday scenarios that had been so prevalent in the preceding week. It was back to the Senate impeachment trial and a feud brewing between two Democratic presidential front-runners.
What happened? Was there really such confidence that nothing would come of such a brazen violation of international law as assassination? The Iraqi parliament overwhelmingly passed a non-binding resolution that all U.S. forces leave the country immediately. Are we so jaded that we just shrug off these incidents as a natural consequence of the still-legal Global War on Terror (GWOT)? In domestic U.S. law, if the killing is in war, it’s not illegal!
It’s useful to look at a consistently erratic U.S. policy toward Iran, and the Middle East in general, stretching back decades – arguably to the 1950s. In 1953, a joint MI6/CIA coup d’etat successfully overthrew the popular prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. His crime: seeking to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The young monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza-Pahlavi became a U.S. puppet, with newly established dictatorial powers (previously Iran had been a constitutional monarchy with most powers devolving to the Majlis and government). At about the same time, the height of the Cold War, U.S. and British oil interests began consolidating their influence over the absolutist monarchy across the Gulf – Saudi Arabia. At that time, control of the huge oil reserves around the Persian Gulf waxed very large in strategic western planning. It was imperative that the Soviet Union not gain control over the region, restricting access to those resources – any political instability in the littoral nations was actively discouraged.
That was then. Today, it is more difficult to understand the importance of that geostrategic principle. Both the U.S. and Russia are self-sufficient in fossil fuel resources, and the world in general needs to collaborate in reducing its dependence on all carbon-intensive fuels. Oil just isn’t a big thing anymore. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran realize this. Yet, their economies depend on oil revenue. And, that’s not the extent of the competition between the two regional would-be hegemons.
When Iran finally succeeded in overthrowing the American puppet Shah in 1979, their revolution was driven by two fundamental precepts, to extricate the Americans and to establish Iran, seat of the Shia sect of Islam, as the spiritual center of the Muslim world. The first of these put them on a collision course with U.S. foreign policy, the second with the Saudi monarchy which claimed full control of the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. Saudis hosted the Haj each year, just as the Ottoman Empire had done until its retreat from Arabia in World War I. It also claimed religious hegemony over Muslims worldwide. Now Iran was challenging that hegemony.
But it was the U.S. that ordered the assassination of an Iranian general in Iraq. Not Saudi Prince Mohammed bin-Salman. The U.S. had even encouraged and aided Saddam Hussein in invading Iran in 1980, leading to an eight-year-long struggle with thousands of casualties, and ultimate Iraqi defeat. Why?
This is where the intricate patchwork of weak nation-states, ethnic enmities, and fragmented alliances among the various nations in the region enter the picture. It’s an old story, going back to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Iraq and Syria, in particular (perhaps Lebanon and Palestine/Israel as well) have never been successful independent states – their peak prosperity and stability was in those late Ottoman days, and as European protectorates later. Ethnic and sectarian tensions have riddled those countries ever since. The oil era was characterized by a monopoly situation, where the region was the only supplier to many world markets. The petty players of the Arabian Peninsula (UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Yemen) also enter the picture. They are the periphery of Saudi power, always vulnerable to exploitation by the Kingdom’s rivals, like Iran. Indeed, since 1979, Iran has become far more aggressive in its efforts to do just that. The Quds Forceof proxy militias in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen, created and directed by Qasem Soleimani, became Iran’s vanguard for establishing regional hegemony over both U.S. interests and Saudi Arabia’s.
But none of this explains why the U.S. felt it needed to assassinate him. Everybody knew he would simply be replaced by another commander. There was no explanation given of any “imminent” threat. Was it simply a distraction from the President’s impeachment trial? By the final week of January, the episode remained a mystery. Iran, to its credit, responded in a measured, rational manner (perhaps merely due to embarrassmentover the mistaken downing of the airliner).
The news media have grown weary of trying to solve the mystery. Perhaps it’s just “too complicated” to garner enough eyeballs or clicks. Adam Schiff’s eloquent summaries of the impeachment case and Bernie Sanders’ spurned handshake after the last Democratic debate make for much more entertaining speculation – they’re not so complicated!