The US assassination of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top commander, and a number of Iraqi militia leaders, on Friday, represents a significant escalation tantamount to an act of war with grave long-term consequences.
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Viewed from Tehran, this is American rogue behaviour run amok, a blatant act of war with the full blown arrogance of a declining superpower willing to cross any red line, transgress any rule of law, to achieve its hegemonic ends.
For the Trump administration, 2019 ended on a sour note, with the double whammy of an impeachment-induced domestic political crisis and a combustible, dangerous escalation in Iraq that could, in light of this latest development, easily turn 2020 into another year of US war in the Middle East.
With the seeds of such a war firmly planted by unbounded Iranophobia, which is reflected in the unilateral US warfare waged under the rubric of a “maximum-pressure strategy,” its slow but steady manifestation in the Iraqi theatre of conflict has become an inescapable reality.
Locked in a zero-sum competition for influence in Iraq, Washington and Tehran are now on a collision course and, unless prudent diplomacy prevails, a highly unlikely possibility in light of Soleimani’s assassination, the current situation will likely trigger a new military dimension in Trump’s anti-Iran strategy.
Some context to this week’s events is useful here.
Coinciding with a joint Iran-Russia-China naval exercise in the Gulf of Oman as a clear indication of Beijing’s and Moscow’s antipathy towards Trump’s anti-Iran policy, last week’s US air strikes on pro-Iran militias in Iraq and Syria have been portrayed as “precision defensive” strikes by the US military in response to the growing threat of pro-Iran forces in the region.
Yet, it is abundantly obvious that these strikes also have geostrategic connotations, in light of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s outreach to leaders in Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia immediately after launching the strikes, which were denounced by Iraq and Syria as a flagrant violation of their sovereignty.
With Saudi and UAE officials warming to the notion of a thaw in relations with Iran, Pompeo’s intention is clearly to neutralise that prospect, which runs contrary to US hegemonic interests in the region. The dependency of Gulf Arab states on the US means they are mortgaged to a sustained rivalry with Iran, which is pushing its own peace card in the region while simultaneously upping the ante against US dominance.
The die has been cast – and the new level of anti-Americanism seen in Iraq today is unlikely to recede any time soon
But it would be a mistake to reduce the sum of US President Donald Trump’s intentions behind the recent air strikes -and most importantly a miscalculated risk like Soleimani’s assassination – to the external circumstances in Iraq and the region, and to overlook the distinct possibility that Trump is drawing from the old playbook of instigating a foreign crisis as a diversion from the domestic perils to his presidency. This recalls how Bill Clinton, back in 1998, ordered an air strike on Iraq on the eve of an important impeachment vote.
Likewise, seeking to deflect attention from the impeachment process, which has gained momentum by the disclosure of more damning evidence suggesting a “quid pro quo” with respect to Ukraine, Trump and his foreign policy team are counting on the political dividends of his latest “standing up” to Iran – including with respect to Iraqis’ assault on the heavily fortified US embassy in Baghdad.
Thus, the entire mainstream US media has lined up behind Trump, crediting him with prudent use of force and patting him on the shoulder for putting aside his earlier reservations over use of force. But little of that US media propaganda for a warmongering US policy – which stands in direct violation of international law – washes with the local population in the region, as even the New York Times has admitted that Iraqis across the political spectrum were united in condemnation of the US attacks, which killed and wounded dozens of Iraqis.
As a result, the tables have turned on the US, and no matter how many tweets Trump sends to the Iraqi people exhorting them to direct their anger against Iran, the die has been cast – and the new level of anti-Americanism seen in Iraq today is unlikely to recede any time soon.
Already, the powerful Sadr faction has called on other Shia political factions to unite to expel the US from Iraqi soil.
As the situation escalates with the killing of both Soleimani and the deputy head of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), it is fair to bet that the US has miscalculated the ramifications of its military action, which has elicited the promise of revenge and retaliation from the Iraqi PMU. The pro-Iran militia will likely freeze or reverse their integration process with the Iraqi armed forces, particularly if they feel Baghdad’s reaction to Trump’s transgression of Iraq’s sovereignty is insufficient.
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