In the patience game, no one is better than Iran, who kept the US waiting anxiously for the Iranian response to the killing of Qassem Suleimani, head of Iran’s elite Al-Quds Force in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
Iran usualy takes its time, however, and the decision-making process in Tehran did not see much deliberation about how to respond to the killing of the second-most powerful man in Iran. The response came on Wednesday, as Iran launched a missile attack on two bases in Iraq that host US troops.
“For Iran, the response will not be mainly about targeting US military interests here or there. The strategic objective that Suleimani worked for was to reduce the American presence in the region to the point of ending it. The Iranian leadership will make sure to finish the job,” a former minister in the government of former Iranian president Mohamed Khatami told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“This process will take time, but time is not a problem. In any case, the legacy of killing Suleimani is already clear, as America is withdrawing its forces from Iraq and reducing numbers elsewhere in the Middle East. The killing of Suleimani would make the presence of US forces in Iraq and the region very risky and unsustainable,” he added.
The former minister was referring to a letter indicating that US troops were about to be moved out of Iraq. Although US officials said later that this was only a draft, there is still much confusion about US intentions.
A top US general said the letter suggesting that the US would withdraw its troops from Iraq was released by mistake, telling reporters “that’s not what’s happening.”
But for over an hour on Monday military officials in Washington and Baghdad were unable to offer a definitive answer about the letter’s veracity or whether it indicated that US troops were, in fact, about to be moved out of Iraq.
The lack of clarity fuelled confusion about the letter’s meaning, and finally Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Miller told reporters that the letter was a draft and its release was an “honest mistake.”
The timing of the incident was revealing, however, as it came when US military officials, along with other members of US President Donald Trump’s national security team, continued to face questions about the killing of Suleimani and what America will do to protect its personnel and military bases in the region.
The Suleimani killing has also put the Iraqi government in a sensitive position, and Iran’s allies in Baghdad will be pressing the Iraqi government to end the American military presence.
“There are tactical and strategic responses. For Iran, any tactical response will be to achieve the strategic goal of making the Middle East unbearable for American troops until they find no other option but to withdraw,” said the former Iranian minster.
The decision-making process in Iran takes place on several levels, the first one consisting of the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, security advisers such as Ali Shamkhani, a former Iranian defence minister, and Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister. There are also Revolutionary Guards generals and other influential ayatollahs.
Then there is the Iranian National Security Council, the Iranian presidency and the Revolutionary Guards itself as an organisation. It is expected that the Revolutionary Guards will play a central role in the Iranian response to Suleimani’s killing.
The escalation is also bad news for the region.
“The assassination of Suleimani puts us on the pathway to military confrontation, and this was the great fear under Trump. He abandoned the nuclear deal with Iran, and that was devastating for any potential dialogue with Iran. Nonetheless, there was hope that in 2020 Trump would come back to the table and achieve a breakthrough. But now we are potentially stuck on this road to nowhere with Iran because of Trump’s action,” Jamal Abdi, president of the National Iranian-American Council, told the Weekly.
The escalation is not inevitable, as some thought that 2020 could be the year of a diplomatic breakthrough between Tehran and Washington because of French mediation.
What worsened the situation was the reckless decision by Trump to order the assassination of Suleimani.
“According to reports, it looks like there was little consultation with the appropriate experts within the US administration. Suleimani’s killing was a gut decision by Trump. It was a situation where he felt that his ego had been bruised by his past restraint in responding to Iranian actions. He was given several options by his generals and decided to go ahead with the most severe. I do not think the timing really makes any sense other than for those who feared that with the failure of maximum pressure campaign against Iran, Washington would look weak,” Abdi said.
“We are now at a crossroads because of Tump’s ego and the split-second decision that he made.”
The suggestion by some analysts in Washington that a shocked and weakened Iran may now back down shows how little the US administration understands the country.
In Abdi’s opinion, Suleimani’s killing will not make Iran weaker, but more dangerous. The killing will be viewed by many inside Iran, and among its Shia regional allies, as an act of war, and Suleimani will be seen as a martyr whose violent death must be avenged in kind.
Khamenei and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have already indicated as much, and they will likely use the assassination to rally wavering support for the regime.
“The US has not merely killed an Iranian military commander, but also a highly popular figure, someone viewed as a guardian of Iran even among secular-minded Iranians. And with the assassination of Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, the deputy leader of the Iraqi Hashd Al-Shaab, the Trump administration has put itself in the position of having killed the operational commander of a large branch of the Iraqi armed forces,” Mohamed Ali Shabani, a researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, said.
“Some will characterise the deaths as a huge blow to Iran’s proxy capabilities and wider policy in the region. But such an approach ignores how the Iranian system is structured. Suleimani’ssuccessor as Al-Quds Force leader, his long-time deputy Ismail Qaani, was announced within 12 hours of his death. And while Suleimani was charismatic and played a personal role in cultivating many of Iran’s relationships in the region, those ties do not rely on him alone.”
“Instead, they are the product of extensive and deep bonds that often go back decades and, in many instances, involve family ties.”
There appeared to be little evidence of an imminent threat to the US from Suleimani or his Iranian-backed militias, and Trump may have wanted to replace the media focus on his ongoing impeachment with the fallout from a lethal strike.
But his actions have sparked outrage in Iran, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq among the political elite and ordinary people. The debate over ending the US military presence in the Middle East has become public, and should the US Congress now want to investigate Trump’s decision to assassinate Suleimani, this would increase the president’s internal problems.
Moreover, at a time when Trump’s unprecedented sanctions against Iran had stirred up unrest inside the country, its political elite has now been handed a rallying cry. The strike on Suleimani will harden popular sentiment against the US, while simultaneously shoring up the regime, according to Shabani.
Iran has promised “severe retaliation” for Suleimani’s killing, and there is no shortage of US targets in the region. But Suleimani may have already achieved the greatest revenge of all without firing a single bullet: his ultimate objective of ending the US military presence in Iraq.
Trump’s decision also appears to have driven a wedge between Washington and some of its allies, with French President Emmanuel Macron telephoning Iraq’s acting prime minister this week to express his support for the country’s sovereignty in an implicit rebuke of the strike.
The United States is no closer to the much-touted “new deal” with Iran, which Trump had boasted would eclipse that negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama.
As Shabani put it, “for all his crowing about a decisive blow dealt to an insolent enemy, Trump may be about to discover that the problem with martyrs is that they live forever.”
*This article is an updated version of the one that appears in print in the 9 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly