By Robin Wright
The flag-draped coffin of General Qassem Suleimani was thronged by wailing mobs in Tehran on Monday, as the fallout from his death, in a U.S. air strike, accelerated with breathtaking speed. Iran has not seen such an outpouring of emotion on the streets since the death of the revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1989. His successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wept openly—as did other political leaders and military officers—as he prayed over the casket. Esmail Gha’ani, Suleimani’s successor as head of the Quds Force, the élite wing of the Revolutionary Guards, vowed to confront the United States. “We promise to continue down martyr Soleimani’s path as firmly as before, with the help of God, and, in return for his martyrdom, we aim to get rid of America from the region,” Gha’ani said at the funeral.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went on five Sunday talk shows—curiously, wearing a red tie on two shows and a blue tie on three others—to brag about the U.S. operation. “We took a bad guy off the battlefield,” he said, on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “There is less risk today to American forces in the region as a result of that attack.” Yet nothing seems further from the truth. Some form of conflict between the United States and the Islamic Republic, overt or covert, seems more possible now than it has at any time since the 1979 Revolution. The U.S. investment in neighboring Iraq—thousands of American lives, hundreds of billions of dollars in American treasure, decades of American diplomacy—appears to be unravelling, with rippling effects across the Middle East. Diplomatic missions in other Middle Eastern and South Asian countries are on virtual lockdown, with American citizens urged to evacuate Iraq and Iran and lie low elsewhere in the region.
Instead of being a dead bad guy, Suleimani appears almost as potent in his “martyrdom” as he was in life. His death has already spurred anti-American sentiment across the Middle East. It has unified Iran’s divided society. And it has also precipitated the first action to wind down or end the American military presence in the region—Suleimani’s primary mission since he took over the Quds Force, in 1998.
With almost no debate, the Iraqi Parliament voted on Sunday to expel more than five thousand American troops and other foreign forces, jeopardizing a six-year campaign by a U.S.-led coalition against isis. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi called the U.S. operation against Suleimani a “political assassination” and pressed for “urgent measures” to either oust U.S. troops or limit their mission to training Iraqi forces. “Despite the internal and external difficulties that we might face, it remains best for Iraq on principle and practically,” he said. The vote passed 170–0, largely by Shiite members; even more Sunnis and Kurds didn’t vote at all. The resolution still needs the signature of the Prime Minister, who is Iraq’s commander-in-chief, though Mahdi is only in a caretaker role since his resignation, in November. So the Parliament’s move is still subject to the fractured and fragile politics of Iraq.
Yet the U.S.-led coalition felt sufficiently threatened that it suspended military operations against isis, also known by its Arabic name, Daesh, which has undergone a resurgence in recent months. It still has between fourteen thousand and eighteen thousand jihadi militants in Iraq and Syria, according to U.S. intelligence estimates. U.S. troops have now assumed a defensive posture—just protecting themselves—against possible retaliation by either pro-Iranian militias or by Iran. “This has limited our capacity to conduct training with partners and to support their operations against Daesh and we have therefore paused these activities, subject to continuous review,” the coalition said, in a statement. The hiatus is a boon to isis, which has carried out dozens of bombings and targeted assassinations since the fall of its caliphate, last March. Ironically, the only issue on which Iran and the United States ever coöperated militarily—sometimes operating out of the same Iraqi bases—was fighting the Sunni extremist group. Tensions between the two countries may provide further space for isis to regroup.
In Iran, Suleimani’s coffin was flown to three cities—Ahvaz, the holy city of Mashhad, and then the capital in Tehran—for memorial processions where huge crowds shouted “Death to America” and burned American flags. In Tehran, Suleimani’s daughter, Zeinab, told hundreds of thousands of mourners—Iran claimed millions—that her father’s death would be avenged. “The families of the American soldiers in western Asia . . . will spend their days waiting for the death of their children,” she said, producing cheers. “You crazy Trump, the symbol of ignorance, the slave of Zionists, don’t think that the killing of my father will finish everything.”
Suleimani’s death plays to a central concept of Shiite Islam—martyrdom by a minority fighting for survival against bigger rivals—that dates back to the founding of Islam’s second branch, in the seventh century. The fury has unified disparate sectors of Iranian society, which just weeks ago was riven by street protests challenging the government in dozens of cities.
President Hassan Rouhani, who won an upset victory seven years ago, after calling for diplomacy with the United States to end tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, issued a scathing warning during a condolence call with Suleimani’s family over the weekend. “The Americans really did not realize what a grave error they have committed,” he said. “Revenge for his blood will be exacted on that day when the filthy hands of America will be cut off forever from the region.” Iran’s information and telecommunications minister, Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi, denounced Trump as “a terrorist in a suit.”
On Monday, General Amir Ali Hajizadeh warned that Iran would retaliate on multiple fronts. “Firing a couple of missiles, hitting a base, or even killing Trump is not valuable enough to compensate for martyr Suleimani’s blood,” he said, on state-controlled television. “The only thing that can compensate for his blood is the complete removal of America from the region and taking away their evil from the oppressed people of the region.” A senior Revolutionary Guard general, Gholamali Abuhamzeh, said that Iran had identified thirty-five U.S. targets in the region, and also others in Israel and the oil-exporting lanes in the Persian Gulf. “The Strait of Hormuz is a vital thoroughfare for the West, and a large number of American destroyers and warships cross the Strait of Hormuz, the Sea of Oman, and the Persian Gulf,” he said.
Iran also announced that it would no longer limit the number of centrifuges used to enrich uranium, the fuel to make a nuclear weapon. The limit was a key part of the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (J.C.P.O.A.) nuclear deal, brokered in 2015, between Iran and the world’s six major powers. Trump withdrew the United States, unilaterally, in May, 2018, and re-imposed sanctions six months later. The other five countries—Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia—stuck to the terms. But in mid-2019 Iran began gradually to breach its commitments, on the grounds that it was not receiving the economic benefits promised in the deal. This is its fifth breach. The deal is still not dead. “If the United States and Iran are genuinely interested in de-escalation, it is still possible for the U.S. and Iran to return to compliance with their J.C.P.O.A. commitments,” Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, told me. The Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted that all five steps were “reversible upon EFFECTIVE implementation of reciprocal obligations.” The verbal warfare between the United States and Iran is increasingly playing out in all caps on Twitter. Zarif noted, however, that Tehran would continue to coöperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, which closely monitors aspects of Iran’s nuclear program.
As tensions escalated and more than three thousand new U.S. troops began deploying to the region, President Trump spent the weekend playing golf near his Mar-a-Lago resort, in Florida, and spewing threats on Twitter in his spare time. On Saturday, he vowed to strike fifty-two Iranian targets—“some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture”—if Iran targets Americans or U.S. assets. “Those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD,” he added. “The USA wants no more threats!” he tweeted. The choice of fifty-two is from the fifty-two Americans held hostage after the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, in 1979.
Trump’s threat infuriated John Limbert, a former hostage and the political officer at the last U.S. Embassy in Tehran. “I don’t want any part of this,” he told me, on Sunday night. “If [Trump’s] doing this in my name, don’t bother. It’s absurd. He’s using what happened to us for his own misguided action.” I asked him if Iran would be intimidated by Trump’s Twitter bravado. “I don’t think so,” Limbert, who until recently taught at the U.S. Naval Academy, said. “They expect to be bullied and threatened, particularly by the United States. It’s been happening for forty years. They shrug it off.”
Destroying cultural sites is a violation of the Geneva Convention—and a war crime. Previous U.S. Administrations have roundly condemned the Taliban’s destruction of the Grand Buddhas of Bamiyan, from the seventh century B.C., in Afghanistan, and isis’s destruction of the first-century Temple of Bel, in Syria’s historic Palmyra. Iran, the former Persia, has dozens of sites, such as Persepolis, that date back millennia. On Sunday, Zarif tweeted, in English, “A reminder to those hallucinating about emulating isis war crimes by targeting our cultural heritage: Through MILLENNIA of history, barbarians have come and ravaged our cities, razed our monuments and burnt our libraries. Where are they now? We’re still here, & standing tall.”
Pompeo tried to roll back Trump’s threat about attacks on cultural targets. “We’ll behave lawfully,” he said, on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.” But the President went at it again on Air Force One on Sunday night, en route back to Washington after a seventeen-day vacation. “They’re allowed to kill our people,” he told reporters travelling with him. “They’re allowed to torture and maim our people. They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we’re not allowed to touch their cultural site? It doesn’t work that way.”
The President also threatened to impose “very big sanctions on Iraq” if it did force U.S. troops to withdraw. “If we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them sanctions like they’ve never seen before, ever,” he said, on Air Force One. “It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.” He warned Baghdad that it would also have to compensate the United States financially. “We have a very extraordinarily expensive air base that’s there,” he said. “It cost billions of dollars to build. Long before my time. We’re not leaving unless they pay us back for it.”
The Administration still has not detailed the nature of the threat that led Trump to order the U.S. air strike that killed Suleimani and the leader of a prominent Iraqi militia in Baghdad last week. Democrats will introduce war-powers resolutions in both the House and the Senate this week, “to limit the President’s military actions regarding Iran,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, of California, told her caucus in a letter on Sunday. The resolution “reasserts Congress’s long-established oversight responsibilities by mandating that if no further Congressional action is taken, the Administration’s military hostilities with regard to Iran cease within thirty days.” Senator Tim Kaine, of Virginia, is introducing a similar resolution in the Senate. On Saturday, the White House did meet the forty-eight-hour deadline required by the 1973 War Powers Act to submit formal notification for the introduction of U.S. armed forces. But Pelosi said that the notification “raises more questions than it answers. . . . This document prompts serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner, and justification of the Administration’s decision to engage in hostilities against Iran.”
In Washington, there’s an unnerving breathlessness over the rapidity of the deepening crisis with Iran—with no clear strategy for next steps outlined by the Administration, much less an exit strategy. At least for now, diplomacy seems to be off the table, despite President Trump’s repeated statements that he wants talks with Iran on a new nuclear deal to avoid conflict. In the meantime, any of the alternatives could make the United States far less safe than it was ten days ago. On Friday, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about the dangers to the United States after killing Suleimani. “Is there risk?” he asked reporters at the Pentagon. “Damn right.”
Source: Strategic Study India
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