War or talks... What’s next?
The Middle East has once again become the focus of the whole world since Jan. 3, 2020.
The killing of Qasim Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a senior commander of Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces and those accompanying them, at the Baghdad Airport on U.S. President Donald Trump’s orders have made the long-standing tensions between Iran and the United States the important issue in world politics.
Surely, this death raises many questions, to which we might never know the answer, meticulously assessed by Iranian and American officials: Was the real target of U.S.’s Hashd al-Shaabi?
Was Qasim Soleimani known to be in the convoy and ordered to be killed, or was it learned after the attack?
Did the U.S. provide this intelligence on its own or receive it from somewhere else? And if it received the intelligence from elsewhere, was the U.S. misled?
Another question lingering on everybody’s minds is: So, what now? In order to answer this, we must understand how the current phase has been reached and what the parties expect from each other.
The decision of the U.S. to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018 and its listing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization in April 2019 formed the basis for today’s conflict.
However, the death of an American contracted civilian personnel in a rocket attack on the military base in Kirkuk, where U.S. soldiers were present as well, on Dec. 27, 2019, and the killing of Soleimaini as a response by the U.S. became one of the main breaking points.
Another significant development occurred on New Year’s Day when thousands of people gathered around the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to protest and set the building’s exterior wall on fire. Trump blamed Iran for the attack, and this latest development was Trump’s red line.
Because, before the U.S. presidential elections, Trump’s main criticism against his rival Hilary Clinton was the attack at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi in which the ambassador lost his life.
Thus, it was not possible for Trump, who will run for the presidential race for the second time on November 2020, to allow Baghdad to become a second Benghazi. The main point Iran did not account for was Trump’s sensitivity on this issue.
Soleimani was a very important actor regarding both Iranian domestic and foreign policies. His story began with the Iran-Iraq War, just like the IRGC he was a member of.
The IRGC, which emerged as an alternative military force to Iran’s national army, Artesh, is not only a military force but also an economic and political force. It is the mainstay of Iran’s presence in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
The fact that Soleimani was the soldier who led the operations in all these countries led him to receiving the medal of honor, the Order of Zulfiqar, for the first time in the 40-year-long history of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
If Soleimani, whose name came up for the upcoming presidential elections of Iran in 2021, had lived and run for office, he would have become the first Iranian president of military origin. Therefore, his death is a very important development for Iran.
The official rhetoric and ideology of the Islamic Republic of Iran are based on the Twelver Shiism. Thus, symbolism and the culture of pain based on Shiite belief is very pronounced. The picture we have been seeing after Soleimani’s death clearly demonstrates this.
His funeral was taken to Iraq’s Samarra, Kazimayn, Najaf and Iran’s Mashhad, where the shrines of the 10th and 11th, seventh and ninth, first and eighth imams are located, respectively.
Meanwhile, the most chanted slogan was “Hayhat minna al-zilla,”, meaning “Woe unto the wretched” in English. Imam Husayn, the third Imam of the Twelver Shiite Islam, said to Umar ibn Sa’ad Waqqas: “Ubaydullah wants me to choose between the wretched and the sword but woe unto the wretched,” referring to Ubeydullah ibn Ziyad, the governor of Kufa.
Here, a link was drawn between Ubaydullah and Trump, and Soleimani has been associated with Imam Husayn. Another attention-grabbing point is that for the first time since the Islamic Revolution, a red flag of revenge has been raised over the Holy Dome Jamkarān Mosque near Qom.
The same flag is hoisted at the shrine of Imam Husayn. This shows that the revenge rhetoric Iran has directed towards Trump reflects Shiite culture.
It seems that Soleimani’s death has become a unifying element for the Shiite rhetoric both in Iran as well as in Iraq and Lebanon, Iran’s natural hinterlands. One of the cities Soleimani’s funeral procession passed through was Ahvaz, a city with an Arab minority where last month intense protests on oil price hikes were suppressed violently.
Soleimani’s funeral was taken to Ahvaz because the city is the starting point of the Iran-Iraq War. It was seen that the Arab population there mourned with a large crowd, through the sacredness of Shiism.
On the other hand, the fact that Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr paid a condolence visit to Soliemani’s family and that Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani extended his condolences and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah vowed to seek revenge seem to have revived the long-standing Shiite Crescent rhetoric for Iran.
If we go back to our initial question, what is expected after this? When we look at the statements after the Iranian National Security Council meeting, which was convened after the attack and was led by the supreme leader Khamenei for the first time, we see that even though revenge rhetoric was adopted, Iran actually preferred to use modest language.
One of the key developments was Iran’s decision to suspend all its commitments in the JCPOA, a sign that Iran would engage the factor of deterrence. It is much more likely that Iran will make some moves through proxy forces instead of directly attacking the United States.
On the other hand, when we look at the U.S. front, Trump’s rhetoric is remarkable. In his statement regarding the attack, Trump has repeatedly stated that he is not seeking nation building or regime change in Iran and is open to negotiation. As a matter of fact, his posts on Twitter are rather meaningful.
By saying “Iran never won a war but never lost a negotiation,” he hinted that he is up for becoming the first leader who will make Iran lose at the table via negotiations.
Trump is not an ordinary profile for a president.
The messages he gives over Twitter make him draw an image between being a popular culture celebrity and a president. However, he is not an unpredictable president whose ideas are changeable.
On the contrary, when we look at both his domestic policy priorities and foreign policy vision, it is clear that he has acted in line with the strategy followed since his campaign period.
Although it is no surprise that Iran is his target, his main goal is to sit at the negotiating table with Iran. Iran, which has great economic difficulties and whose military capacity is limited compared with the U.S., will not risk directly entering a close combat with the U.S.
Even though direct negotiations between the two countries do not seem likely soon, the parties are aware that the worst peace would be better than fighting, based on their experiences.
*Academic Bilgehan Alagöz is a lecturer at the Marmara University Middle East Research Institute