Following the global panic created by the killing of the commander of the Elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), General Qassem Suleiman, 62, in a United States drone strike in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, Alade Fawole, Professor of International Relations, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, examines the crisis in the Middle East and the implications of US-Iran conflict for the region and the international community:
In fairness to President Donald Trump, he is neither the architect nor the initiator of the unending multi-dimensional nightmares plaguing the volatile Middle East.
His country, the United States of America, is largely implicated in the several political crises, violent conflicts and general instability in the region and Trump is merely the current face of American foreign policy in the region. His personal idiosyncrasies and eccentricities notwithstanding, he, as President, emblematizes what America has stood for in the region, i.e., the pursuit of selfish national interests, chief of which is access to its vast oil and natural gas resources.
The region has been the most volatile and combustible since the state of Israel was created in 1948. Twenty four hours after the creation of Israel, the neighbouring Arab states declared war against it. Apart from occasional border skirmishes and minor attacks and invasions, the Arabs and Israelis have fought major decisive wars in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973.
The region has been on the boil ever since. President Trump inherited the conundrum and has compounded it, his recent mis-step being the assassination of a top Iranian army officer, Major-General Qasem Soleimani, in a drone strike near the Baghdad airport on January 3 this year. This has further complicated US presence, policy and role in the already combustible Middle East. Not a few around the world see the targeted assassination of another country’s senior military personnel as a blatant violation of international law and Iraq’s territorial sovereignty.
Even though the US has been a major destabilizing external power in the region for several decades, the latest trouble began with Donald Trump fulfilling his election campaign promise to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, the multinational treaty that was signed in 2015 to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons capability.
In reality, the Middle East is a conundrum, a gigantic puzzle, unparalleled in its sheer byzantine complexity, having several but simultaneous multi-pronged and virtually intractable conflicts in which blood is daily spilt by the barrel. For samples, just take a look at the unending and intractable general Arab-Israeli discord since 1948, the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio over the Gaza Strip, the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the seemingly endless Syrian fratricide, the political instability in Lebanon, the destructive war in Yemen, the political crisis and conflicts in Iraq; the Kurdish problem across northern Syria and Iraq with the involvement of Turkey, the latent hostility between some Gulf States, the region-wide sectarian discord between the Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, the rise of the Islamic State and its threats to the sovereignty of many states, unrelenting terrorism, Iran’s desperate quest for regional hegemony. Add to the mix the face-off between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the only Arab state that maintains close political, diplomatic and economic ties with Iran; and a coterie of European states and oil corporations interested only in the region’s huge hydrocarbon deposits. Russia, hitherto in hibernation since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is also seeking an active role, while China, a putative global power, wants a piece of the action.
Truth is that the US has been and remains a major overt and covert player in all the conflicts, an intrusive and destabilizing influence. Unfortunately, its credibility as an honest broker is not particularly impressive, having been known to have deliberately “sexed up” intelligence data and told lies before the UN Security Council that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction to justify its invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Since President Trump unilaterally dumped the JCPOA, it has been difficult for the US to count on the full cooperation of its European allies in its misadventures in the Middle East. Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, lamented this development after the Soleimani assassination, with the implication that US policy is floundering badly in the face of growing Russian and Chinese influence.
Donald Trump’s infantile obsession to instigate regime change in the Islamic Republic is at the root of the current US-Iran face-off and the escalating violence. On the face of it, Iran is a weaker party compared to its adversary, the US, which boasts formidable military capability. Iran is no match for the US in any contest of arms, except that reality isn’t always that simple!
The fact of Iran’s comparative weakness will only hold true if we are considering conventional military and nuclear capabilities. In modern times, however, wars are not necessarily confined to conventional military engagements alone, especially when the adversaries are so grossly mismatched. Irregular and unconventional capabilities, methods, tactics and weapons readily come into the equation.
A contemporary addition to the military arsenals and capabilities for waging modern warfare is the array of cyber weapons which are difficult to trace, identify and control, or defend against.
All countries are vulnerable, although to different degrees, and none is exempted from its impact. All modern societies depend heavily on the largely unregulated cyber power for many things (electric power grids, industrial installations, telecommunications, dams, commercial civil aviation, railways, banks and financial institutions, healthcare facilities) thus significantly increasing everyone’s vulnerability.
Besides, the use of other unconventional methods such as terror tactics, sabotage operations, use of Improvised Explosive Devices as the poor man’s weapon of choice against powerful opponents, can no longer be isolated from modern warfare.
Although Trump appears not to know much about the complexities of international relations and modern warfare, otherwise he would not have resorted to such infantile boasts about America’s awesome military capabilities to annihilate Iran, his military advisers and national security team on the other hand are not ignorant.
They know for a fact that Iran, a country of 80 million people with a proud civilization, powerful armed forces and huge collection of destructive conventional weapons, also possesses vast unconventional capabilities and means for unleashing asymmetric warfare in the Middle East and across the globe. In reality, it is these formidable asymmetric capabilities, its capacity to incinerate and destabilize most of the Middle East that set Iran apart as a bother to all right-thinking policy planners and advisers across the globe.
Asymmetric warfare, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “warfare that is between opposing forces which differ greatly in military power and that typically involves the use of unconventional weapons and tactics (such as those associated with guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks).”
It is usually not regulated and often fought outside the provisions of the international laws of armed conflicts, and is mostly resorted to by weaker belligerents to undermine the superior military capabilities of stronger adversaries.
This capability for unconscionable damage to American interests and its dangerously exposed facilities (military compounds, embassies, personnel) across the globe, the capacity to inflict massive destruction on America’s vulnerable regional allies such as Saudi Arabia and the surrounding weak Arab states, its threat to strategic oil production facilities in the Persian Gulf, its capacity to threaten the strategic oil shipping lanes of the Strait of Hormuz, combine to make Iran a much more dangerous adversary to contend with.
Realizing this fact, Trump has very wisely pulled back from igniting another war, one with vastly unpredictable consequences and outcomes. America may have more formidable conventional leverage against Iran but asymmetric warfare is a different proposition entirely.
It is difficult to win even for the greatest military power on the planet, because the incalculable costs and consequences often outweigh any anticipated gains.
What are the consequences of Trump’s targeted assassination of General Soleimani? Iran has vowed suitable retaliation against the US for Soleimani’s murder, and it is not clear exactly what shape this would take. It could be directly by Iran or by any of its allies and proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Houthis in Yemen.
If anything, its recent missile attack on a military barracks inside Iraq after Soleimani’s murder is clear testimony of its offensive capability and penetration of a territory that is supposedly under America’s military radars. Soleimani’s gruesome death has, among others, significantly raised the level of insecurity in the region to an all-time high, and provided Iran the pretext to repudiate any further obligations under the JCPOA and to proceed with and accelerate its nuclear weapons programme.
Iran is also likely to ramp up its assertiveness as a regional hegemon and increase its grip on its allies, posing greater threats to the vulnerable Arab states. On its own, the US may suffer a diminution of influence as the sole foreign power in the region, with Russia, China and Turkey entering the fray, and the Europeans unwilling to suck up to Trump’s reckless adventurism.
All this calls for a post-Trump administration to roll back some of these disruptive policies, find some accommodation with Iran whose position and influence in the region no foreign power may easily diminish.
A new administration would need to jettison Trump’s penchant for ill-informed unilateral actions and seek to regain the confidence of the European states, and reckon with other interested great powers like Russia and China to achieve comprehensive peace and stability in the region.
America’s predilection for unilateral actions to dominate the region is, without question, the major obstacle to achieving peace, for not everyone regards it as an honest broker.
The case is not helped by Trump’s open admission that America’s main interest is in seizing Iraq’s oil fields and stealing its oil. The participating great powers would do wisely to treat Iran as a regional force to reckon with. Trump’s twitter tirades and his threats to increase US economic sanctions and political pressures against the country are clearly unhelpful.