09 January 2020

Geopolitical reflections of the US-Iran tensions

Niculae Iancu

Middle East stays the hottest region on earth in terms of security, marked by major differences that could lead to an escalation in the following period, with no strong stabilization solutions on long and medium term. US’s actions to eliminate general Qassem Soleimani is overlapping a regional background of tensions and violence old for decades and which witnessed open armed conflicts between different state and non-state actors. The ideological, religious, political and social fragmentation of the region transformed all de-escalation and compensation measures promoted by international organizations and big powers to be ineffective during time. Therefore, the possible limited escalation of the US-Iran conflict will not have a major geopolitical conflict, one to reposition region’s forces in a new security architecture or, much less, to produce important changes within the international system.

Image source: Mediafax

A strategic impact strike with undoubted legitimacy

The death of General Qassem Soleimani is undoubtedly a huge strategic strike US gave to Iran. Analysts and observers all over the world tried to give different meanings to US army’s action from January 3rd against a high Iranian official on the Iraqi territory. Some of them have compared the moment with the assassination of Austrian-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo, which lead to the start of World War I, claiming the start of a World War III. Others have tried to create the image of an intelligible Soleimani for the Western world, comparing him with “David Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal and Bret McGurk, all three in one”- the first two being US armed forces personalities and the third one having high positions in national security counselling within the last three presidents and former special representative of President Trump for the global coalition fight against ISIS/ISIL- or seeing it as the “equivalent of United States’ Joint Special Operations Command, CIA director and Iranian foreign minister”.

Also, it can hardly be questioned the legitimacy of such operation, executed properly to avoid making collateral victims the Middle East was so used to during decades of violent conflicts. As leader of Qods elite forces of the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, an Iranian paramilitary group, on Washington’s terrorist list since last year, Soleimani was following the ideological Shiite doctrine “revolutionary war”, inspired by the idea of getting the Iranian hegemony back to Middle East. During the four decades since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, ayatollah’s regime managed to consolidate vital political and ideological influence sphere, a true “Iranian threat network”, as called by American regional security analyses. The network includes proxy groups controlled by Iran- like Hezbollah in Lebanon, independent proxy groups or partners partially controlled by Iran- such as the Houthi Yemenite group, co-belligerent Sunni armed groups along with Iran- for example, Palestinian Hamas, Shiite armed opposition movement acting against Sunni or secular governments with Iranian support- the Bahrain Shiites, as well as Shiite communities spread all over the world, having cultural and religious support from Iran, to create new bases and promote and support Tehran’s policies.

They got to the point wherein the security balance is unstable

Given the turbulence in the Middle East over the past two decades since the paradigm shift in security on September 11th, 2001, Iran's influence in the Shiite world and throughout the region has been strengthened, being now able to destabilize the sensitive regional power balance. The exhausting wars around Iran and the continuous fragmentation of the Islamic world have provided Tehran with the proper occasion to increase the number and complexity of hybrid or force actions carried out in sight or undercover, against Western world’s interests, Sunni Arab states or Israel. Many people consider Iran the big winner of the war in Iraq and largely the war in Syria. Moreover, Iran would also take advantage from ISIS’s defeat. The new Trump administration's supposed isolationist policy and the huge US military force deployed in the region have pushed Iranian leaders think that they can act more and more, unlimitedly, without being sanctioned. Everyone already knows the recent missile attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure, the collapse of US drones or the seizure, almost unimaginable just a few years ago, of a British tanker in Hormuz Strait by Islamic Revolution guards. In order to have an overall picture of Iran-induced instability in the region, all of this needs to be integrated into a multitude of other harassment, destabilization and provocation actions conducted by Qods under Soleimani's command, for the past years, in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, as well as the ongoing force campaigns of Hezbollah, Hamas, Houthi, Islamic Jihad in Gaza, or Shiite militias in Afghanistan and Pakistan controlled by Tehran.

This is not the first time US takes down terrorist leaders. In recent days, some comparisons have been made with similar events, which conclude that taking down Soleimani would be more important or could trigger far greater consequences than the elimination of terrorist leaders Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. I do not share this perspective, even though Soleimani was a state official, while the other two were leaders of non-state terrorist groups. I start from the premise that from the Middle East to India, tribal or religious communities or groups have the power to dilute the relevance of statehood concept, as it is understood in the Western world. Probably that is why many regional security analyzes are seeing states in the region as "artificial", which is a major cause of violent conflict behaviors increased by various active groups in Middle East, in the post-colonial era. However, it is noteworthy mentioning that Iran is not characterized like that, being, along with Turkey, one of the most homogeneous nation-state structures in the entire Islamic world area.

Now back to terrorist leaders elimination, one can say that each strike was necessary, had its significance and produced, at the right moment, the expected effects both symbolically and operationally. Each time, after a suppression operation, the Western security forces raised the awareness and expected violent retaliatory actions from loyal groups. The same thing happens now. Undoubtedly, we will witness a significant symbolic reaction for Iranian militants, and has already started, but it will not have the potential to trigger a new large-scale war. Tehran, weakened by the effects of economic sanctions, lacks the resources it needs to start a major military confrontation with the United States, regardless of Tehran's leaders’ desire for retaliation. Moreover, it never had such a capacity. At the same time, the entire "Iranian threat network" is trapped in its own local conflicts with much more organized and powerful state forces in order to  actually be able to redirect its resources to the significant support of the "center". Likewise, Trump’s administration will not escalate the conflict without passing through the US Congress this time. Also, if tensions will escalate, US will follow the classic international diplomacy line, negotiating a UN SC resolution, concurrently or only with drastically applying economic sanctions to Tehran regime.

Traditional diplomacy in a world of hybrid and asymmetrical threats

The sudden elimination of General Soleimini asks for an estimation of geopolitical effects of US-Iran’s current tensions.

1. Middle East remains the hottest region on earth in terms of security, marked by major differences that would lead to an escalation in the following period, with no strong stabilization solutions on long and medium term. US’s actions to eliminate general Qassem Soleimani is overlapping a regional background of tensions and violence old for decades and which witnessed open armed conflicts between different state and non-state actors and have transformed all de-escalation and compensation measured promoted by international organizations and big powers to be ineffective during time. Therefore, the possible limited escalation of the US-Iran conflict will not have a major geopolitical conflict, to reposition region’s forces in a new security architecture. On the contrary, the reaffirmation of the US military technological supremacy and White House Administration’s political determination to use force against the rise of "Axis of Evil" can give confidence to traditional US allies in the region - and anywhere in the world - that US security guarantees are still very present. The warning was also received by regional and global competitors of the United States, to understand that Washington does not follow international order’s structural deconstruction, but questioning its adequacy to nowadays’ political, social and technological realities. 

2. Iran has a special status in the Middle East, which it rather pushing it to isolation, than giving it a regional hegemony stance, regardless of the manifestation, be it ideological, religious, political, social or economic. Therefore, the ideology "export" could not be achieved without a background of widespread violence and economic and social precariousness, pre-existing or induced by Tehran within its strategic influence sphere. As Robert Kaplan says in his book The Return of Marco Polo's World: War, Strategy and American Interests in the Twenty-First Century, "supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei sees Iran more as a former Soviet Union, which, once compromised the Islamic ideology, it will get disintegrate given the domination of ethnic Persians over the Iranian mini-empire of minorities. [...] This means that, rather than becoming a true dynamic and postmodern pseudo-empire and an attraction force in both Middle East and Central Asia, with a regulated relationship with the West, Iran can continue, for years, to be a rich state, but corrupt and dominated by discontent”.

The cause would be the minority represented by clergy elites and supports of Revolutionary Guard, who will do anything to keep their privileges, including using force against their own people. Hereof, Iran will continue to follow the hybrid threats and asymmetrical actions line, overlapping Levant’s multiple vulnerabilities on controlling the intensity of risks arising. The solution for such a policy is the contagion strategy which, in another era, led to Soviet Union’s collapse, but it implies determination and solidarity from the international community that can be made within the "civilized world". However, now, Western world’s solidity is eroded by numerous divergences and marked by the insinuated mistrust both between Atlantic’s two shores and between European space’s geographical axes, without referring to the major vision divergences regarding the international system functioning between the West, Russia and China.

3. The possible withdrawal of foreign military forces from Iraq, even if it is still contested by Washington and NATO, will not immediately put Iraq in Iran’s dragnet. Creating an authority gap in Iraq and eventual takeover of absolute power in Baghdad by Shiite militias controlled by Tehran could trigger Turkey's immediate reaction to counterbalance Iranian influence in the neighboring country, in particular to control developments in the Northern Iraq Kurdish area, extremely important to Ankara. Turkey has already demonstrated in Syria the potential to act unilaterally outside its national territory as soon as its fundamental interests are affected or demanded.

4. Keeping the current geopolitical map is also supported by positions expressed in a traditional diplomatic language by the main international actors. The appeal to both parts for constraint maintains the entire security situation in a ​​political predictability sphere. It should be noted, however, that the leaders of important European powers, Germany, the United Kingdom and France, unanimously amended Iran’s negative impact in the region, including the negative role of forces led by General Soleimani in Levant’s destabilization. Also, in the joint declaration of these three states it was stated "the commitment with all the parties to help to cool down the situation and restore stability in the region".

We can, once again, remark that considering the risk of a possible major security crisis, the three European leaders promoted a common message, concurrently with the institutional mechanisms of the European External Action Service and with the much more reserved statement of the High Representative, Josep Borrell. Nor is the message of European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, much stronger, stating that "Europe has a special responsibility here. As tensions mount, Europe is talking to all those involved. The High Representative will agree with the foreign ministers a special meeting of the Council to activate all diplomatic wires”. Furthermore, von der Leyen called on Iran to stay in the nuclear deal, however much diluted, and noted Iraq's progress towards reconstruction and stability. European officials’ positions do not seem to confirm the existence of a "stronger and more united voice in the world", as President of the Commission wants to offer EU a contoured geopolitical character, leading to the "authentic" growth of Union’s global profile.

Events on the field are in full swing.

Translated by Andreea Soare