• Thursday, Aug 06, 2020
  • Last Update : 01:03 am

Standoff in the Middle East

  • Published at 11:00 pm January 13th, 2020
Soleimani
Caught in the middle? REUTERS

The animosity between Iran and the US continues to grow

Cynics expressed that the latest salvo from President Trump that led to stealth assassination of an Iranian military leader in Baghdad was designed to divert attention from his impending impeachment trial in the US Senate.

This usually is a favourite ploy of a beleaguered political leader which sometimes pays off. This tactic, when tagged with a label for national defense, detracts people’s focus away from the cauldron that the leader is boiling in, and instead attempts to create a national hysteria against a foreign enemy, real or not. 

Whether or not the assassination of Maj Gen Soleimani of Iran’s elite force was a diversionary tactic by the US President, the Middle East is once again reverberating with war cries as a consequence.

The assassination, which the US claims was a justified action because Soleimani had been responsible for thousands of deaths in Iraq, Syria, and Iran itself, was a culmination of a series of tit-for-tat killings in Iraq over last few weeks.

The series began when Iran-backed Shiite militia launched a bomb attack on a US military camp in Iraq, killing a US contractor (who ironically was actually an Iraqi and had become a US citizen only a couple of years ago).

In retaliation, the US launched a counter attack killing more than two dozens Iraqis. This led to a much wider protest in Baghdad for a couple of days resulting in attacks by the militia on the heavily guarded US Embassy located in the safest zone of the capital. 

The embassy building became a scene filled with a rioting mob that eerily reminded people of a similar siege of the US Embassy in Tehran 40 years ago. Fortunately, Iraq avoided a repeat of the Tehran incident as the rioting melted. The US also showed restraint in handling the situation. 

But what was cooking behind the scene was the soon to happen killing of the Iranian military leader. The incident happened without any early signal -- because, until it happened, few people knew who this alleged organizer of Iran-backed militias and mastermind of Iran’s proxy war in the region was.

There was little mention of his alleged anti-US activities in the media, not to speak of any attempt to take him down as in the cases of now-deceased Baghdadi, the IS chief, or Bin Laden of Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the announcement of his killing by a US drone in Baghdad was a bit of a surprise. 

Soleimani may be a relatively unknown figure to the average person outside of Iran, but in Iran he was a revered figure. To the Iranians, rank and file, he was a national hero. So his death, orchestrated by a power that is viewed by Iranian authorities and people at large as a cause of the country’s ills, has given the country a new resolve to fight. So, once again Iran and the US are engaged in a battle of attrition.

In fact, from the war of words hurled by the US President and the Iranian Supreme Leader at each other, it would seem that we could see the US Fleet rushing toward the Gulf of Iran and hundreds of bombers carpeting the country with shells.

But this will not happen, because the US cannot afford to have a fourth war (after Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria).

A new war in that region will not go unchallenged by Russia and China. Even the NATO allies will be unwilling to get into a new conflict, that too with Iran. Globally, this will be so unwelcome that many in the US, including the Democrats, will renounce any new war.

What may happen is that a war of attrition or a low-grade conflict will continue to afflict the region for many more years.

Iran has vowed that it will retaliate to avenge the death of Soleimani without specifying how and where, to which President Trump has responded that any action by Iran on US assets or citizens will be met with more severe answers.

Iran made its first move by launching a mid-level missile attack on US Army bases in Iraq. Although the missiles did not harm any US personnel or property, the signals are enough that in the region, Iran can cause harm to US interests if it wants to.

Again, we may see a tit-for-tat action for some time in the region.

This battle between Iran and the US is but a new addition to the saga of strife that has been going on in the region for the last few decades that reached a peak with the Iraq war in 2003.

No sooner this war ended with the pullout of troops in 2011 (except for a token presence of a few thousand as observers), much of the region was engulfed by a new upheaval, albeit to topple dictators.

These upheavals gave rise to a different kind of war in Syria and Iraq -- that between embattled governments and newly aspiring Islamic militants seeking to establish a Khilafat.  

When the conflagration from Arab upheaval and battle with Islamic State seemed to abate, the area witnessed a new battleground in Yemen, with proxy wars between two leading contestants for domination in the region -- Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In fact, much of the oxygen for the ongoing battles in the Middle East is provided by the rivalry between these two. The US, which has forged a strong defense relationship with Saudi Arabia and has assured the Kingdom’s security, is a natural ally of the country. Iran, Saudi Arabia’s adversary, is therefore, also an adversary of the US.

This need not have been this way. The relationship between the US and Iran, which had soured since the country was overtaken by Iran’s Mullahs, was on way to mending, with the international pact on Iran’s nuclear program.

But the pact, which was an anathema to the Republicans was annulled in one fell swoop by Donald Trump when he came to power. This turned the clock backward, and the animosity between the two countries began anew.

Now with this latest development between the two countries, the miasma of hopelessness for peace  has engulfed the region once again. Although the prospects of a full-scale war in the region are slim to none, the war attrition will tear the region for more years to come unless good sense prevails in both countries. The world cannot wait endlessly. 

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.

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