War side-stepped, not averted


M Ziauddin
The war was imminent. But thanks to sagacity of
Iran, it was averted at the last minute. The loss of
Iran was horrendous. But then how do you square off in a frontal clash with world’s super power gone mad? The elimination of Qasem Soleimani was meant, it is claimed by the US, to signal to Iran that it must end its military provocations against the US and its allies in the Middle East. The targeted killing was said to be a demonstration of how the application of very limited use of force toward a valuable target can produce desirable results. The assumption is, such an action has deterrent value.
This is a wrong assumption because Iran would like to wait for her chances. It is not going to rush in where angels fear to tread. That is what Iran did. Iran let it be known to the US beforehand where it was going to attack. And the US took the right steps to ensure that the damage would be minimum and no fatalities. The signal was clear. Iran was not interested in escalating the crisis. And the mad man was morally bound to hold his hand.
Indeed, the Middle East is beset by civil conflict. There are said to be several potential flashpoints, from clashes between Iranian-aligned units and US forces in Iraq, to an Israeli first strike in response to the collapse of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran as a result of developments in Yemen. The most dangerous flashpoint, however, is in Lebanon, where the US suspects, of course without evidence that Iran is trying to add guidance systems onto Hizbullah’s missile arsenal. This is regarded by the US based analysts to pose a serious threat to Israeli airfields and critical national infrastructure. They believe that if this threat continues to expand, Israel may feel that it has no choice but to strike. This may not happen but the danger would continue to lurk as long as the suspicion is not cleared. This should not end up like the so-called WMDs of Iraq which existed only in the imaginations of the US which needed an excuse, any excuse to go after Saddam Hussain. Today, the US as well as the people of Iraq are suffering—the US in terms of dollars and the people of Iraq in terms of death, destruction and disaster because of the WMD blunder.
A great deal has been discussed in the Western and US media about what Iran is doing in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere. But what has not been explored is why Iran is active in these countries. What are Iran’s key foreign policy objectives in the region? And what are the strengths and weaknesses of Iran’s strategy?
The US has assumed that Iranian policy is shaped by competing visions of Iran’s role in the world – from nationalists who wish to ensure Iran’s position as a regional power, to revolutionaries who believe that Iran is the leader of firstly the Shia, and secondly the Muslim world. Washington has further assumed that both visions are perceived to be threatened by hostile powers, which are believed to be undermining Iran’s independence. Washington believes that the foremost objective of Iranian security policy is to preserve the country’s independence under its post-revolutionary constitution.
No doubt, the Iranian government perceives the US and Israel as the most serious threat to its very existence, and has therefore established a strong deterrence posture founded on increasingly accurate rocket and ballistic missile technology, based in Iran and in Lebanon, which in the event of war will be used to strike US bases and economic infrastructure in the Gulf, and Israeli towns and critical national infrastructure.
Meanwhile, Iranian backed units in Iraq and the Navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would strike US forces in Iraq and the Strait of Hormuz respectively to deny space to US forces, slow the build-up of US units, and inflict casualties.
It is believed in the US that Iranian government has high confidence that, following the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, a comprehensive ground invasion of Iran is unlikely. Instead the expectation is for adversaries to launch an extensive air campaign, to occupy key installations and terrain, and to attempt to cause an internal uprising against the government. The US assumes that Iranian government believes it can withstand an internal rising, and thereby protract the conflict, inflicting casualties on its adversaries in a regional deep battle to force a settlement.
The US also believes that Iran’s support for Hamas and the Houthis is primarily an attempt to fix Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in costly conflicts, which would cause substantive political damage to its adversaries, reducing the strength of any potential coalition facing Iran. It is further assumed by Iran’s enemies that the Iranian government perceives the conflict in Syria – and latterly in Iraq – as costly, non-discretionary conflicts to protect Iranian influence. In both cases Iran perceives Saudi Arabia as working to protract, and thereby drain Iranian effort. Tehran has indeed protected its interests in Syria and Iraq, at a considerably low cost. Damascus continues to be a reliable partner in the so-called Axis of Resistance.
Western assessment has come up with the following weaknesses in the Iranian armour: Hizbullah in Lebanon and Kata’ib Hizbullah in Iraq are the only large groups over which Iran exercises significant levels of control. Iran is said to have diminishing influence among various militias in Iraq and is seeking to stabilise the Iraqi government as an ally, partly to reduce the impact of renewed sanctions. In Syria, the Syrian government and Russia are working to reintegrate security forces under Damascus’s control, pulling militia groups out of Iran’s orbit. In Yemen, the Houthis are willing to accept Iranian aid, but have little interest in Iran’s political project. Facing protests at home over foreign expenditure, Iran has limited room to manoeuvre. Attempts to build relationships with protesters in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have proved marginally effective.
In these Western analysts’ opinion, it is necessary to curtail Iranian activity through the coordinated use of law enforcement and information operations to identify, expose and disrupt Iranian policy. But they also believe that resolving the conflict, however, requires that US policymakers come to terms with Iran’s demand to be a regional power, and to define what an acceptable relationship with Tehran looks like. But the bottom-line is Iran’s determination to make the bomb. Iran has already retaliated the killing of its dare-devil general by declaring that Tehran was lifting all limitations on uranium enrichment. So, the race to the bomb is back. This is the main strategic challenge for the West and for Israel.
The hope in Washington is, if it maintains economic pressure on Iran and makes additional demonstrations of limited use of force, Iran may change course and come to the negotiating table. This is what Israel wants. The only way the US can stop Iran from achieving its nuclear objective is to give up its war mongering and go back to the negotiating table with Iran sitting across. The US cannot destroy Iran or its will. Therefore, the way out is the Obama way, not the Trump way.
— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.