This new decade is off to a bad start as far as world peace and the International Order are concerned! The assassination of General Soleimani, ordered by President Trump, perhaps because he thought it would divert attention away from his impending impeachment, was an irresponsible escalation that could lead to a new war in the Middle East. Of all the possible responses to the attack on the American Embassy in Baghdad, the president chose the most extreme, in contempt of international law and American domestic law as well.
The president’s threat to bomb a ‘cultural’ site in Iran, presumably a site such as Persepolis or Isfahan, if Iran were to riposte, was, quite simply, barbaric, a mirror-image of the alleged barbarity for which he had originally blamed Iran. International conventions prohibit historical monuments being used as military targets, a principle reaffirmed by the resolution of the United Nations Security Council – adopted unanimously in 2017 – when Da’ish destroyed large parts of the historical heritage of Palmira in Syria. Even if it did not occur in reality (the president withdrew his threat in yet another tweet the following day), the fact that the threat had ever been voiced nonetheless endangers world heritage sites by legitimising a trend that in the last decade has led, amongst other atrocities, to the destruction of historic monuments such as the great mosque of Aleppo or the massive Buddhist sculptures at Bam.
In short, Trump is making the United States into a rogue state – an outlaw state – and, by doing so since America has in the past been the guarantor of the law-based International Order, is leading the world into an age of barbarism, where the law of the jungle reigns. In fact, the process began much earlier for, in 2003, it was the lack of respect for international law on the part of the United States that fostered the conditions which have given rise to the current crisis. George Bush’s war to conquer Iraq was a humanitarian, political, military and strategic disaster that undermined American hegemony in the Middle East and significantly boosted Iran’s regional power in post-Saddam Iraq.
The 60 per cent majority of Iraq’s population who are Shi’a, with strong religious and political links to Iran, where many of them found refuge from Saddam Hussein’s brutal repression, used their Sunni adversary’s downfall to assert their influence inside the Iraqi state. Shi’a political parties took power in Baghdad, supported by powerful militias that coordinated their actions with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards al-Quds force, headed by General Soleimani. These militias were co-opted by the Iraqi state and proved decisive in the war against Da’ish, notably in Mosul. They were effectively under the command of General Soleimani, who then was protected by the US air force as a vital, if covert, ally, even though the war against Da’ish further strengthened Iran’s influence in Iraq.
In 2019, however, major demonstrations in Baghdad and in southern Iraqi cities, where the majority of the Shi’a population lives, challenged Iranian influence in Iraq and called into question the religious division within the country’s politics, demanding, like the Arab revolts of 2011, more democracy and an end to corruption. Iran opposed the demonstrators, fearing it would lose influence inside Iraq if they succeeded and that it might suffer spillover effects inside Iran itself from their success. General Soleimani was accused of being responsible for the repression of these demonstrators in iraq. Furthermore, as commander of the Al-Quds force, he had been responsible for serious war crimes in Syria, particularly in Aleppo.
However, the United States did not murder him to protect the Syrians or the Iraqi demonstrators; it did so as part of its strategy of ‘maximum force’, which had led the United States, with Saudi support, to reject the anti-nuclear agreement signed by President Obama in 2015, imposing heavy sanctions on Iran instead.
This strategy has been a fiasco leading to an escalation of tensions with Iran, as was predicted, for the population was increasingly impoverished by the sanctions that the Trump administration introduced. The tensions were also heightened because in Tehran the most extremist elements within the political elite, who were dominant in the Revolutionary Guards movement, have always opposed the anti-nuclear agreement, and with its abrogation by the United States were able to marginalise the reformers in government. They have also used their enormous regional influence to respond to American pressure, as they did with attacks on Gulf shipping and on major petroleum processing facilities in Saudi Arabia.
Neither Iran nor the United States has an interest in a war which although it could destroy Iran’s military potential, might also put an end to the American presence in the Middle East and would impose huge costs on American allies in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, which is very vulnerable to Iranian missile attacks. Now Iran also has an interest in taking advantage of the anger in Iraq against the murder of General Soleimani and the Americans seek to return to the negotiating table with Tehran but on their terms – something which Iran is unlikely to be willing to do.
If the American goal in assassinating a powerful adversary was to weaken Iran’s position in Iraq, the project will probably backfire. The Iraqi parliament has already demanded an American military withdrawal from the country and the anti-Iranian popular movement has been weakened by America’s violation of Iraq’s sovereignty.
In Iran, the opposition, like the one in Iraq, was weakened in the wave of protests over the murder of General Soleimani, but the outrage for the incidental destruction of a Ukrainian airliner by an Iranian missile gave a new boost to the protests against the regime.
Iran has been one of the nightmares of American presidents since the military coup of 1953, which the CIA acknowledged it had orchestrated with Britain and which deposed Iran’s progressive premier, Mohammad Mossadegh, who was democratically elected, but who had dared to nationalise Iran’s oil industry in 1951 until then in British hands. Later, President Carter saw his chances of a second presidential term collapse because of the failure of his military operation to rescue the American Embassy hostages in Tehran,.
And what about President Trump? He, on the eve of his re-election campaign, has embarked on a new military adventure, disparaging international law through his barbaric statements, and underestimating the attachment of American voters to the primacy of legal principle. Yet, while we wait for the American people to free the world from the blight of President Trump’s malevolence in November, the European Union must maintain its support for the nuclear deal with Iran. It must stress, too, that the best way to support the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people is not through the imposition of harsh sanctions or by military confrontation, but by reinforcing the international multilateral system instead.