After an American drone attack killed one of Iran’s most revered military strategists, hardliners in Tehran called for revenge, with some speaking openly of war on the US. Yet as Mark Almond reports, the tense atmosphere has not led to full scale conflict – a source of relief to leaders in Asia and the Middle East
The US drone strike which killed the Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, at the start of this year threatened to ignite a war between America and its Middle Eastern bête-noire, Iran.
The Islamic Republic immediately responded with blood-curdling threats of revenge. It used missiles to attack a US airbase in Iraq. No-one was killed, although the Americans later reluctantly admitted that a number of soldiers were injured. Nevertheless, the operation was a far cry from an all-out assault by Iran on the United States’ interests in the region.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that Tehran’s bark is worse than its bite.
Some analysts suggest the relatively restrained response was a sign that the Islamic Republic is prepared to swallow the humiliation of seeing a key strategist blown to pieces by an American missile. But was it simply buying time to contemplate its options?
The fact that the reprisal was followed promptly by Iran’s accidental – but irresponsible – shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner shows that unpredictable events can throw a spanner into apparently carefully calculated actions.
The current crisis has been building ever since President Trump withdrew from the UN-sponsored nuclear deal in 2017 and re-imposed US sanctions on Iran. This has been a huge blow to the Iranian economy, which is largely dependent on vital energy exports. But the United States is not just worried about Iran’s nuclear weapons potential. It also claims the sanctions are part of a war on terror, designed to prevent Iran from funding armed groups in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Economic warfare appeared to be President Trump’s weapon of choice until the Soleimani assassination. He had made the killing of any American a red line. It was the death of an American contractor in northern Iraq by Iranian-backed Shiite militias that triggered the current crisis, whereas Trump did not respond militarily to last year’s ‘anonymous’ attacks on oil tankers and Saudi oil facilities, nor to the shooting down of a US drone.
Tensions in the Middle East push up the price of oil and concern the many nations that wish to buy Iranian crude. Yet a disruption of the 30 per cent of global oil supply from the Gulf would not directly affect the US, which is self-sufficient in oil thanks to fracking, as President Trump repeatedly reminds his Twitter followers. Therefore the disruption will chiefly affect Washington’s allies, including its friends in Asia.
Japan had tried to mediate between its US ally and Iran without success. China and India also have complex relations with the United States and each other, but both need Gulf energy, including oil from Iran. Unrest in the region could worsen the problems caused by Washington’s secondary sanctions on businesses dealing with Iran.
Iran seems to have calculated that Donald Trump will not risk a global economic meltdown in the run-up to the election in the United States this autumn.
However tense the situation, Tehran appears to believe that by not provoking massive retaliation from the American military, it has bought itself time to plan what kind of revenge to take – as well as whether to ramp up uranium enrichment. This, in theory, enables it to follow the path to assemble a primitive atomic weapon in the coming year.
Iran’s statements about withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty openly challenge Washington but also put pressure on America’s allies in Europe and Asia.
Donald Trump has offered to talk with the Iranian regime if it makes concessions. But whereas his ‘fire and fury’ rhetoric seemed to prise open dialogue with North Korea, Iran probably cannot abide the idea of talking to the man who ordered the killing of one of its national heroes.
There are other reasons the North Korean model cannot be easily applied to Iran. The Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is not in complete charge in the way Kim Jong-un rules North Korea. The tragic downing of the Ukrainian airliner shows how ill-coordinated Iran’s political and military elements can be.
The contradictory accounts of the disaster – and the to-and-fro over whether Tehran would send the black boxes abroad for analysis – show that it is not clear who rules in Tehran. Anyone inclined to make concessions to Washington can be undercut by hardline forces with the means to raise the temperature, regardless of what the foreign ministry might say.
This means that a dangerous uncertainty hangs over the rumbling crisis between the United States and Iran. What makes matters worse is that other states in the Middle East have axes to grind.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are bitter regional rivals of Iran. There is religious antagonism between Sunni Arabs and Iran, the leader of Shiite Muslims. Furthermore, Iran, as an Islamic Republic, promotes a political model which threatens the absolute monarchies in the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia and its allies fear Iran’s growing military influence from Lebanon to Yemen and especially the threat posed by an Iranian nuclear weapon. Israel, too, sees the Islamic Republic as a mortal enemy. General Soleimani’s Quds Force was named in honour of the ambition to ‘liberate’ Jerusalem – Quds to Iranians and Arabs – from Israeli rule. Although Israel has nuclear weapons, it is a small state and fears destruction in the event of a nuclear attack by Iran.