The trumpets of war have fallen silent. Heave a sigh, for the US and Iran have walked back from the brink of a full-fledged confrontation!
As the dust settles in Iraq, where more than 20 Iranian missiles rained down on bases hosting US troops in the pre-dawn hours of Wednesday, one of the questions that come to mind is: What lessons Iran would have learned from the past week’s American assassination of its top General Qasem Soleimani. No doubt, the US emerged from the ensuing crisis as the clear winner. It got rid of Soleimani, who, at the time of his death, had become the face of Iran’s bold push to dominate the Middle East.
Those who had worked with him describe the charismatic General as a "frighteningly intelligent" strategist, who laboured tirelessly to advance Iran’s regional interests. Despite the fact that he was a vital asset for the Islamic Republic, the US took him out for a very little price. Iran’s retaliation turned out to be a mere face-saving measure by the Ayatollah. Missiles that struck the US bases in Iraq knocked down a few pillars at best. In other words, there were no casualties.
However, before patting Trump’s back, one must analyse the long-term consequences of the attack that eliminated the Middle East’s rockstar General. What we would likely see in the months and years ahead is a much more active Iran, using diplomacy and other measures to improve its standing vis a vis the US.
America’s recent actions would have stoked Iran’s sense of insecurity. And countries, when they feel insecure, would promptly move to take steps that would bolster their sense of security.
Diplomacy with the enemy?
One such step could be a dialogue with the enemy. However, in the US-Iran case, given the circumstances, there is hardly any room for diplomacy (at least for now). With the crowd in Tehran still craving for American blood to avenge Soleimani’s killing, cosying up to Washington would be haram for the Ayatollah-led theocratic regime, and would probably even have a catastrophic impact on its
legitimacy within the country.
So diplomacy is, in all probabilities, off the table for the near future. Trump had, in the past year, made public his openness to engaging the Iranian leadership in diplomacy. For now, he can forget it.
Better ties with Russia and China
A likely step that Iran would take to boost its sense of security is forging closer ties with America’s principal enemies – Russia and China.
It was only the week before Soleimani’s killing that Iran, along with the two powers held their first-ever joint naval exercises. Commenting on the four-day drills that covered 17,000 square kilometers and comprised various tactical exercises, a senior Iranian official said, it is a "signal to the world" that ties
between the three countries have reached a “meaningful” level. As expected the drills annoyed Trump, who took to Twitter to register his protest.
Iran’s ties with Russia and China have been growing steadily over the past few years. If anything, the present crisis would only fuel Tehran’s desire for a much closer bond with Beijing and Moscow. A close relationship with Iran could also bring tangible benefits to the other two.
For instance, there were reports late last year that Russia had reached an agreement with Iran to use its Bandar-e-Bushehr and Chabahar ports as forward naval bases. According to Simon Watkins, a senior journalist who have sources in the Iranian government, "The next round of joint military exercises in the Indian Ocean and the Strait of Hormuz will mark the onset of (Russia’s) in-situ military expansion in Iran, as the Russian ships involved will be allowed by Iran to use the facilities in Bandar-e-Bushehr and Chabahar."
Though there is no official word from Tehran yet, this could likely be a picture of things to come. China, eager to expand its global military footprint, can also explore similar arrangements with Iran.
Make the US allies work in its favour
Apart from launching costly trade wars, the one thing that Trump did, which mightily pissed off America’s European allies, is ripping the landmark nuclear deal, despite the International Atomic Energy Agency’s certification that Iran was in compliance with it.
In the ensuing months, the EU stood steadfast behind Iran. The trans-Atlantic partnership is yet to fully heal from the damage wrought by this unilateral US move. In the present scenario, Iran would look to strengthen its existing bonds with the EU, as well as friendly countries like India and Japan.
The days when Iran stood isolated in the international community are long gone. Today, the countries of the world are increasingly engaging with it, and Tehran has gained the goodwill of many of America’s principal allies.
For instance, Japan, while sending troops to the Persian Gulf to secure its oil supplies last month, made it a point not to join a coalition led by its ally - the US - for fear of offending Iran. Well, that says a lot about Tehran’s growing clout. Future efforts by Washington to isolate Iran are not guaranteed to
Get the dirty bomb?
Would the US have killed Soleimani had Iran had nuclear weapons? This is a million-dollar question that nobody is asking. Most likely not. Not because Iran would retaliate with nuclear bombs. But because it would have struck the US much harder with conventional weapons and managed to get away with it.
In the absence of nukes, Iran had to content itself, this time, with limited, low-intensity strikes on US bases as retaliation for the killing of its beloved General. Had it had nuclear weapons, it could have carried out a much broader conventional attack, targeting American forces and other assets across the
region, without having to worry about US retaliation.
The US, mindful that an escalation could lead to a nuclear war, would have avoided targeting Soleimani in the first place. Recent events would have convinced at least a few in the Iranian leadership of the virtues of having the dirty bomb. After all, though dirty, along with it comes the much-needed security.