On this site last November, our columnist Garvan Walshe wrote about the Iran-wide protests against the country’s ruling regime. They were different from those of 2009, he said, because they were wider – and deeper.
Whereas those were largely confined to the middle class, these represented a “crisis of legitimacy” for Iran’s government, because “they take place, not against a hardline president whose agenda aligns with the Supreme Leader and the Revolutionary Guards, but against a moderate, Hassan Rouhani, who has been unable to deliver the economic improvements he promised”.
The prescient Garvan also mentioned an under-reported figure within the regime – by way of describing a Shia militia, the al-Hashd al-Sha’bi, which operates in Iraq but are controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which operates under “their commander, Qasem Soleimani”.
Much of the domestic reaction to Soleimani’s assassination begins with the man who ordered it, Donald Trump. But America may be the wrong place and its President the wrong person with which to begin considering it. Intensified sanctions against Iran are biting hard. Dissatisfaction with the ruling cliques – and the corruption in which Soleimani had a hand – is rife among the population. Trump has abandoned Barack Obama’s nuclear deal.
A case can therefore be made for the killing of Soleimani as part of a coherent strategic plan. This would be to cause chaos at the top of Iran’s ruling structure, the workings of which are deeply obscure, in the hope that the resulting confusion will further western strategic goals and help to collapse Iran’s terror-promoting regime.
As this re-election year begins in America, it is clear, looking back on the bulk of this President’s term, that much of the criticism of him is wide of the mark. The bulk of the evidence suggests that he has a strategic foreign policy aim, namely to keep the United States out of wars abroad, or at least conflicts in which ground troops are committed. Abroad, he acts through proxies, as against ISIS, or through massive displays of air power.
This combines with a deeply personal tendency to engage with what he sees as other strong leaders in pursuit of “the art of the deal”. His abandonment of the Kurds and engagement with Recep Tayyip Erdogan is an example. The classic instance is his talks with Kim Jong-il of North Korea.
He engages when he judges that the United States has a sufficient interest in diplomacy. Although he has not been gung-ho about confrontation with Iran – last June, he backed off an airstrike against Iran as “not proportionate”, and has said that he has “good feelings” about a successor deal to Obama’s – he seems to have concluded that there is no such or not sufficient negotiating interest in this case.
In sum, his take on Iran seems to be: hit it hard if absolutely necessary. And his judgement was that it was necessary to strike at a regime that, very recently, has seized vessels in the Persian Gulf, attacked Saudi oil refineries, fired mortar against US forces in Iraq and assailed the country’s embassy in Baghad.
The President argues that Soleimani, a mass murderer, was planning further anti-American terror. He would – because that covers the necessary legal base. But the truth is that we do not know why the strike against Soleimani took place now. Cynics claim that it is nicely timed for America’s electoral cycle and to distract attention from the impeachment imbroglio. But it isn’t obvious that the killing will win supporters who don’t back the President already.
All this suggests that Trump did not act order to help collapse the Iranian regime – but, rather, to assert American power against a government with which he thinks he cannot strike a deal. His critics will rage, but it is not clear that his impulsive approach has been less effective overall than George W.Bush’s activism or Obama’s passivity.
Nor can he fairly be accused of starting a conflict with Iran: that is raging already. But the question is whether his caution last June was more or less sensible than his commitment now. Iran has a long record of what the wonks like to call asymmetric response. In other words: proxy actions, suicide bombs, IEDs, kidnappings, assasinations, attacks on embassies, civilians and military personnel.
The Middle East is rich with American targets. Or Iran may look to the United States itself. Then there are that country’s allies to consider – including the “Little Satan”, Britain itself. What is Trump’s plan if Iran hits back? Or if Soleimani’s killing solidifies rather than dissipates support for the regime? What happens in Iraq?
On Tuesday, Parliament resumes, and it will fall to Dominic Raab (presumably) to state the Government’s view at length. Jeremy Corbyn will do all but openly support Iran, which will be par for the course. Labour’s leadership contenders will be up and about doing much the same, in order to drum up support among the membership for the coming leadership election.
To date, the Foreign Secretary has not said all that much. “We have always recognised the aggressive threat posed by the Iranian Quds force led by Qasem Soleimani. Following his death, we urge all parties to de-escalate. Further conflict is in none of our interests,” he tweeted on Friday.
We may be leaving the EU at the end of January, but British solidarity with its position on Iran continues. How does Boris Johnson plan to deal with Trump if the conflict between America and Iran intensifies – particularly if Britain is dragged into it? The regime will not have forgotten the business of the Prime Minister’s blunder over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
He will want to stick to his diplomatic position on Iran while not fouling up any trade deal with America. So far, the President seems to have taken Johnson’s alignment with France and Germany well. It may be that he won’t mind having the Prime Minister as a “candid friend”.
But if Johnson decides that his best course for now is to say as little as possible and seek to change the subject, that will be understandable. As we write, Downing Street might well be sifting through the bodies of a few dead cats to sling on the Cabinet table – and out to the media. Time perhaps for another incendiary blog from Dominic Cummings. Trump has decided to hit Iran very hard and no-one knows what will happen next.
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