Iran-US Conflict: Entire Gulf Region may be at Risk

First published on: 2020-01-05 Written by Shashi Bhushan Kumar International Relations

iran-us-conflict-risked-entire-world Photo Courtesy: AFP /

The killing of a top Iranian military commander, Major General Qasem Soleimani, by the US forces is breathtaking and forebodes the escalation of the US-Iran confrontation. As Washington and Tehran move from a proxy conflict to open confrontation, the entire Middle East is in danger of being consumed. Gen Soleimani was no ordinary soldier. He headed the much-feared Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. He was the face of Iran’s expanding regional strategic footprint.

Soleimani was widely seen as the most consequential figure in Tehran’s political hierarchy after the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Soleimani’s aggressive political and military tactics continuously challenged America’s regional primacy. His hybrid warfare compensated for the weakness of Iran’s conventional military forces. His successful intervention in the domestic politics of various countries in the Middle East — from Iraq and Syria to Yemen and Libya—made him a formidable opponent to the US and its regional allies.

US Explanations on Attack

The immediate explanation for the assassination was provided by the Pentagon, which stated that General Soleimani was planning attacks on American diplomatic personnel and service members in the region. This followed the death of a US contractor during a rocket attack by an Iranian proxy militia.

US President Donald Trump’s successful targeting of Gen Soleimani has been compared to his predecessor Barack Obama’s attack on Osama bin Laden in 2011. Unlike Osama, Gen Soleimani is a high-level functionary of an important state in the world. In a furious reaction, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif warned that the US will bear “responsibility for all consequences” of its adventurism. There is no doubt that Tehran will respond at a place and time of its choosing. Having raised the ante in the confrontation with Iran, Trump has little room to back down. Unless something gives in either capital, there is no avoiding an intensified military confrontation between the two sides.

Conflict between US and Iran

Ever since the Islamic revolution in Iran four decades ago, Washington and Iran have been daggers drawn. Occasional attempts at finding compromises have failed. But the unintended consequences of US policy in the region — the ousting of the Taliban from Afghanistan in 2001 and Saddam Hussein from Iraq in 2003 — generated huge space for the expansion of Tehran’s regional influence. In doing so he has endangered US security and the stability of the world’s most volatile region.

Iran has also successfully mobilised the support of Russia and China and has constructed a regional coalition with Turkey, Qatar and Syria against the US and its allies. Although the elimination of Soleimani and other militia leaders is a big setback, Iran is fully capable of widening and escalating the asymmetric war against United States. This, in turn, puts the entire Gulf region, the world’s largest supplier of hydrocarbons, at risk. And with it, the already fragile global economy.

Dangerous Consequences

Iran’s most powerful military commander has been killed in a U.S. air strike, a major escalation of a conflict that analysts say threatens to unleash further violence in the volatile region. The assassination of General Qasem Soleimani, the powerful head of Iran's elite Quds Force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), is a significant blow to the clerical regime, which is reeling from biting U.S. sanctions, a free-falling economy, and anti-government protests.

The 62-year-old Soleimani was responsible for Iran’s foreign operations, playing a key role in spreading the Islamic republic’s influence through pro-Iranian militias in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. Soleimani was Iran’s point man across the Middle East, not just in terms of military operations but implementing Tehran’s political strategy.

Other Consequences

As Mr Trump must know, the general’s killing has almost certainly ensured that similar attacks will still take place, only on a larger scale – and possibly targeting civilians. Other consequences, some of them catastrophic, could also follow. The Iraqi government, furious at the death of a prominent militia leader in the drone attack, may request the departure of the remaining US troops in the country. The Iranian nuclear deal, which European diplomats have been trying to keep alive following America’s withdrawal from it in 2018, must now be close to collapsing.

The biggest danger though, is the one feared by presidents Bush and Obama: a new war in the Middle East, this time with Trump’s America as a chief protagonist. Tehran is an experienced practitioner of asymmetric warfare, calibrating the impact of the provocations and outrages it perpetrates. But a miscalculation by an increasingly embattled regime could see all-out conflict break out and other regional actors such as Israel drawn in.

Serious Trouble Worldwide

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the United States and declared three days of public mourning his close confidant's death. Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami promised a “crushing response” to all perpetrators involved in Soleimani’s killing.

Several analysts said Iran is likely to respond forcefully to the killing of Soleimani, who had survived numerous assassination attempts against him over the past two decades. Analysts said Tehran has the capability to act directly against U.S. military and commercial interests in the region or American allies in the area like Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Extremists Activities may Rise

The Islamic republic can also act through its proxy groups, experts said, including Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq, Lebanon’s Hizballah, and the Huthi rebels in Yemen. Iran and its proxies have previously been blamed for disrupting vital oil supplies in the Persian Gulf through attacks on oil tankers and pipelines.

Analysts said Soleimani’s death was unlikely to cause a major shift in Iran’s military operations or threaten its alliances with proxies in the region. Scholar of the Arab Gulf States Institute stated that power is highly institutionalized in the Quds Force. His successor may not possess Soleimani’s charisma but will exert influence in Iran and abroad thanks to the power of the Quds Force.

Less than a day since Soleimani’s death, Khamenei named Brigadier General Ismail Qaani as his successor. Qaani fought in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and was a trusted aide to Soleimani. A former intelligence official in the IRGC, Qaani was one of the key figures in Iran’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.

Impact of US-Iran Rivalry on India

As a major importer of oil, India is especially vulnerable to the deepening crisis next door. Delhi will also be under pressure to take a fresh look at its regional policy that sought to overcome the multiple contradictions in the Gulf by trying to be friends with all. The sharpening conflict will certainly make India’s navigation of the Gulf that much harder. India has urged the US and Iran to exercise "restraint" in order to avoid destabilising the region after Gen Soleimani killing by the American forces at Baghdad's International Airport.

In a press release, the Ministry of External Affairs noted with concern the increased tensions that could impact peace and stability. The MEA statement said that increase in tension has alarmed the world. Peace, stability and security in this region are of utmost importance to India. It is vital that the situation does not escalate further. India has consistently advocated restraint and continues to do so.

India’s Chabahar Project in jeopardy

India a close ally of both the countries will have to do a tightrope walk. For India the stakes remain high since it already was pushed by US sanctions into a corner in not doing business with Iran, any further escalation could put India's Chabahar project in jeopardy.

For India, it impacts India's sea-link communication and energy flows from the region. If there is a dramatic escalation that would lead to spike in oil prices which would have a negative impact on an already slowing down, sluggish economy.

Rise in Prices of Petrol

Most experts are pointing towards the immediate outcome of the US action which would be a rise in prices and the longer impact if things escalate would be on energy supply from the region itself, which would have an adverse bearing on the Indian economy.

Former foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai noted that the only immediate impact would be if oil prices go up in anticipation of a conflict. That would be damaging for the Indian economy. Much depends on Iran's response. Serious escalation and action on Strait of Hormuz could impact supplies. But, for us, the immediate concern is oil prices.

Iran Threatens US

The Iranians have already threatened the US of consequences to the action. Soleimani, 62, was very close to the Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei who said ‘severe revenge awaits the criminals who bloodied their foul hands with his blood’.

West Asian expert Dr. Waiel Awwad said, "If a war breaks then it will have catastrophic impact on the region as a whole. The USA now will face stiff resistance. It is a violation of a sovereign state, hence there is a chances of increased voices against USA forces stationed in Iraq. Retaliation against USA forces is imminent."

Probable Retaliation

Unlike previous confrontations over the past four decades of the US-Iranian rivalry, however, regional circumstances are different today. Oil is no longer the weapon it once was. Iran cannot afford to shut down the Straits of Hormuz even if it had the ability to do so. Its primary customer is its ally, China, while an oil-exporting US would financially benefit from such a move.

Washington is all-powerful but its interest in the Persian Gulf in dipping. Mr Trump remains a reluctant warrior. If Tehran had not surrounded the US embassy in Iraq, a red line for a president whose generation was scarred by the 1979 hostage crisis, it is likely the present tit-for-tat round would have simply petered out. Iran, on its part, may have assembled an informal empire of influence extending to the Mediterranean but its economy is shrinking and it struggles with rising social unrest. A warrior without will versus another without a way complicates the matrix.

Regional Disequilibrium

Iran will use Soleimani’s death to shore up support for the regime. Retaliation will probably happen in due course, but with care to avoid pushing Mr Trump’s buttons and focus on signalling Iranian resolve to the region. Tehran can afford to be restrained. The US continues to slowly lose influence in West Asia. Saudi attempts to push back Iran in Yemen and elsewhere have failed.

Both the US and Iran have elections coming up and a full-scale conflict is not a winning gambit in either of the campaigns. What the immediate future holds is hard to predict. But the long-term will remain a tale of regional disequilibrium, with mid-level powers like Iran and Russia struggling to replace the vacuum left by a US whose interests are shifting eastward.

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