Major General Hossein Salami, the chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of Iran, said on January 4 that his country would take “strategic revenge” against the United States for the assassination of Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani. The assassination of Soleimani, Salami said, will be later seen as a “turning point” in U.S. interference in West Asia.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reacted strongly to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s suggestion that Iraqis were “dancing in the street” to celebrate the assassination. On Twitter, Zarif posted pictures of the funeral procession for Soleimani and wrote, “End of US malign presence in West Asia has begun.”
Both the military and the diplomatic wings of Iran’s government are in agreement that it is not Iran that will be weakened by the assassination of Soleimani, but that the United States will suffer the consequences of this action.
Why the U.S. Fears Iran
Why does the United States of America—the country with the largest military force in the world—fear Iran? What can Iran do to threaten U.S. interests?
To understand U.S. fears about Iran, it is important to recognize the ideological threat that Iran poses to Saudi Arabia.
Until the Iranian revolution of 1979, relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran were on an even keel. Both were monarchies, and both were subordinate allies of the United States. Whatever historical animosity remained between the Shia and Sunni—two branches of the Islamic tradition—were on mute.
The Iranian revolution of 1979 shook up the region. The crown of the monarch was set aside, as a specifically religious republic was created. The Saudis have long said that Islam and democracy are incompatible; this is precisely what the Islamic Republic rejected, when it created its own democratic form of Islam. It was this Islamic republicanism that swept the region, from Pakistan to Morocco. Fears of Islamic republicanism brought shudders into the palaces of the Saudi royal family, and into the U.S. higher establishment. It was at this point that the U.S. President Jimmy Carter said that the military defense of Saudi Arabia’s monarchy was a paramount interest of the U.S. government.
In other words, the U.S. military would be used to protect not the people of the Arabian Peninsula but the Saudi monarchy. Since the main threat was Iran, the U.S. turned its entire arsenal of military and information war against the new Islamic Republic.
The Saudis and the West egged on Saddam Hussein to send in the Iraqi army against Iran in 1980; that bloody war went on till 1988, with both Iran and Iraq bled for the sake of Riyadh and Washington. Soleimani and his successor Brigadier General Esmail Gha’ani both fought in the Iraq-Iran War. Both Saddam Hussein and later the Afghan Taliban held Iran tight inside its borders.
American Wars, Iranian Victories
U.S. President George W. Bush broke the wall around Iran. The United States prosecuted two wars, which were essentially won by Iran. First, the U.S. in 2001 knocked out the Taliban and delivered an advantage to pro-Iranian factions, who joined the post-Taliban government in Kabul. Then, in 2003, the U.S. took out Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party; the pro-Iranian Dawa Party succeeded Saddam. It was Bush’s wars that allowed Iran to extend its influence from the Hindu Kush to the Mediterranean Sea.
The United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel used several mechanisms to push Iran back into its borders. They first went after Iran’s regional allies: first sanctions against Syria (with the 2003 Syria Accountability Act in the U.S. Congress), and then a war against Lebanon (prosecuted by Israel in 2006 to weaken Hezbollah). Neither worked.
In 2006, the U.S. fabricated a crisis over Iran’s nuclear energy program and pushed for UN, European Union, and U.S. sanctions. This did not work. The sanctions regime ended in 2015.
Attempts to intimidate Iran failed.
Trump left the 2015 nuclear deal, and then said that he would get the U.S. a better deal from Iran. The Iranians scoffed.
Trump ratcheted up the economic war against Iran. This hurt the Iranian people, but with Chinese help, Iran has managed to survive the contraction of its economy.
Trump’s policy toward Iran is known as “maximum pressure.” It was this that led to the recent fracas, including the assassinations of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (Hashd al-Sha’abi).
After the assassination, the U.S. sent an envoy to Tehran. The brief from Trump was simple: if Iran does not retaliate, the U.S. will remove part of the regime of sanctions. Soleimani’s life was the price to pay to reduce sanctions. Trump wants to make a deal. He does not understand Iran. His is a policy that is both naïve and dangerous. But it is rooted in the Carter Doctrine, and therefore in the U.S. establishment’s policy framework.
What Will Iran Do?
Iran will not accept Trump’s tawdry deal. It has already set aside its policy of “strategic patience” for a much more forthright “calibrated response” policy.
If the U.S. wants to leave the nuclear deal, then Iran will start to process uranium.
If the West threatens Iranian shipping, then Iran will threaten Western shipping.
If the U.S. attacks Iranian interests, then Iran will attack U.S. interests.
Now, the U.S. has assassinated a senior Iranian military leader—who was traveling from Beirut to Baghdad on a diplomatic passport; will Iran offer a proportionate response?
Where will this U.S. policy of “maximum pressure” lead? Iran has said that it would not bow down to the U.S. pressure.
It has become commonplace to compare the assassination of Soleimani to the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which led to World War I. This is chilling. If the U.S. starts a full-scale war against Iran, what will be the reaction of the other major powers in Eurasia, namely China and Russia? Both China and Russia have condemned the assassination, and both have called for calm.
However, Iran responds, the Iranian officials—such as Zarif and Salami—are correct that U.S. influence in the region has deteriorated and will deteriorate further. The U.S. can continue to thrash about with its superior military force, and it will continue to have bases that ring Iran. But what it can do with that power is unclear. This power was not able to subdue Iraq, nor was it able to overthrow the government in Syria, and nor could it create anything near stability in Libya. The attitude toward the U.S. is dismissive on the streets of West Asia, even as the Saudi monarchy continues to flatter U.S. presidents into its worldview.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He has written more than twenty books, including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (The New Press, 2007), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013), The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016) and Red Star Over the Third World (LeftWord, 2017). He writes regularly for Frontline, the Hindu, Newsclick, AlterNet and BirGün.