Vicken Cheterian

Trump and Soleimani: “With us or against us”!

In spite of tensions between Tehran and Washington, the frontal confrontation was excluded, adopting instead indirect competition and a game of influence. Then, why did Trump decide to change the rules of the game and ordered the assassination?

If you have ever talked to an American diplomat, you might have noticed how traumatic the Tehran hostage crisis of 1979-81 remains for them. 

It was years back when I was interviewing a US diplomat in Yerevan, the conversation was about the Caucasus and its conflicts. Then I asked him about the possible role Iran could play as mediator. The American official, who had very professional posture up to then, had his body language suddenly changed, his facial expression deformed, and in an un-diplomatic way reminded me that Iran had taken US diplomats as hostages back and kept them for 444 days, a humiliating and traumatic experience for American State Department officials and concluded that the US would never tolerate any Iranian role, even for peacemaking.

On top of the Tehran embassy crisis, the US had their Beirut embassy blown away by a pro-Iranian suicide-bomber back in 1983. In 2012 Salafi militants attacked the US mission in Benghazi, leading to the death of four Americans including the Ambassador Christopher Stevens. This last attack probably cost Hillary Clinton her presidency. The attack against the US embassy in Baghdad was symbolic, it led to no casualties, and only to limited property damage. Yet, symbols are important months before American presidential elections. If I with my limited experience know this, didn’t Qassem Soleimani realize how delicate it was to attack the US embassy in Baghdad?

In the early hours of January 3, 2020, Qassem Soleimani, the most powerful military personality of Iran, landed in Baghdad International Airport, coming from Beirut. He was accompanied with several top Iranian military and Iraqi militia leaders, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of “Hezbollah Brigades”. They exited Baghdad airport at a distance of few hundred meters from a cargo space where US officers are stationed as part of “war against terrorism” effort jointly operated with Iraqi intelligence. Baghdad airport is also home of a number of other US military units, armed among others with Apache attack helicopters. As Soleimani and the ten officials that accompanied him exited from the airport, an American drone attacked their convoy setting their cars on fire and killing them on the spot.

Why did Trump decide to change the rules of the game?

The fact that Soleimani casually travelled through the Baghdad airport, meters away from American special units and intelligence operators, signifies that he did not expect an attack against him. The two antagonists had come used to coexistence in Iraq for a number of years. In spite of tensions between Tehran and Washington, the frontal confrontation was excluded, adopting instead indirect competition and a game of influence. Then, why did Trump decide to change the rules of the game and ordered the assassination?

If a recent Reuters report is credible, in mid-October, 2019, Soleimani met in Baghdad with his Iraqi allies including al-Muhandis, to instruct him “to step up attacks on U. S. targets” in order to face the rising anti-establishment demonstrations in a number of Iraqi cities, namely in the Shia majority central and southern Iraq. “Soleimani’s plan to attack US forces aimed to provoke a military response that would redirect that rising anger toward the United States”, adds the report. 

For the top Iranian leadership, the anti-establishment and anti-corruption demonstrations that witnessed Iraq, as well as Lebanon and Iran itself, are not autonomous actors. They are not seen as citizens and groups that have the right to have their political voice, to articulate complaints, to make demands. They are subjects, not citizens. They are simply seen in the binary confrontation between the light and darkness, between the Islamic Republic of Iran and its archrival the United States. 

Since the US withdraw from the “nuclear deal” back in May 2018, and imposed a severe embargo on Iran, its economy has shrunk by 4.8% in 2018, and by a crippling 9.5% in 2019, mainly because its oil exports fell from nearly 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) to less than half a million bpd. In other words, Iran’s economy was suffocating, and it could not continue under these conditions without risking internal implosion. Iran’s leaders see their internal opposition, those who demonstrated on streets of a series of Iranian cities in November 2019, and before that in 2017 and 2018, as the result of US policies and pressures that needs to be combated in the same way Iranian state apparatus fights foreign conspiracies.

Recent Iranian attacks, including the rocket attacks against a military base in Kirkuk that killed a US contractor on December 27, was meant to increase pressure on the Trump administration to push them revise their policies. The US put the blame on Hezbollah Battalions and retaliated by bombing five of the Hezbollah bases on Iraqi-Syrian border, killing an estimated 25 militants. On December 31, the funeral of those killed turned into a mob attack against the US embassy in Baghdad.

Soleimani won his bet

In his death, Soleimani won his bet: he drew a clear line between “with us or against us”. Huge pro-regime demonstrations replaced opposition demonstrations in Iranian cities. The Iraqi parliament reacted by demanding the US troops to leave its land, and many pro-Iranian politicians and militia leaders are vowing revenge.

In the Middle East, not everyone supports Iran’s “axis of resistance” and its narrative of “anti-imperialist struggle”. Its role in repressing popular uprisings, and mainly in Syria, won Iran recent enemies. Many Iraqis who were demonstrating in Baghdad and elsewhere, see the sovereignty of their country hijacked by Iranian adventurers. Yet, those who are with and those who are against Iran are clear and well defined.

But what about the US? Do we know who are the friends of America today in the Middle East? Didn’t Washington, with its unbearable arrogance use and then throw away its allies? The Kurdish fighters in Syria are the latest example, abandoned in a matter of hours following a “tweet” by Donald Trump, just like Iraqi rebels encouraged by American actions and words revolted against Saddam Hussein back in 1991, only to be abandoned to Iraqi dictators war machine, and be destroyed. In his tweets Trump has threatened Iran of targeting “52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago) some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture” … In simple tweets the president of America openly threatened to commit war crimes. Trump is coming back to the Middle East not to bring democracy, nor to fight terrorism or find “weapons of mass destruction”, but to show that the stick he is holding is the biggest and the strongest; he just twitted saying the US “just spent Two Trillion Dollars on Military Equipment. We are the biggest and by far the BEST in the World!”

Trump is not the first president

It is only ironic that Trump who wanted to retreat from the Middle East, thinking that America’s strategic challenge is in the Pacific region with the rising Chinese power, is sending his soldiers back to the Middle East, and is close to ignite a new war with Iran. He is not the first American president in such a paradoxical – near comical – situation: George W. Bush when he came to power, after Bill Clinton’s failed mediation between Israelis and Palestinians, he too wanted to focus on everything but the Middle East, but ended up by invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Barak Obama also wanted to withdraw from the Middle East but sent his troops to Libya, Syria as well as back to Iraq to fight ISIS. There seems something sweet-and-sour between American presidents and the Middle East. 

Before the latest “show-down” between Trump and Soleimani the story in the Middle East was popular demonstrations demanding the end of political monopoly by an alliance of corrupt rulers and resistance adventurers. Those mass demonstrations did not want – could not  - choose between Washington or Tehran, because they are jobless and have no hope to find one, their countries finances are close to bankruptcy, the earth and the water of their country poisoned, and decades of wars have destroyed their cities. Thousands of people were demonstrating from Beirut to Baghdad and Tehran, from Khartoum to Algiers and beyond, because the binary narrative “imperialism” and “fight against imperialism” does not convince them, does not solve their individual and collective problems. The majority of the Middle Eastern public opinion is tired of sterile fights that have high cost for them that they cannot afford anymore.

But do majorities matter in the age of Trump and Soleimany?