With the assassination of Iran’s top military general by the Americans, the possibility of escalation in Iran-US tensions looms large. The uncertainty over how things will turn around has led to apprehensions of possible involvement of Israel, Saudi Arabia and other countries. The article sheds light on the possible political, economic and security implications for the region which is already engulfed in a number of conflicts.
The assassination of Iran’s top military general Qasem Soleimani, in a recent US airstrike at Baghdad airport in Iraq on January 4, 2020, created a war hysteria with a possible retaliation from Iran on US military installations across the region in the Middle East. It was reported that the rockets landed near the air cargo terminal, killing and injuring several people including top Iraqi military commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis―advisor to General Soleimani.
General Soleimani was not only Iran’s most powerful military commander but also the architect of the country’s political and military influence in the Middle East region. He was considered one of the most powerful figures in Iran second only to the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Keeping a low profile for years, he strengthened Iran’s ties with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria’s government, Shi’ite militia groups in Iraq and Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Uncertainty Looms Large
Following the assassination, there was immense pressure on Iran to respond to this grave provocation and Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed to avenge General Soleimani’s death, escalating tension in the region. Since Iran possesses considerable strength and influence over countries such as Iraq, Yemen and Syria, it can possibly use its proxies to carry out attacks on the American military infrastructures and its allies.
The relation between the US and Iran has always been under stress since the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution. The recent labelling of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as foreign terrorist organisation by the US has raised tensions between the two. Further, General Soleimani’s assassination at President Trump’s orders has created long-term political and security challenges for the US in the region where it has stationed its more than 60000 troops and personnel.
The dynamics are dangerous and the possibility of the US and Iran getting embroiled in yet another cycle of crisis in the region is at all-time high. This would have terrible consequences for countries like Iraq, Syria and the region at large. The last thing the Middle East needs is a war, especially as the last war against ISIS is yet to be over. With the killing of General, who was seen as the one central to the elimination of the Daish forces in the region, the group will get embolden and will try to regroup. The ISIS splinters will get a major boost in Iraq and Syria to continue their assault in the region.
Iran’s military strategy is to keep tensions at a low and avoid a direct confrontation with the US, still the possibility of a war looms large. Even if neither side wants to fight, miscalculation, missed signals and the logic of escalation could conspire to turn even a minor clash into a full-blown war with devastating effects for Iran, the US and the region of the Middle East in particular.
Iran through its proxy forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen can attack the US and its allies in the region. It has a huge arsenal of ballistic missiles that can target US bases in Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, among others. Other than that, its mines and land-based anti-ship missiles can wreak havoc in the Strait of Hormuz and shoot up the global oil prices. Iran also has the capacity to shut down a significant portion of Saudi oil production with cyberattacks, and use its paramilitary to attack US targets around the globe.
On the contrary, the US might decide to send aircraft carriers, battleships and fighters to the region to defend its military installation and its allies. Iranian military might infer that Washington is gearing up for a major attack and decide to protect its arsenal of missiles and mines from a possible pre-emptive US strike by dispersing them. Such defensive measures by Iran might be interpreted by the US as preparation for an escalation and it might respond by carrying out the very pre-emptive strike that Iran would seek to avoid.
Israel might get drawn into the conflict through clashes with Hezbollah―the Shi’ite militant group and a political party in Lebanon. Iran has tremendous influence over Hezbollah and could potentially push the group to attack Israel using its arsenal of rockets in an attempt to raise the costs of conflict for the US and one of its closest allies in the region. Such an attack may likely overpower Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system, leaving Israel with no choice but to invade Hezbollah’s strongholds in southern Lebanon and possibly southern Syria. Thus, what initially began as a US-Iranian limited aggression can engulf the entire region, imposing not only devastating losses on Iran and its people but also incurring serious costs to the US, Israel, and other regional players.
All parties understand the danger of escalation of the crisis. The war between the two would particularly be catastrophic and will lead to another prolonged conflict in the region. Therefore, both sides should continue to try and avoid an all-out war. Starting a war may be the easiest of decisions, but the region cannot afford and tolerate another conflict. Too much is at stake. History has taught us that many armed confrontations begin by inadvertence and not by design and this too could end as one of them. Therefore, Trump administration and the Islamic Republic of Iran should tread much more carefully, lest they would send their countries down a dangerous and costly spiral that might quickly spin out of control.
Finally, in case the conflict turns into a full-blown war, it will not only have political, economic and security consequences for the region but also a major impact on India’s strategic interests and energy security. The war can compromise India’s efforts for the development of Chabahar Port in Iran and its outreach to land-locked Central Asian countries. India should urge both countries to restrain and try to resolve the issues with utmost diligence.
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.