The assassination, at President Trump’s instruction, of the emblematic Iranian military leader Qassem Sulaimani has almost certainly moved the Iran-US contest into a new phase.
Consideration of their respective goals and objectives suggests both the Iranians and the US will emerge bruised in the forthcoming contest, but with Iran likely to achieve greater success in regard to its objectives than will be possible for the United States.
The US-Iranian rivalry is set to be played out mostly in Iraq. Retaliatory military action by Iranian-backed militias and non-state actors elsewhere is certainly possible. It may be demanded by the Iranian leadership. But as Patrick Cockburn has noted in The Independent the most important objective for Iran at this moment will be to pressure the Iraqi government, parliament and security forces into pushing the United States out of Iraq.
In stark contrast to the Trump Administration, Iran has objectives in the region which are clear and achievable. Its fundamental strategic objective is securing its influence in its key neighbour and, historically speaking, its only genuine potential source of threat, Iraq; in addition to improving its sway over the Assad regime in Syria, and bolstering its capacity to sustain its proxy force in Lebanon.
Its lesser objectives, which speak to an extended history of resentment at external interference, include (a) placing countervailing pressure on the US presence in the region, and (b) maintaining what is, in effect, a second strike conventional capacity against Israel, through Hezbollah, that makes it unlikely Israel would act militarily against Iran itself. (Other rules apply, however, with well-established and adroitly-applied ‘rules of the game’ so far as Israeli interdiction of Iranian missile technology destined for Hezbollah, and other occasional Israeli activity in Syria are concerned).
Strong popular discontent has been evident recently with the sectarian character and inadequate economic performance of the Iraqi government, and the brutal repression by Iranian-sponsored militias of protests. However the assassination of Sulaimani has almost certainly isolated, and probably reversed, the growing pushback within Iraq against the over-extension of Iranian influence.
Trump has replaced an increasingly problematic scenario for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) with an unparalleled opportunity for Iran to coalesce resentment against US disregard for Iraqi sovereignty with the misplaced but politically-powerful imagery of martyrdom. With ongoing US strikes reported against leaders of other Iranian-sponsored militias that imagery is being extended, not only to the mythology surrounding Sulaimani but also to a cast of other, no less repugnant individuals operating under Iranian protection.
Whatever military benefits the assassination may produce (and those would seem likely to be limited given the depth and sophistication of IRGC capabilities), the political value of Sulaimani’s demise to Iranian hardliners, both in Iraq and within Iran, is immense.
The fact that Trump has shown willingness to use US military power will be taken into account on the Iranian side, but not as a deterrent (as some Americans, seemingly oblivious to Iranian history, culture and nationalist values wish to imagine). It is simply a factor that will encourage the Iranians to avoid a conventional military confrontation where alternatives that match Iranian objectives exist.
The Iranian ambition will be to employ asymmetric warfare, proxies, mine warfare, harassment of shipping, political and diplomatic assets in a series of semi-deniable but determined approaches simultaneously to achieve Iranian strategic objectives, to further isolate the United States among western countries whose economic and other interests will be under threat, and to make the Americans pay.
It is easy to overestimate the capacity of the Iranians to achieve the policy and organizational coherence required for such approaches ultimately to be successful. Indeed there is a real risk of emotions driving escalation on both sides, at the expense of strategic calculations.
But it is even more difficult to identify any coherent or credible objectives for US policy toward the region, especially in the circumstances its latest actions have produced. Nor is it easy to identify what assets other than military force, and its increasingly shaky diplomatic standing in the region, the US has at its disposal to meet the Iranian challenge.
The core US objective for sustaining a military presence in Iraq (and so far as its public statements are concerned, in Syria) is to prosecute the war against Islamic State. But the continuation of a US presence in Iraq depends on endorsement by the Iraqi Prime Minister (the Iraqi Parliament, which meets on Sunday, does not have the final say on such matters). And since it is difficult to imagine any Iraqi PM in present circumstances resisting demands for the US to leave, the low-hanging fruit in Iraq is almost certain to be harvested by the Iranians.
Within a year, the most likely outcome will be the fulfilment of Trump’s longstanding desire to see the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq—whether ignominiously at the behest of the Iraqi government, or simply because the rationale for a continuing US presence no longer exists in the absence of Iraqi partners willing to fight in US company. And without the consent of the Iraqi government, resupply of the US forces in Syria, especially east of the Euphrates, and the continuation of US support to the YPG Kurds through northern Iraq will be highly problematic.
Meanwhile, the US will probably have to provide reassurance to Gulf Arab states torn between uncertainty about Trump’s willingness to use US military power in their defence (not least because of his demonstrated impetuosity and the consistency with which he has argued against becoming involved in another Middle East conflict); and very real concern that Iranian retaliation to further US military actions may be directed against them.
The Iranians (and the Russians) are astute enough to exploit the strategic uncertainties of the present situation facing the Gulf Arabs. The Iranians will blend a willingness to present themselves as the aggrieved party to traditional interlocutors such as Oman, Qatar and Kuwait, and to Dubai within the United Arab Emirates, with blunt warnings to the Saudis and to Abu Dhabi that they need to tread carefully.
The success of the attack on the Abqaiq oil facility demonstrated how the military balance in the region is shifting as the Iranians find asymmetric responses through drones and ballistic missiles to US military preponderance. Nor does US military capability preclude the risk of significant damage to the oil facilities and other critical infrastructure of Gulf Arab states—a successful drone strike on Saudi desalination plants would force the evacuation of Riyadh within a fortnight; a single ballistic missile strike on Dubai airport would disrupt global air travel for weeks.
Unless their very existence were perceived to be at stake, giving carte blanche to US activity from bases on their soil is probably not a risk the Gulf states would be willing to take.
Bob Bowker is a former Australian ambassador to Jordan,Egypt and Syria.He is now an Adjunct Professor at the ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies