The Beginning of The End
After the elimination of Iranian Quds Commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani on 3rd Jan around 1 a.m. local time, the US president warned leaders in Tehran, in a series of tweets, against following through on their threats to avenge the death of Soleimani. The US President tweeted “Iran is talking very boldly about targeting certain USA assets as revenge for our ridding the world of their terrorist leader who had just killed an American, & badly wounded many others, not to mention all of the people he had killed over his lifetime, including recently hundreds of Iranian protesters”. “Let this serves as a WARNING that if Iran strikes any Americans or American assets, we have targeted 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, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. The USA wants no more threats!”
Qassem Soleimani was accountable for the deaths of more Americans than any terrorist leader since Osama Bin Laden. In Iran, however, he certainly was a venerable figure. Inside Iran, he is considered the most prominent or second most popular figure over the years. All the U.S. diplomatic, economic, and military approaches to limit Iranian influence in the region went in vain as he filled the vacuum which capitalized on Iranian nationalism. He may be the man largely responsible for the deaths of a large number of people in Syria, but Iranians saw him as the main figure who triumphed over the Islamic State. Amidst the political applause, it is crucial to acknowledge how much his death may have changed the operational environment and diplomacy.
Knowingly or not, Trump made two decisions. The first was to kill Soleimani. The second was to do so without subtlety. By using an American drone and then tweeting out first an American flag and then a contrived triumphant statement, Trump has left no doubt as to who is responsible for Soleimani’s death. As a result, the Iraqi government is now going to ratchet up the demand that American forces leave the country. The withdrawal of American forces simply cede Iraq to Iran against the wishes of most Iraqis, even those who do not particularly care for the United States either. This dynamic plays out against the backdrop of a political crisis and lame-duck government in Baghdad which gives Iran the opportunity to exponentially increase its influence.
Some political pundits now question whether Soleimani’s death raises a standard for deterrence. Will every Iranian figure plotting the deaths of Americans be killed? Alternatively, some Afghans have asked why, if Trump can kill Soleimani for his actions against Americans, why the U.S. military cannot target Pakistani figures supporting the Taliban? It is a good question.
Soleimani and Muhandis were targets of opportunity, and Trump took the decision to strike at them. It would be ridiculous, however, to ignore there will be an aftermath and many second and third-order effects. It is urgent that the U.S. national security bureaucracy draws the broad strategy to contain the negative and exploit the positive.
The Land of Aryans
Iran is the 17th largest country in world. It measures 1,684,000 square kilometers. That means that its territory is larger than the combined territories of France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Portugal — Western Europe. Iran is the 16th most populous country in the world, with about 70 million people.
If one looks carefully at a map of Iran, one can see that the western part of the country — the Zagros Mountains — is actually a land bridge for southern Asia. It is the only path between the Persian Gulf in the south and the Caspian Sea in the north. Iran is the route connecting the Indian subcontinent to the Mediterranean Sea. But because of its size and geography, Iran is not a country that can be easily travelled, much less conquered.
The location of Iran’s oil fields is critical in Iran. Oil is majorly found in the southwest region. The southwestern oil fields are an extension of the geological formation that created the oil fields in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Hence, the region east of the Shatt al-Arab is of critical importance to Iran. Iran has the third largest oil reserves in the world and is the world’s fourth largest producer. Therefore, one would expect it to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world. It isn’t. Iran has the 28th largest economy in the world but ranks only 71st in per capita gross domestic product.
Geographically Iran is a fortress. Surrounded on three sides by mountains and on the fourth by the ocean, with a wasteland at its center, Iran is extremely difficult to conquer. This was achieved only once by the Mongols, who entered the country from the northeast. The Ottomans also never made any attempt to move into the Persian heartland.
Mountains allow Iran to protect itself. However the mountainous region come with their own cultural and ethnic difficulties. Completely eradicating these cultures and ethnic groups is difficult. These groups resist absorption and annihilation. Although a Muslim state with a population over 55 percent ethnically Persian, Iran is divided into a large number of ethnic groups. It is also divided between the vastly dominant Shia and the minority Sunnis, who are congregated in three areas of the country — the northeast, the northwest and the southeast. Any foreign power interested in Iran will use these ethnoreligious groups to create allies in Iran to undermine the power of the central government.
Persian or Iranian government has as its first and principal strategic interest maintaining the internal integrity of the country against separatist groups. It is inescapable, therefore it mandatory for Iran to have a highly centralized regime, with an incredibly intense security machine. For many countries, holding together its ethnic groups is significant. For Iran it is essential because it has no room to retreat from its current lines and instability could undermine its entire security structure. Therefore, the Iranian central government will always face the problem of internal cohesion and will use its army and security forces for that purpose before any other.
For the Iranians, the current situation has posed a dangerous scenario similar to what they faced from the British early in the 20th century. The United States has occupied, or at least placed substantial forces, to the east and the west of Iran, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran is not concerned about these troops invading Iran. That is not a military prospect. Iran’s skepticism is that the United States will use these positions as platforms to foment ethnic dissent in Iran. For these motives Iran is desperate for a nuclear program. Having a nuclear capability creates uncertainty as to whether it has an offensive nuclear capability, in addition it projects a carefully honed image of ideological extremism that makes it appear unpredictable. It makes Iran emerge threatening and unstable.
The United States is aware of these operational difficulties with respect to Iran. It’s Navy keeps potent forces on station in an effort to manage events in the Middle East. Task forces centered on Boxer and the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln are currently operating in the region. That’s a sizable fraction of U.S. naval power for a theater, Washington longs to demote on its strategic agenda. The US is also aware that on a good day the US navy has just four nuclear-powered carriers like Lincoln. The remainder are undergoing maintenance or overhauls. That means two of seven naval-aviation ships are executing duties in or around the Gulf while five are entrusted with the rest of the globe. Tehran, it seems, has managed to entangle the world’s leading superpower in a theater it would like to be quit of; done so at low cost by employing light naval forces; exacted a high price from the superpower for the privilege of remaining in that unloved theater; and siphoned away resources the superpower needs for strategic competition in more crucial theaters. Iran is employing the strategy what Napoleon sardonically called the British strategy in ‘Peninsular war’ as ‘Spanish Ulcer’, it inflicted less-than-fatal but constant nagging pain, distracted attention and energy from more important affairs, and drained resources that should have gone into the main fighting theatre. It accomplished all objectives at a bargain-basement price.
Objectives of Iranian forces are clear. They want to keep war cheap for themselves and costly for the US. On the other hand if Tehran attacks shipping injudiciously, it will be picking a fight with the entire industrial world, not just Washington, and that’s a lot of foe we are talking about. So Iran hopes like hell that their opponents will tire of ceaseless struggle and strike an accommodation on Iranian terms—or go away altogether. It would up the ante against America and it’s allies using asymmetric war with the the help of various non-state actors for sure.
Any form of naval battle could be brief. Iran’s fleet has a long history of waging losing fights with the United States and other Western powers. The United States has two options, foster discontent in the ethnically troubled areas or go for a direct war. If the war starts, ultimately the forces would have to go ashore and that fight would not be easy and decisive one, and the US is aware of that.