Iran must decide when to drink its new ‘cup of poison’
There we all were, wondering whether there might be a chance of some positive change in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran as a result of the courage of ordinary people in standing up to oppression and corruption, when along comes something to spoil the party. And Donald Trump surprises us all yet again. If the rather pathetic siege of the US Embassy in Baghdad over the New Year was an Iranian attempt to distract our collective attention, while Qassem Soleimani and his henchmen got on with the task of making sure Iraq remained an Iranian playground, it backfired spectacularly.
When we woke up on Jan. 3, the world had changed. The US drone strikes that killed Soleimani and his Iraqi lieutenant and fugitive from justice, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, shortly after midnight were a shock of a sort we hadn’t had for decades. We thought Soleimani was off limits, and clearly so had he.
You can’t really compare this with the capture of Saddam Hussein in late 2003 or the operations that killed the murderous Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in 2011 and 2019, respectively. They were all fugitives and wanted internationally. Even the sinister Imad Mughniyah, a senior operative of Lebanese Hezbollah who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008, was essentially a technician of terror — and again a fugitive from Kuwaiti and US justice.
In contrast, Soleimani, the king of the combat selfie (to the disgust of some of his colleagues), was at the top of his game: The most senior external military and political representative of a major regional state, able to travel freely — despite sanctions — wherever he wanted.
Over two decades, he was the architect of all Iran’s external strategic gains in the face of Saudi and US hostility. He was behind terror attacks in Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Bulgaria and the US. During my time as consul general in Jerusalem, as Middle East director in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and as ambassador to Syria and Iraq, Soleimani was the orchestrator of Iranian subversion across the region, all aimed at Israel and the Sunni states of the Gulf, but also often involving the UK.
When British sailors were taken hostage in the Shatt Al-Arab by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) naval forces in 2007; when missiles from Sadr City targeted the British or American diplomatic missions in Basra and Baghdad; or Shiite Special Groups mounted a sustained campaign of lethal roadside bombs against US and British forces, Soleimani was involved. He was the instigator of the kidnapping of British IT expert Peter Moore in Baghdad and the brutal murder of his close protection team in 2007. He helped Bashar Assad drown the Syrian uprising in a sea of blood, the Houthis to take over the Yemeni state apparatus and then resist the Saudi military campaign in Yemen, and various proxies, allies or subalterns throughout the region (from Lebanese Hezbollah to the various Iraqi Shiite militias) extend their own domestic power.
Most recently, he had enabled or helped execute attacks on shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and the Indian Ocean, on US military drones and Saudi oil installations with very little response from other regional states or the US. He had also coordinated the brutal suppression of protesters in Iraq, building on a model he and his IRGC colleagues had developed to deal with internal dissent.
Of course, it is possible to overstate Soleimani’s importance. Iran’s foreign adventurism is not simply driven by one man. And, in the end, taking on responsibility for a hopelessly chaotic Iraq, a destroyed Syria, an impoverished Yemen and a bankrupt Lebanon — with an embattled but potentially potent Daesh still in existence — is not exactly Metternich at the Congress of Vienna.
But Soleimani was deeply committed to the success of the Islamic Revolution and unequaled in his ability to form and sustain personal relationships across the region. He had an acute grasp of regional realities and developed a highly creative approach to maximizing Iran’s strengths. He wasn’t universally popular within the Iranian regime: The fascinating recent release of Iranian intelligence documents to The Intercept demonstrated that clearly. But he was very close to Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader. He was one of the signatories of the letter to President Mohammed Khatami in 1999 threatening a military coup if the student demonstrations of that year were not savagely suppressed. He saw himself as a guardian of the Islamic Revolution and the Khomeinist tradition. There was even talk of him being groomed for the succession. His loss is the biggest blow Iran and Khamenei personally have suffered since the late 1980s.
I have no doubt that Khamenei’s displays of public grief are genuine. But I also can’t help feeling that the extraordinary theatricality of the mourning and the funeral have been designed to buy the Iranian leadership time to work out how to respond, because Iran has no really good options. With Soleimani and Al-Muhandis alive, you could perhaps cherish the illusion that, in a reasonable world, there might — with a bit of give and take — be a negotiated solution to the problem of Iran. You often see this sort of solution promoted by woke commentators in Brussels and elsewhere. The catch is that, under most imaginings, it is the US, Europe and the Arab Gulf who do the giving; the Iranians just take.
You could also persuade yourself — as many Western diplomats in Iraq seem to have done — that people like Hadi Al-Amiri, the dead-eyed commander of the Badr Brigade, the most formidable of the Iraqi Shiite militias and a close associate of Soleimani (with whom he served during the Iran-Iraq War) would be acceptable as a potential prime minister of Iraq. After all, many people had persuaded themselves that Nouri Al-Maliki, the Machiavellian and viciously sectarian PM of Iraq from 2006 to 2014, was one of us. Except he wasn’t, and nor is Al-Amiri. Just watch their performances at the various mourning ceremonies for Soleimani and Al-Muhandis and pay attention to what they say. They’re quite clear about where they stand: And it’s not with us.
And that’s the point. You can’t plead ignorance about what Soleimani or Al-Muhandis were up to, or what they represented, any more. Just read the obituaries and watch the reaction of the Iranian leadership, Hezbollah and their Iraqi allies. Watch also how those who hated Soleimani in the region celebrate.
I have no doubt that Soleimani was devout and a devoted family man. So was Goebbels. But Soleimani was prepared to cajole, threaten, intimidate and commit mass murder if he was crossed. He had the blood of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Iranians and Iraqis on his hands. And the Iranian leadership loved him precisely because he brought them power and influence.
But now they have to respond to his death. And that’s not easy. They have issued bloodcurdling threats — as have people like the ludicrously bellicose Akram Al-Kaabi or Muqtatda Al-Sadr (who has, to be fair, now retracted his more baroque threats in the interests of a diplomatic and political process: What’s new?). But if the US doesn’t have a plan, it’s unlikely that Iran does either. When Khamenei taunted Trump on Twitter by saying he could do nothing about the attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad, he thought Trump’s America was a paper tiger. He was wrong. And it is unclear how he might now seek to satisfy his thirst for revenge. Tuesday night’s salvo of missiles against military bases in Anbar and Irbil was a diversionary tactic. The only reported casualties were among the Iraqi military. The fact that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif has tweeted that the response was proportionate and has been concluded suggests that the regime does not want further escalation.
That doesn’t mean that there won’t be further attempts to attack US targets in slower time and more covertly. But that’s going to be a challenge. Firing rockets at the Green Zone, joint Iraqi-US military bases in Sunni or non-Arab areas or at Israel doesn’t really cut it. And if the US permanently draws down its forces in Iraq and Syria and relocates them to rear bases in Iraqi Kurdistan and Kuwait (for example), their exposure is that much less. After all, Trump says he wants his troops out. Why don’t we believe him?
Even if the Iranians identify and successfully strike a high-value US target — whether they claim responsibility (as Khamenei has reportedly insisted) or not — this would be to invite retaliation on a scale Tehran cannot imagine or certainly countenance. And seeing US forces withdraw from Iraq would simply give the remaining fighters of Daesh the opportunity for which they have been waiting. It was instructive that, amid the heated if chaotic debate on these matters over the last few days in the Council of Representatives in Baghdad, only a handful of Sunnis and no Kurds participated. The Sunni speaker has warned of the consequences. Other Sunni leaders have said that any decision needs to be national, not factional (against the background of vicious Kata’ib Hezbollah threats to Shiite MPs if they did not attend and vote in favor). If Iraqi politics are sectarianized again, it will be damaging not just for Iraq but also for Iran. And if the US puts Iraq under financial sanctions as a result, the flow of dollars — on which Iran increasingly relies — will dry up.
Soleimani’s loss is the biggest blow Iran and Khamenei personally have suffered since the late 1980s.
Sir John Jenkins
So the regime in Tehran, like everyone else, faces a moment of choice. Whatever else might be said about it, one decisive effect of the assassination is that it has served to clarify our options. No one wants war. But, if it came, war would be a disaster for Iran and then Iraq. And when all the shouting dies down, a significant plurality of the Iranian and Iraqi people will still feel that their governments are oppressive and corrupt. The resentments that fueled the protests of the last six months are real and have not been addressed.
So, if the Iranian leadership is really wise, they will reflect on the experience of the 1980s, when a vengeful Ruhollah Khomeini needlessly prolonged by six years a war with Iraq that was effectively a stalemate by 1982. In 1988, he drank the “cup of poison.” Iran then had peace and a measure of recovery. The choice is essentially the same this time. If they make the wrong call, then all bets are off.
- Sir John Jenkins is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. Until December 2017, he was Corresponding Director (Middle East) at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), based in Manama, Bahrain, and was a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. He was the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia until January 2015.