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Andrey Kortunov

Ph.D. in History, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member

We do not know now and we will probably never know for sure what exactly pushed Donald Trump to endorse the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani. Was it the recent mob attack on the US Embassy in Bagdad? Was it the continuous pressure on the President by many US allies in the region – from Saudi Arabia to Israel – urging the White House to take more steps to stop the growing Iranian presence in the Middle East? Was it a flood of advice from self-proclaimed experts on Iran in Washington, who argued that elimination of Soleimani would shift the balance of powers in Tehran in favor of ‘reformers’ by depriving ‘hardliners’ of their most powerful and most popular leader? Or was it simply Trump’s anticipation of getting to media headlines as a strong and decisive global leader?

Nevertheless, this is more than a crime. This is a serious mistake. Anybody who knows anything about Iranians argues that Tehran will have to respond to the US move, even if this response will not come tomorrow. No US allies in the region can feel safer today than they felt on January 2; Iran has many ways to undermine their security by using its strongholds and proxies in Yemen, in Syria, in Lebanon and in other locations all over the MENA region. State leaders in KSA, UAE and Israel should get prepared for the worst-case scenarios. The same applies to the US military personnel stationed in Iraq and in Syria – they will be the most apparent targets for the Iranian revenge. As for the balance of powers in Tehran, Iranian hardliners do not suffer a deficit of highly experienced and highly motivated leaders ready to replace Soleimani. If the domestic balance of powers shifts, it shifts in favor of the Revolutionary Guards, not the other way round. Will all these developments help Donald Trump in his reelection campaign? Hardly so.  

One can hope that the Iranian reaction will not be emotional and excessive, but well-calibrated and properly measured. However, this tragic accident should also be signal to all regional and overseas players in the Middle East the time they still have to prevent a major war with unpredictable consequences is running out. Neither in Washington, nor in Tehran they are eager to start such a war, but the mixture of the Iranian pride and the US arrogance makes a highly explosive cocktail.  

Unfortunately, all prospects for bilateral negotiations between Washington and Tehran are gone at least for another year. It means more than the end of hopes to reach a compromise on easing the US sanctions and on accepting some version of the “Macron oil plan”.  It also means that the risks of an inadvertent escalation in the region or of a direct US – Iranian conflict caused by a miscalculation, human or technical error, irresponsible behavior of proxies and so on, grows exponentially.

If the US - Iranian bilateral track if likely to remain blocked for some time ahead, it is even more pressing to activate the regional track. At the end of the day, if something disastrous happens in the region, the disaster will affect primarily local countries, not the US mainland. If there is no time and no political will around to put together a regional collective security system, one should at least think about a regional crisis management mechanism involving Iran and key neighboring Arab starts. Concerned overseas powers – like Russia, China, India, and EU – could assist in building this mechanism working with their respective regional partners. We should regard the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani as a wakeup call, not as a trumpet of the approaching Armageddon.

We do not know now and we will probably never know for sure what exactly pushed Donald Trump to endorse the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani. Was it the recent mob attack on the US Embassy in Bagdad? Was it the continuous pressure on the President by many US allies in the region – from Saudi Arabia to Israel – urging the White House to take more steps to stop the growing Iranian presence in the Middle East? Was it a flood of advice from self-proclaimed experts on Iran in Washington, who argued that elimination of Soleimani would shift the balance of powers in Tehran in favor of ‘reformers’ by depriving ‘hardliners’ of their most powerful and most popular leader? Or was it simply Trump’s anticipation of getting to media headlines as a strong and decisive global leader?

What we know, however, is that this decision was a clear violation of international law. The US President ordered the assassination of a high-level official from a foreign country, which was not in the state of war with the United States. Regretfully, the US foreign policy has crossed another redline. Though the White House together with CIA had planned assassinations of foreign leaders on many occasions in the past (just recall all the numerous attempts to kill Fidel Castro), US Presidents had never announced such goals publically, not to mention – had taken pride in arbitrary overseas killings.

Nevertheless, this is more than a crime. This is a serious mistake. Anybody who knows anything about Iranians argues that Tehran will have to respond to the US move, even if this response will not come tomorrow. No US allies in the region can feel safer today than they felt on January 2; Iran has many ways to undermine their security by using its strongholds and proxies in Yemen, in Syria, in Lebanon and in other locations all over the MENA region. State leaders in KSA, UAE and Israel should get prepared for the worst-case scenarios. The same applies to the US military personnel stationed in Iraq and in Syria – they will be the most apparent targets for the Iranian revenge. As for the balance of powers in Tehran, Iranian hardliners do not suffer a deficit of highly experienced and highly motivated leaders ready to replace Soleimani. If the domestic balance of powers shifts, it shifts in favor of the Revolutionary Guards, not the other way round. Will all these developments help Donald Trump in his reelection campaign? Hardly so.  

One can hope that the Iranian reaction will not be emotional and excessive, but well-calibrated and properly measured. However, this tragic accident should also be signal to all regional and overseas players in the Middle East the time they still have to prevent a major war with unpredictable consequences is running out. Neither in Washington, nor in Tehran they are eager to start such a war, but the mixture of the Iranian pride and the US arrogance makes a highly explosive cocktail.  

Unfortunately, all prospects for bilateral negotiations between Washington and Tehran are gone at least for another year. It means more than the end of hopes to reach a compromise on easing the US sanctions and on accepting some version of the “Macron oil plan”.  It also means that the risks of an inadvertent escalation in the region or of a direct US – Iranian conflict caused by a miscalculation, human or technical error, irresponsible behavior of proxies and so on, grows exponentially.

If the US – Iranian bilateral track if likely to remain blocked for some time ahead, it is even more pressing to activate the regional track. At the end of the day, if something disastrous happens in the region, the disaster will affect primarily local countries, not the US mainland. If there is no time and no political will around to put together a regional collective security system, one should at least think about a regional crisis management mechanism involving Iran and key neighboring Arab starts. Concerned overseas powers – like Russia, China, India, and EU – could assist in building this mechanism working with their respective regional partners. We should regard the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani as a wakeup call, not as a trumpet of the approaching Armageddon.

First published in the American Herald Tribune.

(votes: 5, rating: 4.8)
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