Mideast gets breather amid US-Iran standoff

Columnist  | Syed Ata Hasnain

Opinion, Columnists

With the kind of passion generated by Iranian nationalism there was a range of options which analysts were assessing from the Iranian side.

Qasem Soleimani (Photo: AP)

To Qasem Soleimani’s assassination on January 3, Iran responded as promised by its Supreme Leader but not as expected. For a response to the assassination of a national hero called a “Living Martyr”, the nature of the response may seem low-key. Twenty-two ballistic missiles were fired by Iran against two American bases in Iraq: Asad airbase in Anbar province and the US billets at Erbil. No casualties were reported, and even the destruction caused hasn’t been indicated by the US. However, Iran claimed 80 US servicemen were killed in the attack.

Iran’s response was confirmed by foreign minister Javad Zarif’s statement, which spoke of proportionate measures in self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter, not seeking escalation or war but willing to defend Iran against any aggression. That threw open multiple issues in the continuing narrative. Many expected US President Donald Trump would up the ante with another action, leading to further escalation. There is unpredictability in Mr Trump’s ways, but realpolitik at times overcomes irrationality. The President wisely chose to de-escalate.

With the kind of passion generated by Iranian nationalism there was a range of options which analysts were assessing from the Iranian side. A direct attack was least expected; the strength of Iran’s strategic capability lies in the domain of proxies. Proxy strikes have deniability built in, especially if a time delay would have occurred, but denial was the last thing suited to Tehran’s strategy. Proxy actions complicate any further response and may not receive even the grudging approval of the international community. However, a direct “first strike” with casualties and relative destruction could have met with a destructive “second strike” by the US. The deciding factors were two. First was the question of the level of destruction and casualties caused by Iran’s ballistic missile attack. Second, the statement by the Iranian foreign minister that escalation was not sought but a response would take place if it occurred.

Analysing the events, it is clear that Iran ticked off the first box; that of response. It can claim it responded in time and in its perception proportionately, while reserving the right to do more if further escalation took place. The question of proportionately gets blurred because there is no clear damage assessment, the information domain remains conveniently hazy. Yet, internally for an information-deficit public, Iran can continue cultivating a narrative that 80 or more US servicemen have died. The rest of the world was happy that damage was almost negligible, giving ample scope for de-escalation.

By stating that escalation was not sought, Iran’s charismatic foreign minister Javad Zarif clearly conveyed that Iran was outgunned, but subtle messaging continued. This information and psychological war in today’s world is equally significant. Mr Zarif did not repeat anything about Iran’s lack of intent to escalate beyond. However, an innocuous message did get conveyed that US bases anywhere in the Gulf region could get targeted. That extends the ambit to countries such as the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait. It is unlikely that it will happen because escalation will then be clearly out of control, and Iran knows that well enough, but an eerie dampening of confidence will be palpable.  These are countries which have thrived commercially despite the overall turbulence in the neighborhood surviving the chaotic period of threats from the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Syrian civil war. In fact, Iran-UAE relations were set on a positive course in recent months and Qatar is greatly dependent on Iran after its isolation in the GCC.

Where does this leave the United States? There are two objectives it has set for long; the first is regime change in Iran, and second, full controls on its nuclear capability. Both objectives haven’t been met by various actions since the US pullout of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of July 2015. The assassination of Qasem Soleimani was akin to an opportunity ambush. It has its strategic impact, but not of the scale that such lofty objectives could be achieved. President Trump’s political fortunes will dictate much of what will be the next steps that the US will take. Iran on its part is a little overawed and short on options. It will not capitulate to any US demands, but it has gone too far forward in establishing its countervailing influence in different parts of the Middle East. Soleimani’s death means it will need to work overtime to retain influence with the same proxies. It has to ensure they do not operate outside the ambit of Iran’s control lest situations are created outside Iran’s interests.

It is therefore a short timeout which will now witness a flurry of diplomatic activity by many countries whose interests are deeply entrenched here. India is among them. Its eight million diaspora and the $40 billion annual remittances they send can be threatened if there is an escalation of proxy war into the Gulf countries. The overflight restrictions on the large number of flights from India to the Middle East and beyond will impose more costs, which too will partially reduce remittances. A limited return by the diaspora is possible given the unpredictability of the situation. In the field of energy, since it is now being assessed that over 50 (almost 65) per cent of oil imports come from this region, every dollar increase in crude prices will increase India’s annual oil import bill by over $1.6 billion. This will give rise to inflation. Thus, India must give confidence to the diaspora through engagement to prevent an outflow. It must also capitalise on the goodwill Prime Minister Narendra Modi has built up in the past six years and gain relevance in the parleys for more stability in the region. I have been strongly recommending that if this goodwill has to translate into gain, then very active neutrality has to be followed, in which senior veteran diplomats must step in to renew their old contacts and secure India’s strategic interests. This has to be three-cornered diplomacy; the United States, Iran and the GCC countries under engagement, with a line open to Israel too. To prevent burdening the external affairs minister, the Prime Minister could consider appointing a prominent diplomat with ministerial status to act as his special envoy to the Middle East. This envoy will have to travel extensively and attempt to secure all Indian interests from all angles. It’s time for a breather in the Middle East until something fresh crops up, but for India it should be all hands on deck.