Soleimani: Lavrov-Zarif duet, Trump solo in offing

Columnist  | Saeed Naqvi

Opinion, Oped

It is unlikely that reverberations from Gen Soleimani’s assassination were not felt at the Raisina dialogue, which the two foreign ministers attended.

Qasem Soleimani (Photo: AP)

The presence in New Delhi of Iran foreign minister Javad Zarif and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov provides just the sort of balance required to cope with the imminent Donald Trump visitation in the near future. Who knows, he may turn up with CEOs of Lockheed Martin and General Atomics whose dazzling Hellfire Missiles and MQ-9 Reaper Drones were employed in the murder of Iran’s Gen. Qasem Soleimani and deputy head of Hashd al Shaabi or Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Front, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

It is unlikely that reverberations from Gen. Soleimani’s assassination were not felt at the Raisina dialogue, which the two foreign ministers attended. Like Banquo’s ghost, Soleimani will be present during the Trump visit, too. It is, therefore, important to understand the sequence leading to the ghastly murder in Baghdad.

As the post-Cold War world transited to the post 9/11 Islamophobia, New Delhi, by choice and circumstance, held firmly onto American coat tails, even putting up with an insult or two. Pakistan, and not India, was first incorporated into the global war on terror. US Ambassador Robert Blackwill was terse: “Yours is an old regional quarrel with Pakistan; that country is partnering us in our global war on terror.” Only after the December 13, 2001, attack on Indian Parliament, did New Delhi become a bonafide “victim of terror”. It was a strange triangle: New Delhi and Islamabad were not on talking terms, but both were yoked in the US-led war on terror.

This was the state of play when in April 2003, George W. Bush was pushed into occupying Iraq by his neo-con drum beaters sketching designs of “full spectrum dominance” in the New American century. It was all very tempting when the Americans invited New Delhi to be their partners in Iraq which was now “theirs”. Troops were readied but Atal Behari Vajpayee as the Prime Minister put his foot down: it was a foolish idea.

The real author of the Iraq expedition, vice-president Dick Cheney, choreographed his victory speech on April 9, 2003, to synchronise with the pulling down of Saddam Hussain’s statue at Baghdad’s Firdos Square. The celebrating Iraqis did not appear.

In desperation, Americans contacted Shia clerics like Muqtada Sadr. The cleric was an iconic figure in a Shia ghetto north of Baghdad named Saddam city. Muqtada Sadr it was who mobilised Shias to come out in celebration, beating Saddam’s photographs with chappals even as the marines pulled down the statue with cranes. In deference to this act, the occupying power renamed Saddam city as Sadr city.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi was someone defence secretary Mark Esper consulted half an hour before the assassination. “I advised him against the decision” Mahdi revealed. But “half an hour” in the circumstances, was eternity. He could have alerted Soleimani’s convoy. Why did he not?

The deputy head of Hashd al Shaabi, or Iraq’s popular mobilization, also in the convoy was a key player in a group which has the sanction of Grand Ayatullah Ali Sistani in Najaf. It reflects on American caprice that in 2005 Sistani was a figure of adoration in the US establishment. In March of that year Thomas Friedman of the New York Times had proposed the Nobel Peace Prize for Sistani in his column titled “A Nobel for Sistani”.

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was clearly Soleimani’s eyes and ears in Iraq. But he was only the second in command of the Hashd. Where was the leader of the Hashd, Falih al Fayyadh? Last month he had made a surprise visit to Washington to meet defence secretary Esper, the very same person who alerted Prime Minister Mahdi about the action which killed Soleimani, Muhandis and a host of others.

The information obtained by Esper directly may have encouraged him to believe that the anti-American line up in Iraq was a divided house. Even Muqtada Sadr’s visit to Riyadh some months ago would have been taken into this calculus.

The consequence is that the assassination-in-a hurry has united even disparate forces in Iran, Iraq and the larger West Asia. It left Europe dazed, Britain embarrassed and the rest of the world wondering as to what would happens next. The only country to have expressed support for the action is Israel. And Israel is on notice by the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah.

Incidentally, New Delhi has been in interaction with Falih al Fayyadh. He arranged for the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis to be affiliated with al Nahran Centre for Strategic Studies in Baghdad. Studies by IDSA will surely augment the pool South Block will require for the Trump visit.

Soleimani caused extreme discomfort to the US, Israel, Saudi combine not because he was plotting military actions. He was hated because by knitting together powerful proxies on the periphery of Israel and Saudi Arabia he had defeated an idea: the strategic faultline invented by US-Israeli strategists. Palestinian issue had lost salience gloated the new theorists. Sunni Shia was the new strategic faultline. The inauguration of the Kuala Lampur summit of Islamic countries, and the winning lineup in West Asia has altered the picture. US and its allies look increasingly cornered and isolated. In this Soleimani had a decisive role as he did in defeating ISIS much to the chagrin of those who had begun to see terror groups as an asset to be relocated from one theatre of conflict to the other.

Once the dust settles, Soleimani in his death will be seen to have achieved something he strove for: US departure from Iraq. A US field commander’s letter leaked to Reuters suggests plans for an exit strategy. Ofcourse, the shooting of Air Ukraine carrying 176 passengers has altered the mood in Tehran. But the detention of the UK Ambassador, Robert Macaire among the protestors, places a question mark on the new demonstrations.

The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi