Serious consequences are inevitable following the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of Al Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the moving spirit behind Iran's success in beating the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al Qaeda and stabilising the Bashar al-Assad government in Syria, in an American drone strike at Baghdad airport early on Friday morning. India has to seriously consider the fate of the six million-plus Indians in the Gulf countries and the impact of instability on oil prices and India's trade.
A White House statement attributed the escalation directly to US President Donald Trump. It has evoked disparate reactions. The Iranians have vowed "vigorous revenge", as Gen. Soleimani was adored by the Iranian masses with his posters adorning Tehran's public spaces. Even more, it constitutes an escalating process of animosity between the United States and Iran, after President Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran on becoming President in 2016. The present tit-for-tat cycle began with the US attack on the camps of Kataib Hezbollah, the Iran-supported militia in Iraq and Syria on December 27. Iran retaliated by unleashing its surrogates in Iraq on the US embassy in Baghdad. The US followed with Soleimani's assassination.
The Russian foreign ministry has condoled the death, warning this will exacerbate tensions in the entire region. The Quds Force having been designated as a terrorist organisation by the US, the Democrats have been ambivalent in their reaction. Terming it legally tenable, they have warned of severe repercussions. Many on the social media tweeted New York Times' front page of December 17, 1998, when President Bill Clinton unleashed air attacks on Iraq, for lack of cooperation with UN inspectors probing weapons of mass destruction, just as Mr Clinton's impeachment process was reaching the Senate. By implication Mr Trump, who is also under impeachment, is creating a similar distraction.
India did not react immediately, even though old-timers recall close cooperation with Gen. Soleimani to stymie the Taliban in 1990s and bolster common Indo-Iranian ally Ahmad Shah Masood, the feisty leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. During a rare meeting I had with the IRGC commander in 2005, while I was India's ambassador to Iran, I met Soleimani, who was present. But his fame rose after US President Barack Obama realised there was no countering ISIS, which burst into prominence with the overnight capture of Mosul in Iraq in June 2014, without Iran's active cooperation. The Islamic Caliphate had literally overnight seized northern parts of Syria and Iraq. The Gulf sponsors of Sunni forces like the Emiratis, Saudis and Qataris only worsened the sectarian fighting by sponsoring different shades of radical groups. The nuclear deal with Iran by the P-5 plus Germany, christened the Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action (JCPOA), was the starting point of ushering Iran back into normal ties with theUS and the West. Gulf nations like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, however, resented the outreach. Iran rolled back the ISIS, with the Russians jumping in to provide military supplies and air support, and the Assad government stabilised. The outcome was the strategic ascendancy of Iran in the entire West Asian region denied to them as long as Saddam Hussein controlled Iraq. The Shia-Sunni contest thereafter stretched from Syria to Bahrain and Yemen.
President Trump, on taking office in 2017, reversed his predecessor's strategic shift and ended up exacerbating the existing Shia-Sunni divide and creating a split even among Sunnis, with Qatar and Turkey not opposing Iran. Iraq became the battlefield of a new struggle for influence between Iran and America's Gulf allies. Today that contest has entered a new and more dangerous phase, as an economically beleaguered and sanctioned Iran has become more risk-prone and aggressive. Since the attack apparently sponsored by Iran on Saudi Arabia's biggest oil processing facility, America's red lines were getting tested. The bombing of some oil tankers was another provocation. But in the past week Mr Trump, cornered domestically, has shown a desire to gamble with aggressive action. He rushed 4,000 troops to Iraq after the attack on the US embassy. The US had probably been shadowing Soleimani for some time and saw his hand in the attack on its Baghdad mission. In any case, months of public protests against the incumbentIraqi government and Iranian influence, in which many people were killed by the ruthless use of force by Iran-linked militias, were seen by Iran as US and Saudi meddling.
The situation is particularly volatile as Iran is now cornered. If it doesn't respond in kind and swiftly, its influence in the region will wane as its surrogates will sense an Iranian climbdown. Any assessment of the likely Iranian "revenge" must be prefaced by the thought that Soleimani and the IRGC faction supporting him may have gone beyond red lines of risk set by Supreme Leader Ali Khameini. He was being talked about as a possible candidate for the presidency in 2021, after the Parliament elections this year. As a popular figure, seen as restoring Iranian hegemony over West Asia as in the Achaemenid empire (553 BC-330 BC), he could have been a Napoleon-like figure who could threaten the whole order. However, abroad, he may be more powerful in his death than when alive.
The Iranian counter-move will emerge in next few days or weeks. President Trump appears to have now reached his Balakot moment. But between now and the November 2020 US elections, Iran is capable of inflicting a heavy cost on America and its Gulf allies. Thus, it's not surprising UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed landed in Pakistan, which suddenly becomes a critical factor, being the only Islamic nation with nuclear weapons. India may discover that survival may be a more effective motivator than all the cajolements India can offer to the UAE and Saudis. India's silence will sour our ties with Iran. Any criticism, however mild, or anodyne incantations of peace may be seen negatively by the US and its allies. In any case, India stands to lose if the situation exacerbates, with an Iranian revenge attack on the US or any US-supported military asset. The contest is between Iran and the US, the reigning superpower. The difference is that Shia Iran revels in martyrdom, like the Vietnamese. Are Americans ready for more blood-letting in an election year?