By Murtaza Shibli
Finally, the storm over General Qassem Soleimani’s death seems to be over. Had it not been for the strategic restraint and wisdom of the Iranian regime, the war seemed imminent which would have certainly resulted in the decimation of the stranglehold of the religious elite and wide-scale destruction of the country and beyond. It is now clear that the sustained calls for retribution were heavily tempered down and channelized only through a pyrogenic display of firing dud missiles on empty fields at the two military bases housing the US troops. The display seemed purely for the consumption of the local population who had been led and rallied en masse against the gruesome killing in a show of solidarity that was cleverly aggrandised by the government. Before his murder, the Iranian government was struggling for public legitimacy not only inside Iran but in neighbouring Iraq, Lebanon or Syria as well, the places where its military footprint and interference have grown beyond a show of solidarity into causing strife, internal discord and dissension, and ossifying sectarian divide. Such policies have remained a constant feature of Iran since the Khomeini-led revolution and have given rise to political instability as well as extremist groups of every ilk and countenance.
Soleimani’s death may produce a severe blow to Iran’s clandestine web of operations in the Middle East, neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan that could possibly result in her loss of influence and prestige over the long-term. However, the Iranian elite, particularly the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his clique have skilfully used this death to shore up their public support and legitimacy that had seen massive erosion following weeks of anti-regime protests that were brutally suppressed and caused massive death and destruction. Although the Iranian government has played down these protests and used its time-tested refrain of blaming the US and her allies for the unrest, independent reports suggest more than 500 protestors were killed and thousands injured or incarcerated in one of the largest crackdowns in the recent history. That Soleimani’s mortal remains were paraded through various Iranian cities to gather mourners for multiple funerals under the command and control of the government officials suggests that this was designed more to harvest grief in service of the regime than to prepare the nation for any “severe revenge” that was promised by the highest officials. The promised retaliation never came as it would have produced a decisive US action as sworn by President Trump, whose unpredictable character made the threats even more frightening.
Soon after the grand mourning ended, the “revenge strikes” from Iran came, and strangely, with advance warning. According to reports, Iran had already conveyed to the US about the imminent but symbolic attack. The Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi said Iran sent them an “official verbal message that an attack had begun or would begin shortly” but an Arab diplomatic source told CNN that Iraq passed “advance warning to the United States on which bases would be hit after Iranian officials passed on the information”.
The first official Iranian reaction to the “missile strikes” was quite extraordinary. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in a Twitter post claimed that Iran took and concluded: “proportionate measures in self-defence under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens and senior officials were launched.” A little later supreme leader Khamenei declared the strike was “a slap in the face” of America. Such assertions sounded hollow from the very outset invoking an uncanny resemblance with Muhammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, Saddam Hussain’s Information Minister, during the 2003 US-led invasion. Al-Sahhaf, also known as Baghdad Bob or Comical Ali, made several outlandish claims during the war as he claimed victory for Saddam’s forces and defeat and destruction of the enemies even when the US forces had taken most of Baghdad and ruined Iraqi dictator’s fabled Republican Guards who supposedly formed the mainstay of his rule. As the Iranian claims of killing the US forces grew untenable, the officials were forced to issue clarifications although somewhat reluctantly. Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s Aerospace Force, finally accepted that the “missile strike” was not intended to inflict casualties but “to hit the enemy’s military machinery”, a clear admission that the attack was cosmetic and not intended to further escalate hostilities.
The failure of the Iranian leadership to mount a “severe revenge” has the potential to boomerang on its top leadership, particularly its religious clergy including Ayatollah Khamenei. The apparent inability to mount a credible response would cause it a severe loss of face among its supporters and proxies from Yemen to Bahrain and Lebanon to Afghanistan. Soleimani’s death had allowed the regime an instant breather by connecting with the people through shared grief and gloss over the erosion of public trust; a prospect that has very little chances of permanence beyond the funereal anguish. There are already reports of renewed public demonstrations in Iraq that are demanding their government to end foreign interference and disarm various militias, a large number of whom were armed by Soleimani and were involved in grotesque fratricidal violence including sectarian deaths of innocent and unsuspecting civilians.
Iran’s reaction and response to the US onslaught have been measured and very wise. It has certainly helped avert a measure disaster but the elements of doom lie strewn across the landscape. The government of Iran could put the past behind and use Soleimani’s death as an opportunity to court a pragmatic regional policy by dismantling his toxic legacy. Soleimani’s only positive contribution was his fight against Daesh but his triumph was achieved by collaborating with the US and the Arab governments both overtly and covertly. Beyond that, he used his skills in exploiting local grievances and propping up extremely divisive and sectarian militias that have caused unimaginable death and destruction, and ethnic cleansing. To heal the region and bring about some credible peace, such a contaminated inheritance must be jettisoned.
Murtaza Shibli is a writer and consultant on Muslim issues in Europe and South Asia. He is also the editor of ‘7/7: Muslim Perspectives’, a book that explores the British Muslim reaction to the London bombings. Twitter: @murtaza_shibli