Dear Partners in thought,
I would like to wish all of you and yours a glorious New Year 2020 full of great achievements and of course a health of iron.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude for your readership and support understandably if not for all I write certainly the possibility to share thoughts with you and defend the Western liberal values that made whom we are.
Without wanting to using poor words the New Year started with a big bang though not one we would have expected in this period of revelling. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Forces for twenty years, lead engineer of Iranian expansion in the Middle East and de facto number two of the theocratic regime was eliminated by a surgical drone strike near Baghdad airport on 3rd January. According to Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, this strike took place to prevent imminent strikes in the Middle East that could have cost “hundreds” if not “thousands” of American lives over the near term.
The decision to eliminate General Soleimani was taken as former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama chose not to do so given the high risk of a chain reaction with events that would rapidly be out of control and could lead to a disastrous upheaval in the Middle East and beyond. While it is clear that some decisions have to be taken regardless of the high risks associated with their potential consequences, it is important to take them at the right time, for the right reasons and understanding, in order to manage them, the dynamics of chain reactions.
It is a fact that few in the West and many other parts of the world would miss General Soleimani who, as the mastermind behind Iran’s muscular regional foreign policy, was behind the losses of many American but also Iraqi lives while saving the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. However it is not yet clear that the stated Iranian attacks were imminent and justified a drone strike when it took place. It is a reflection of the personality of President Trump that it is hard not to be skeptical about his motivations to strike right in the middle of an impeachment process and the context of a presidential election so as to create elements of diversions and an environment when America needs to be eventually “together” if next steps go awry . It is also also hard not to find a degree of recklessness in a strike of that nature, however its supposed preemptive nature, targeting the number two of an already hostile and aggressive power, thus actually making more American lives and others at risk.
At this point Iran has made it clear that they will retaliate as they have to, seeing the strike as an act of war, which was to be expected. President Trump replied that 52 Iranian sites were earmarked for attack in case an Iranian reprisal, this oddly including cultural sites (while spontaneous and local responses, a U.S. military base was already attacked in Kenya by Al-Shabaab terrorists and a couple of rockets have landed into Baghdad’s Green Zone). A few thousands American troops are now shipped back to the Middle East at a time when the Trump administration’s long-stated goal was to decisively (and riskily for many) disengage America from the region as seen with recent Syrian developments and the last tragic Kurdish episode. One of the initial reactions to the strike in Iran was to largely mobilise a mourning and wounded nation (even if also orchestrated to some degree), many of whom were actually demonstrating in the streets against the mollahs’ regime a few weeks before. If anything the strike has given another life to the Teheran’s regime, which probably did not believe its good fortune, allowing to deflect popular discontent about the sad state of the economy, not to mention basic freedom rights. In another positive development for Teheran, the Shia-majority and Teheran-friendly Iraq has quickly reacted through his Prime Minister in asking its parliament to vote on requiring U.S. forces to leave Iraq, long a priority strategic goal of Iran in the region. And in a bad turn for the whole world, Iran now decided to roll back on the 2015 nuclear deal, something the Europeans and others were trying hard to preserve. The strategic gains of the Soleimani strike do not look very clear for America or the stability of the region and that of the world.
To be sure, Iran has been a destabilising factor across the Middle East as seen in Yemen but also in its dealings with regional nemesis Saudi Arabia, though has also worsened its approach following the American withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal while getting more involved, together with Russia, in ensuring that Bashar al-Assad regime perdured in Damas. There is little doubt that Iran’s foreign policy and its overtly aggressive approach to Middle eastern affairs led largely by General Soleimani’s Quds Forces have been against the interests of creating a more stable world especially one closer to Western liberal values. Very few in the Western capitals will moan the demise of General Soleimani. However the action such as the one taken on 3rd January needs to have been taken at the right time, for the right reasons and understanding its consequences given the whole play at stake.
While it is too late to avoid an Iranian retaliation, it is still time to try avoiding a worse chain reaction or limiting its damages. It is thus key to go deeper into why such an initial strike decision was taken given its likely consequences. As a first step, the Trump administration, while explaining its strategic rationale in relation to Teheran, also needs to offer Congress and the world – as none of us will be bystanders in what could take a much worse turn – the irrefutable evidence that a strike against this target was all but inevitable in order to prevent a far more destructive outcome. Based on past experience gained over the last three years, such a development is very unlikely but judgement should be reserved.