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  • Writer's pictureSaleem Qamar Butt

Multipurpose USA-Iran Current Standoff

This piece stems from my earlier published article, “Iran-USA Crises” in July 2019, when similar heightened tension seemed to have gripped the region as again being witnessed now in January 2020. A quick recap of what led to the current standoff; on 27 December 2019, a rocket attack on the K1 military base in Iraq, which houses U.S. and Iraqi forces, killed a U.S. civilian contractor and wounded several U.S. and Iraqi service members. US officials stated that there was an involvement of Kata'ib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'ite militia group. On 29 December 2019, the U.S. conducted airstrikes against Kata'ib Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for the death of the U.S. contractor. At least 25 Kata'ib Hezbollah fighters were killed and more than 50 wounded. In response, Iranian-backed militia groups stormed the US Embassy in Baghdad on December 31, 2019. They burned buildings and defaced property. The group of people left the Embassy on January 1, 2020. On 3 January 2020, the U.S. assassinated the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani with an airstrike in Iraq. Soleimani was head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, and was considered the second most powerful person of Iran behind Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. This killing steeply escalated the decades-old tensions between the two countries.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “severe revenge” against the United States. Declaring three days of public mourning for the general's death, Khamenei stated that “harsh retaliation” waited for the U.S. In the aftermath of Soleimani's killing, the U.S. announced to move over 3,000 additional troops to the Middle East from the 82nd Airborne Division as a precautionary measure amid rising threats from Iran. On the same day, Switzerland said it had conveyed a U.S. diplomatic message to Iran. Iran said that in the note, the United States had called for a "proportional response" to the killing of the Quds Force leader. In turn, Iran summoned the Swiss envoy and stated that the Americans "made a wrong move and are now worried about its consequences". On January 7, Iran's Parliament unanimously passed a bill naming all branches of the US Armed Forces and employees of The Pentagon "terrorists". The bill states "Any aid to these forces, including military, intelligence, financial, technical, service or logistical, will be considered as cooperation in a terrorist act". Later, at approximately 5:30 pm (EST), Iran carried out "Operation Martyr Soleimani" launching 12-15 missiles to strike multiple US targets located throughout Iran & Iraq, including Al-Assad Airbase where about 1,500 soldiers are housed and Erbil. After an assessment of damages, no casualties were reported. Iran later threatened action against other nations, issuing the statement on Iranian state media "We are warning all American allies, who gave their bases to its terrorist army, that any territory that is the starting point of aggressive acts against Iran will be targeted. In response Donald Trump posted via Twitter "All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning."

Since then, diplomacy has been given primacy and both American and Iranian presidents have expressed consent for diplomatic dialogue based resolution of the current situation having been given face saving opportunity to Iran in the opinion of most analysts. Besides Swiss government, Japanese prime minister meeting with Saudi crown prince, Qatari ruler’s meeting with Iranian president and more relevantly Pakistan foreign minister’s tri-countries shuttle diplomacy with Iran, KSA and USA appears to have sobering effects to cool off the risen temperature. The whole account looks repetition of earlier tensions between the two countries happening intermittently since 1979; however, the timings and reason of this particular tension need deeper dig to the issue.

Soleimani was not only an Iranian hero for making great proxy based successful strides in the middle East and South Asia against ideological and historical rival KSA, but had also worked closely with American military and intelligence establishment against ISIS in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and other countries. Hence, Iranian foreign minister accusing three Bs for the killing of Soleimani underscores element of let down, double cross, and possible realignment of Iranian posture. The shooting down of Ukrainian passenger plane killing 176 passengers, mostly Iranian double nationals and Canadians, initially denied and later in the face of undeniable evidences confessed as an accidental missile strike by Iranian air defence may also ultimately turn out to be more than a projected accident. Some analysts link current crises with the discovery of vast new oil reserves in Iran and big powers plan for its either destruction or control, through even stricter sanction regime applied on Iran resulting in increased oil and gas prices. USA and Russia being oil surplus nations; therefore oil at $ 70 suits both besides the increase arms sale as a result of conflict in the region. Specifically for USA, 2020 being the election year, putting more economic and military pressure on Iran especially in the background of USA withdrawing from JCPOA despite Germany, France and Britain trying in vain to convince Iran to adhere to its commitments made in the faltering nuclear deal, may be a game turn in place to find a kinetic solution to Iran’s nuclear ambition under greater pressure and bargaining with KSA and Israel. Nevertheless, USA and allies are least likely to hurt Iran beyond a well identified limit as pitching Iran led and KSA led coalition against each other serve them as well as other major powers in the region manifold; destruction of the warring Muslim countries notwithstanding most unfortunately. While the heightened tensions may also serve Trump’s political and economic objectives and help him to find a middle ground with US dissenting military and intelligence establishment on vacating Afghanistan and Syria by either relocation or by quickly achieving the desired unfinished main agenda of ensuring non-proliferation and even achievement of stable economic and conventional military muscle by a Muslim country thus fulfilling Islamophobia related objectives, bringing back American forces back home and leaving the conflicts to be sorted out by regionally invested but well divided countries, helping the western military industrial complexes to flourish more by fleecing the petro dollars and keeping the polarised regions under effective clutches of neo-colonial masters. Trump’s impeachment in the upper house along with bill for replacing the presidential powers for declaring war and use of US armed forces by congress instead and one time availability of Israeli man Jarred Kushner in the White house as son-in-law may also be contributing factors in deep state’s haste in making hay while the sun shines. Above all, Trump and Republican Party will try to leverage the last year achievements suitably twisted to suit the mood of American voters during the forthcoming presidential campaign; hasty US-China trade deal after so much pressure and hullabaloo may also be viewed in the same context.

The other global and international issues that got on the back burner due to current tension includes Afghan peace process and US withdrawal, US vacation of Syria and Iraq, Indian scrapping Article 370 of its constitution, annexation of disputed territories of occupied Kashmir in clear violation of UN resolution, subjecting Kashmiri people to extreme use of force by total lock down continuing for over five months, Indian government anti Muslim immigration law resulting in mass protests all over India, Indian overtures across line of control with open threats of war to Pakistan and CPEC project coming under clouds are few to mention. EU trying its best to maintain a fine balance in its relations with USA as well as with Iran with efforts in hand to keep Iran in the fold of JCPOA. Within Iran, the ongoing protests that started from a university on shooting down Ukrainian plane demanding resignation by Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei instead of Iranian president or government has its ominous side that may have linkages with long term covert efforts to bring back either democratic face to the front or restore deposed monarchy of Raza Pahlavi with heir in exile in Washington DC. An equally sinister consequence is the increased probability of furtive collaboration among KSA/allies and Israel to join hands against Iran with dire ramifications for the Muslim world and Palestinian cause. Indian media has also mourned and thanked late General Soleimani highlighting his services to India especially with regards to Chabahar port, construction of Chabahar-Kabul road allowing India to reach Afghanistan and Central Asia bypassing Pakistan, not to mention his role allowing RAW to operate freely from Iran’s soil, duly proved by unearthed Kulbashan Jadhev network, which should be an eye opener for his misguided sympathisers in Pakistan.

Like always, the current standoff despite great initial rhetoric is more likely to prove much ado about nothing; nevertheless with various purposes served at diverse levels and for different players on the global chessboard. Pakistan is doing a good job by not taking sides and by saving its own skin by ensuring that another covert or declared war in its neighbourhood does not take place. Pakistan will be well served by clearly stating its concerns to all concerned being served by Pakistani diplomatic initiative to diffuse the risen tension between USA and Iran in the region, especially with respect to Indian atrocities in Kashmir, brute maltreatment of Muslims in India with threats of war by India and finally with respect to any slander on CPEC and Afghan peace process.


20th January 2020

· Saleem Qamar Butt, SI (M) is a retired senior Army officer with rich experience in International relations, diplomacy and analysis of geo-strategic issues. (Website: )

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