The ACRPS held a symposium on Sunday 12 January 2019 under the heading "The US-Iran Crisis: Repercussions for the Region." The symposium was organised in the wake of the United States carrying out a targeted an air strike on a convoy at Baghdad airport, carrying head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC's) Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani and the deputy chief of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis along with eight others, all of whom were killed. The symposium, which was chaired by ACRPS researcher Abdelfattah Mady, addressed the causes, context and regional implications of the crisis.
Marwan Kabalan, researcher and director of the Political Studies Unit at the Arab Center, began his intervention by referring to the repercussions of this incident on US-Iranian relations, and pointed out that the latest round of sparring between the two countries revealed several realities. First, the United States was able to establish new rules to clash with Iran. Second, the Iranian deterrence capabilities are limited, considering that the United States killed a prominent military commander (Soleimani) without fear of the Iranian response. Third, the United States won this round after Tehran won the previous round, which culminated in downing an American Drone in July 2019, and striking Aramco facilities in Saudi Arabia without a US response. Fourth, the extent of the US ability to breach Iranian security is greater than expected; Washington was able to monitor Soleimani's movements from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad. Fifth, Soleimani's murder has eliminated any opportunity for US-Iranian negotiations to take place before the upcoming US elections.
Kabalan suggested that Trump believes that he has secured a victory for his situation inside the United States, directing a strong blow to Iran without an important response to that, and without getting ensnared in a war in a crucial electoral year. He added that the attack likely curried favour with the republican hawks vying for escalation with Iran within the Trump administration. Their claims were echoed by Gina Haspel, the director of the CIA, who advised Trump that the price of not taking out Soleimani would be greater than the repercussions of the expected Iranian response.
Kabalan continued to say that US pressure on the Iranian militias will increase in the aim of reducing their influence in the eastern Euphrates in particular, and to close the land corridor between Iran and Syria via Iraq. Additionally, it seems that Russia will not allow Iran to use Syrian lands to respond to Israel or the United States, out of the fear that Syria could turn into a battleground between the two sides, threatening Russian gains so far. In Lebanon, it appears that Hezbollah will avoid getting involved in any regional struggle, keen to preserve its authority as the de facto and official ruler in Lebanon and may turn insular as it works to tighten its grip on the country. In Yemen, the Houthis will come under greater pressure from the Iranians to escalate further against Saudi Arabia, given that an Iranian response through Yemen is safer for Iran. Regarding the Gulf region, Iran will become more cautious in dealing with Gulf security (exposure to oil tankers and freedom of navigation).
In Turkey, the crisis revealed the extent of the decline in confidence between Washington and Ankara, because Washington had refrained from informing Ankara of its plan to kill Soleimani, despite the phone call that took place between the two presidents hours before the airstrike. In Palestine, despite the attendance of the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad at Soleimani's funeral, the two movements seemed to decide to separate the conflict with Israel from the US-Iranian tensions and not to allow the Gaza Strip to be drawn into an escalation that it has no interest in. On the international level, Russia and China are benefiting from the resumption of US-Iranian tensions as Washington shifts its focus, provided that the tension does not end up with war and regime change in Tehran. Finally, Kabalan indicated that Soleimani's killing ended Europe's ambitions to preserve the Iranian nuclear deal and revealed its marginal role in the conflict.
Mehran Kamrava, Professor and Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar, focused on the repercussions of Soleimani's killing for Iran. He began his intervention by saying that Soleimani was one of the most important figures in Iran politically and militarily. Besides fighting the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), and the war against the "Islamic State", as he did not move, like other seniors from the Revolutionary Guards, to trade, local government or parliament, but rather continued to fight in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Kamrava indicated that the IRGC has played an important role in maintaining internal security in Iran while maintaining the execution of Iranian policy abroad.
Kamrava added that the war against IS really raised the image of the Revolutionary Guards inside Iran. Regarding the repercussions of Soleimani's killing on the political system in Iran, especially in light of the recent protests, Kamrava tried to answer the question: What justifies the stability of the political system in Iran? He pointed out that the political regime is authoritarian but able, in certain contexts, to reproduce itself and survive, despite the pressures it is historically exposed to. It is a system that enjoys legitimacy among many Iranians, most importantly ideological legitimacy based on the leagcy of the Iranian revolution, and functional and professional legitimacy based on providing services to a specific group of beneficiaries. Kamrava concluded by saying that Qassem Soleimani became a national hero in the international and Arab media, after being targeted by the United States.
Haider Saeed, Head of Research and Editor-in-Chief of Siyasat Arabiya journal at the Arab Center, argued that the assassination of Soleimani differs qualitatively from the skirmishes that have characterized the US-Iranian hostilities in Iraq and Syria. For the first time, the US have targeted a high-ranking Iranian official. He also believes that this assassination is not a direct response to the attempted occupation of the US embassy in Baghdad on 31 December 2019, but that the indications of a shift in the nature of this conflict that precedes that incident. The assassination of Soleimani is a continuation US strike against five of the leaders and headquarters of the Hezbollah Brigades in Iraq and Syria, starting on 29 December 2019 which in turn was in retaliation for the operation that targeted an Iraqi military base near the city of Kirkuk used by US military advisers on 27 December 2019. This strike differs in scale from previous operations that targeted the headquarters and bases of the PMF in Iraq. Saeed believes that we can now talk about the crisis ending at these extremes; the United States does not want to go any further and Iran is incapable of real retaliation that would ignite a war in the region. Hence, while the assassination of Soleimani seemed to be a turning point, it may not be so. The US conducted the assassination of Soleimani as a one-off deterrent without deviating from the Trump's strategy toward Iran, represented by what the "the policy of maximum pressure", to force Iran back to the negotiating table. This means that Trump wants, even with the assassination of Soleimani and after him, to return the Iranians to the negotiating table and impose a new agreement.
Saeed added that Iraq will host a conflict between two movements. The first, Iran, which wants to deal with the assassination of Soleimani as an event that should not be followed by a continuation of what came before it on the one hand, and an opportunity to redraw the borders, roles and balance of power and actors on the other hand. Second, the United States does not want this event to go beyond its deterrent nature, or to change the situation in Iraq. He argued that this scramble would be for the survival or withdrawal of US forces in Iraq. He says that the protest movement in Iraq today faces two main challenges. First, the inability of armed factions close to Iran to provide a qualitative response may push the Iraqi factions to try to fight the protest movement, and here the protest movement can be made a scapegoat. Secondly, the protest movement has today appeared to be facing a "conflict of loyalties", especially since the forces of power began to label everyone involved in the protest movement as being loyal to the United States, which explains the behaviour of the protesters in January 2020, who chanted "No America No Iran". Saeed concluded his intervention by talking about what he called "the third birth of the protest movement in Iraq", after the first round in early October 2019, and the second on 25 October 2019. The protest movement will try to continue to provide an independent path, to rebuild the political system.
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