If there is universal consensus that a fuse has been lit, fear of its logical conclusion — a conflagration — lurks in every corner. The possibility of the ongoing US-Iran brinkmanship slipping into an enhanced armed confrontation in an oil-rich and volatile West Asia increased substantially on January 8. Tehran launched over a dozen ballistic missiles at two American military bases in Iraq in the first response to the assassination of its inspirational military commander General Qassem Soleimani in US drone attack a few days back -- an action personally approved by President Donald Trump. The Iranians struck soon after Soleimani’s funeral on January 7 -- an apogee of anti-US anger and denunciation, which was attended by thousands of emotionally charged mourners.
While the Pentagon confirmed the bases at Irbil and Al-Asad were hit, there was no report of casualties. Iran's Revolutionary Guards said the attack was in retaliation to the death of Soleimani on January 3. Cautioning other countries in the region, it struck an ominous note: “We are warning all American allies…that any territory that is the starting point of aggressive acts against Iran will be targeted.” Such is the highly-strung nature of the situation that a Ukrainian passenger aircraft with 170 passengers on board which crashed soon after take-off from Tehran was being probed for any links to the ongoing tension.
The flare-up, along with Iran’s defiant avowals of revenge, drove oil prices to $70 a barrel and made Iraq a frontline state of the US-Iranian conflict. With Iraq’s parliament unanimously calling for the withdrawal of all ‘foreign troops’ to stop precisely that, invoking Trump’s sharp response, in turn, there is widespread fear a widening circle of conflict can engulf the region and beyond.
However, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, later, clarified the missile attack was in self-defence and not escalatory. His remarks are widely seen as Iran’s attempt to draw red lines and not a rash retaliation. However, a lot depends on how the US president reacts. So far, Trump has said that he will make a determination after the damage at the US military sites were assessed. In this high-stakes game of chess, it’s America’s move next.
For India, striking a balance between its two strategic partners — the United States and Iran — who have been at daggers drawn for long, has never been an easy task. Every time US-Iran relations nosedive, New Delhi is found walking the diplomatic tightrope.
In the past, there have been occasions when India had to choose one side over the other. For instance, during the India-US civil nuclear agreement negotiations in 2009, when India opted to join the US and voted against Iran in a resolution of the UN watchdog IAEA censuring Tehran on its controversial nuclear programme.
However, rising tension in West Asia in the wake of Soleimani’s assassination has been significantly and fundamentally different, for it poses a much bigger challenge to New Delhi. “It is the most significant development in the troubled Middle East since George W. Bush decided to launch the Iraq War in 2003,” observes former US diplomat and president of the Council of Foreign Relations Richard Haass.
Agreeing with the growing opinion that West Asia is ripe for another bout of bloody and prolonged instability, David Gardner wrote in the Financial Times that the US airstrike was a dramatic escalation in the shadowy war between Washington and Tehran and its allies.
India, which has been closely watching the situation, issued a travel advisory to its citizens after the Iranian missile attacks, asking its citizens to avoid visiting Iraq. But the main worry for India — and the West -- comes from the possibility of armed conflict between the US and Iran stretching over a longer period and inevitably sucking in other countries in this veritable tinderbox of a region.
President Trump, who had been calling up world leaders, had a conversation with PM Narendra Modi to explain the rationale behind killing Soleimani. The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, also called up foreign minister S. Jaishankar after the US airstrike. Though India heard both US leaders, it remained non-committal about the argument peddled by them. Instead, New Delhi has stressed the need for showing restraint to ensure an early resolution of the situation.
It is not clear yet how the situation can be defused, then normalised. Soleimani was no ordinary general. War hero, shadowy and mysterious spymaster, master strategist and inspirational soldier, he was a household name not only in Iran but also in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or Yemen. For US and coalition intelligence and army generals, he was a cunning and implacable foe whom they couldn’t, for all their firepower and resources, bottle up. As a regional military commander, Soleimani was in charge of conducting and coordinating with the different militia in the region. It was his intervention that convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin to commit troops to Syria in Bashar al Assad’s support. He knew most top leaders in the region personally and often played a key role in negotiations, adopting a pragmatic approach to safeguard Iranian interests. Though he had consistently undermined US presence in Iraq and elsewhere, many in the American establishment acknowledged his stellar role in the fight against the Islamic State. As the leader of the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who earned his stripes during the vicious eight-year-long Iraq-Iran war, he was also extremely close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
Why was he targeted by the US at this point? An obvious theory that suggests itself is based on Trump’s attempt to divert attention from the ongoing impeachment proceedings against him in the US Senate. A tough anti-Iranian stand can also be helpful to strengthen his base in an election year.
Two interesting developments are also being cited. One, the trilateral naval exercise that Russia, China and Iran conducted as part of their war games early this year in the Gulf of Oman, much to the US’s chagrin. The other has to do with the speculation that Soleimani was in Baghdad to hold back-channel talks to normalise strained Saudi-Iranian relations—something that the US wouldn’t favour.
A third theory suggests that despite his initial reluctance, Trump was convinced to approve the strike by Pompeo. Therefore, is it a failure on the US Secretary of State’s part to appreciate the widespread support Soleimani enjoyed and how his death has jeopardised US position in Iraq — an oversight now being papered over by labelling Soleimani as a "terrorist".
Now that West Asia has been brought to the brink of a disaster, there are perhaps two contrary possibilities: one is that the deadly chain of events will escalate into a full-scale war with all its attendant misery. Two, this may provide an opportunity for an easing of the crippling sanctions on Iran that could lead to renewed negotiation between Washington and Tehran. That, of course, would be contingent on Iran’s subjecting itself to renewed restrictions on its nuclear programme -- they had angrily withdrawn from the 2015 nuclear deal following Soleimani’s death.
For India, more than a diplomatic tightrope, it’s the well-being of over eight million Indians in the Gulf as well as its main energy source that drives its prayer for a stable West Asia.