What does Trump's Escalation of Conflict with Iran Mean for the Region?
Jonathan Fenton-Harvey argues that Iran will avoid direct action against the US, but will now be unconstrained in proxy wars.
The US assassination of leading Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Iraq has sparked fears that the region and external powers will be drawn into an unprecedented conflict.
Media commentators and analysts often do not sufficiently address the context when such apparently momentous events occur in the Middle East, leaving observers with a skewed portrayal of issues.
Soleimani’s assassination is merely the latest accumulation of violence between Iran and the US, which will likely result in a continuation of the power struggles that civilians who have lived under it for years have faced.
While the question of war between Iran and America has been lingering for decades, it has manifested as indirect or limited exchanges, excluding Washington’s reprehensible shooting of an Iranian airplane travelling to Dubai in 1998, in which all of it 290 passengers were killed. Aside from this incident, both sides have generally been restricted in their abilities to engage in direct warfare.
This is the dynamic under which Iraqis and Iranians have suffered over many decades – from Washington’s support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s which took hundreds of thousands of lives, to ongoing US sanctions on Iran which have impoverished Iranian civilians.
Yet, Iran had still managed to exert itself and empower Shia militias and politicians after the US completely dismantled Saddam Hussein’s regime following George Bush’s 2003 invasion. Tehran’s manoeuvring led to further violence and loss of life, but enabled it to gain huge influence in Iraq’s politics, following Washington’s destabilising actions.
The 2015 Iran nuclear deal opened a window for long-needed peace and diplomacy. US sanctions were lifted on Iran in exchange for curtailment of its nuclear arms programme, such as uranium enrichment. But, in 2018 Donald Trump reinstated the sanctions under the so-called ‘Maximum Pressure’ campaign, adding more fuel to the fire of regional tensions.
Though Washington’s past policies have enabled Iran to establish a dominant hold over Iraq, Trump is now trying to isolate Iran into a corner rather than engage in a direct war. This is still generating a further power struggle; as shown before Soleimani’s assassination, with the Iran-backed Kata’ib Hezbollah attacking the US Embassy following airstrikes on the faction.
Iraq’s Parliament voted for the non-binding decision for US forces to leave Iraq, yet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed these calls. Iran’s militias in Iraq, as well as Iraqis themselves, will see this as provocative and a breach of Iraq’s sovereignty, while Washington forcefully retains a presence.
Even the influential cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, who had drifted towards Washington after long being pro-Iran, has now called for the US Embassy in Baghdad to be shut down. He has reportedly also moved to reactivate his prominent Mahdi army, which originally resisted the US occupation from 2003.
Though masses of Iraqis have protested against government corruption since October – with many calling for removing Iran’s influence in Iraq – Washington’s latest policies will polarise and divide the country, likely diverting attention away from the achievement of positive reforms. More forceful attempts from both Iran and the US to weaken the other’s influence will further tear Iraq apart.
After Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameinei’s warning that “severe revenge awaits the criminals who stained their hands with [Soleimani’s] blood”, Tehran has officially exited the nuclear agreement – although this is mostly symbolic after Trump’s sanctions and Iran’s subsequent breaches had effectively left the deal defunct.
Tehran would still avoid direct conflict with the US and its allies. Its military and air forces are comparatively outdated and limited in strength. Though Soleimani’s successor has rather ambitiously called to expel US forces from the entire region, Iran will likely instead try to further embed itself in the region to counter Washington’s influence.
The US meanwhile does not have international support or legitimacy to pursue greater military action, even from its regional and Western allies. Exchanges will, for now, remain at current levels at most and will be limited to proxy clashes.
But, Iran’s regional allies have shown keenness to further mobilise. Yemen’s Houthis, who have grown increasingly close to Iran throughout the country’s war, have called for retaliation against Washington. They are currently involved in a nearly six-year-long war with Saudi Arabia, a close US ally, which has pursued a bombing campaign against the Houthis – a faction Riyadh considers an Iran proxy. Renewed clashes have occurred, diminishing already distant hopes of peace between the two sides.
Further Iranian support for the Houthis, and Saudi Arabia using current tensions with Iran as a pretext to weaken Houthi control over Yemen, could prolong this devastating conflict.
Iran could also further embed itself in Syria as Tehran has forcefully sought to shore up Bashar al Assad’s control throughout the country’s civil war. Iran may use the current violence, particularly the battle for the rebel-controlled Idlib, to further justify securing its militia control there.
Though many Syrians had celebrated Soleimani’s death – due to Iran and Russia’s aiding of Assad’s violence on Syrian civilian areas – his assassination will likely encourage Iran to further entrench itself in Syria.
Significantly, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu was the sole leader to praise Soleimani’s assassination, showing that he welcomes further escalation.
Israel has for long struck Iranian targets in Syria, while also more recently hitting those linked to Iran in Lebanon and Iraq. Tel Aviv will conceivably pursue further attacks on Iranian groups, especially if they retaliate with more escalation, particularly since its rival Hezbollah – which has been to multiple wars with Israel and has gained prominence in Syria while receiving Iranian support – has also called for retaliation.
Trump’s reckless policies are driving tensions and Iran is reciprocating. Though more explosive tensions are highly unlikely for now, those who have suffered under years of regional power struggles will feel virtually no change from recent events.