By Ali Fathollah-Nejad *
Iran’s 21 February parliamentary (Majlis) elections, which took place amid massive internal and external challenges to the state, ended with an all-too predictable result: the conservative camp – the so-called ‘principlists’ (osoul-garâ), consisting of conservatives and ultra-conservatives – emerged victorious, not least because of the mass disqualification of most reformist and moderate contenders (including eighty sitting MPs) by the ultraconservative Guardian Council that vets candidates for elections. As a result, the reformists had refused to endorse candidates in twenty-two of the country’s thirty-one provinces, including the capital Tehran where thirty seats were up for grabs.
Although these elections, the most uncompetitive in years, signalled the hardliners’ bold willingness to seek the monopolisation of power within the Islamic Republic’s institutions, the historic low turn-out has dealt a major blow to the legitimacy of the regime, and reflected the low level of people’s confidence toward it. As such, the elections’ outcome may complicate the realisation of such ambitions for power monopolisation, potentially constituting a Pyrrhic victory.
Against this backdrop, various scenarios regarding the domestic distribution of power can be envisaged, especially in view of presidential elections set for June 2021 – from monopolisation of power by hardliners all the way to a reformist comeback for the sake of regime survival. In foreign policy, the conservatives’ increasingly tight grip on all institutions – contrary to conventional assumptions of further hardening the fronts between Iran and the USA – might actually facilitate an arrangement with Washington.
Many candidates, little participation
These elections assembled a few superlatives compared to the eleven parliamentary elections held under the Islamic Republic since 1979: While a record number of people applied to run (around 16 000), the Guardian Council only approved a record low number (forty-four per cent of applicants); in total numbers, three times as many were disqualified in 2019 as compared to the last elections in 2016; and the number of approved candidates was the highest ever. The Guardian Council, whose members are directly and indirectly approved by the Supreme Leader, is responsible to vet candidates for parliamentary, presidential and Assembly of Experts elections. Most of those disqualified in these elections were reformists, undermining the Council’s allegedly non-partisan claim that most were excluded because of pending financial corruption charges.
Another superlative is the historic low voter turnout. It was officially put at 42.6%; yet, in reality, it is believed to be much lower, with some estimating it to be half as much. In the 2016 parliamentary elections, the official turnout was 61.8%. The hardliners are usually believed to represent only 15% of the population, who remain loyal to the system because of ideological persuasion and/or material benefits. Thus, a high turnout has usually benefited reformists.
The low turnout this time around is a major blow to the regime as a whole, but especially to the Supreme Leader who had argued that the election results will define the ruling system’s very ‘prestige’. The reduced participation was despite an unprecedented campaign led by state media and the Supreme Leader to urge people to vote, portrayed as a national and religious duty to protect the nation from its omnipresent enemies; despite various coercive elements conventionally deployed by the state to persuade people towards the polling stations (from bussing in military conscripts to hidden fears by segments of society that not voting will negatively impact their access to state allocations and job prospects); and despite the voting period being extended by several hours. Hence, the low turnout is a reflection of a general public mood toward a ruling system seen by many as increasingly illegitimate, incompetent, and anathema to the interests of many citizens.
The low turnout was rationalised by Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli as reflecting the prevalent social mood in the country and people’s deep discontent and disillusionment following the nationwide anti-regime protests of January 2018 and November 2019, and, more recently, the January 2020 downing of a passenger jet, killing all 176 on board, with authorities having lied about their responsibility for three days.
The Conservative victory
Conservatives won 230 of the 290 parliamentary seats, including all 30 in Tehran (where not a single MP was re-elected), while reformists won sixteen seats. The Hope Faction, which supports President Hassan Rouhani and is headed by reformist Mohammad-Reza Aref (who had topped the Tehran results in the 2016 parliamentary elections, but decided not to run this year) is believed to have lost more than 90% of its MPs (with only seven MPs in the next parliament instead of the current 120), while the entire moderate camp is believed to have won a maximum of fifty seats. The parliament will thus completely be transformed, with less than one fifth of sitting MPs represented in the next Majlis.
In the capital, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, a former Tehran mayor with higher political ambitions, topped the list with over a million votes. In contrast, in 2016 all Tehran MPs got more than a million votes, indicating the widespread stayaway in the capital city in 2020. The victors in Tehran were, thus, the conservative camp and Ghalibaf.
The wider conservative camp, composed of numerous factions, emerged victorious, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as its most powerful institution expected to further gain ground and Ghalibaf, the most successful conservative candidate, well positioned for higher political offices. With its new power over the parliament, the IRGC could extend its current dominance in the military, intelligence, and economic spheres onto the political one, making the military-rule component in the Islamic Republic more pronounced.
The mass disqualifications and the low turnout may signal a miscalculation on the part of the ultraconservatives, as well as their sense of hubris – due to a large extent to the moderate camp’s weaknesses and failures. The miscalculation is because this election could end a rather well-functioning safety net meant to channel public discontent, and a mechanism for regime resilience, namely, offering the choice – as many Iranians refer to it – between a lesser and a greater evil (i.e., the moderates or reformists against the hardliners). However, despite the conservative camp’s victory, its sense of hubris ahead of the elections had allowed for fiercer confrontations and contradictions within it openly, which might play out in the next years. The conservative camp includes three main factions, which both compete and cooperate with each other:
Ghalibaf future president?
The most prominent figure emerging from the elections is Ghalibaf, whose Proud Iran (Iran-e Sarboland) list, uniting many principlists and critics of the Rouhani administration, had fielded thirty candidates. He ranked first in Tehran, and is thus poised to assume the powerful position of parliamentary speaker, which he could use to position himself as the next president. Ghalibaf had failed to win the presidency thrice: 2005, 2013, and 2017. He began his career in the security-military establishment, then delved into the economic and political spheres – most of which was closely connected to the IRGC. During the Iraq-Iran War, he held chief commander positions in several brigades and divisions. After the war, he became managing director of the IRGC’s engineering arm, Khatam-ol Anbia, the main economic entity of the Guards since then-president Rafsanjani integrated them into the post-war reconstruction economy, and which has developed an economic empire of its own. Ghalibaf was later appointed by Khamenei as the commander of the IRGC air force (1997-2000); became chief of police (or the Law Enforcement of the Islamic Republic of Iran, or NAJA, 2000-2005); more recently, mayor of Tehran (2005-2017); and is currently the Expediency Council’s Economic Commission Deputy. In 2001, he obtained a doctorate in political geography from Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran, with a dissertation entitled Analysis of the Local State in Iran.
With a security background, Ghalibaf’s political agenda combines economic populism, technocratic management (he was largely seen in this light during his twelve years as Tehran mayor) and militaristic nationalism (during the parliamentary campaign, he played on his close friendship with the late head of the IRGC’s Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani, during the Iraq-Iran War). Given more extremist elements within the conservative camp, he will have a good chance of becoming president as a ‘’lesser evil’ option.
Facilitating talks with Washington
For Iran’s regional and international friends and foes, the historic low turnout, which did not escape their attention, indicated the depth of the regime’s legitimacy crisis, while the hardliners’ victory signalled the political trajectory to be expected. There is little chance of foreign policy changes as a result of these elections. Until the 2021 presidential elections, it is likely that there will be a duality of voices from Tehran: a moderate one from the Rouhani administration and a hardline one from other institutions (the IRGC and, now, the Majlis). Both voices operating in tandem have usually demonstrated their usefulness for the regime and the Supreme Leader.
Contrary to conventional thinking, the hardliners’ increasing grip on power might actually help facilitate talks with the USA; such talks are indispensable given Iran’s desperate need to unshackle itself of US sanctions for the sake of regime stability. One major reason for such a scenario, which may play out only after the US and Iranian presidential elections, is that a key impediment to hardliners’ rejection of an opening with the West or negotiations with Washington would be removed. Currently, hardliners’ concern is that an opening to the West, a process which will be negotiated by their rival elite moderate forces if the president is from that camp, would endanger or not sufficiently guarantee their politico-economic and ideological interests. Such concern may just be the result of paranoia; after all, the Supreme Leader supervises and controls any such process of negotiations, thus acting as a guarantor of his hardline allies’ interest.
No redistributive measures
There might be more bold attempts by the future conservative parliament to unseat important figures of the moderate administration, but this is unlikely to be supported by the Supreme Leader – given the aforementioned benefits for the balance of a duality of elite voices. Regarding state-society relations, the gulf between the two sides will likely widen, given the unlikelihood that people’s socioeconomic demands will be met in the short term, with US sanctions continuing unabated, and no major economic policy changes or redistribution of wealth on the horizon. Thus, the conservative camp’s victory may only be a Pyrrhic one for the Islamic Republic as a whole, and will probably prompt some soul searching within its strategic circles about how to deal with such widespread public alienation and disenchantment.
Ideally, a unified hardline camp could offer some socioeconomic relief to lower strata of the population, by utilising its unrivalled access to state and semi-state resources (which they largely control), even in the absence of US sanctions relief. The timing of such redistributive measures will be important: Doing so before next year’s presidential elections might inadvertently polish the tarnished image of the moderate Rouhani administration, increasing the moderate/reformist camp’s chances for his succession and thus diminishing their own. Thus, it is more probable that the hardliners’ parliamentary victory will further explicitly deepen the lame-duck performance of the current administration – soon entering its last year in office – in order later to increase their own political fortunes.
Down the road, the emerging dominant line in Iranian politics could be a kind of right-wing populism, i.e., promoting a discourse around delivering social justice without actually engaging in a redistribution of wealth, while the ideological role of nationalism will continue to rise relative to Islamism, potentially opening up some space (e.g., on the mandatory headcover for women) to absorb some public pressure, while repression against protests and civil society activism will continue unabated. In other words, the IRGC acting – or pretending to act – as iron-fisted modernisers. Be that as it may, a de facto military dictatorship will also have a hard time satisfying the population’s desire for more social equality and political freedoms. A key variable would be if any emerging political regime can maintain the current gulf between the lower classes and the middle class by playing their respective priorities against each other. In the meanwhile, as long as the coronavirus crisis rages in Iran, it is likely to impede the re-eruption of large-scale popular mobilisation, especially by the middle class, thus entrenching the feeling of resignation and despair among many.
The election results also reinvigorated discussions about the fate of reformism in Iran, most notably about whether the moderate and reformist camps’ losses could spell the ultimate demise of the already crisis-ridden reformists; in other words, whether their losses will be the kiss of death for the reformist-conservative duality within the Islamic Republic’s political establishment. Over the years, Iran’s reformists have experienced a significant loss of legitimacy among the social bases that had previously supported them, as a result of not only of the hardline camp’s combined opposition, repression and sabotage against them, but, also, and more importantly, of their own shortcomings to deliver on their political and economic promises. This has led to the belief that rather than constituting an agent of change from the top, the reformists have squarely positioned themselves within the establishment and against large sections of the population. In fact, for the first time, during the nationwide anti-regime protests since December 2017, they have been subjected to popular anger equally with the conservatives.
Against this backdrop, the future of reformism may involve two scenarios.
Such a move by conservatives to reintegrate the reformists could be deemed even more necessary if public perception would be that even a more powerful post-parliamentary election conservative camp had failed to address people’s grievances. In fact, the mass disqualification of reformist candidates led to disunity in the reformist camp, from some boycotting the elections to others participating (e.g., the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, whose public activities since the 2009 Green Movement have been heavily restricted by regime hardliners but who was shown casting a ballot in these crucial elections), potentially a signal of some among the reformists willing to forge a coalition with the conservative camp, or, at least, with those closest to the moderates.
Egypt is reportedly furious at Hamas’ leader Ismail Haniyeh after he and a delegation from Gaza attended the funeral of slain Iranian Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani. Haniyeh headed a Hamas delegation out of the besieged Gaza Strip on 2 December 2019, the first time that Egypt allowed him to leave the enclave since his election as leader of Hamas in 2017. He was meant to visit a number of countries as part of an international relations tour. Egypt approved the countries he would visit; Iran was not on the list. Haniyeh, however, attended Soleimani’s funeral and was the only non-Iranian to speak at the event, where he referred to the Iranian general as ‘the martyr of Jerusalem’. The Egyptians have allowed other members of the delegation to return to Gaza, but it is unclear whether Egypt will allow Haniyeh to leave again, when he returns. Hamas is also cagey about when its leader will make his way back or whether he will visit other countries not approved of by the Egyptians.
Egypt and Hamas relations become stronger after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime during the 2011 uprisings. The one-year presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, from June 2012 to July 2013, saw flourishing relations between the Egyptian government and the authority in Gaza. Morsi had ordered the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Palestinians from Gaza were thus able to travel in and out of the territory without hindrance, and there was also an increase in trade, after years of prohibition. In a July 2013 coup, General Abdel Fattah El Sisi overthrew Morsi and accused Hamas of being a co-conspirator against the security and the stability of the Egyptian people. Reversing Morsi’s decision, he tightened the blockade on Gaza.
Relations improved in 2017 when Hamas elected a new leadership mostly based in Gaza, unlike the previous leadership that was based mostly in Qatar and headed by Khaled Mesha'al. Haniyeh quickly started talks with Egypt after he election. Hamas delegations frequently visited Cairo for reconciliation talks with other Palestinian factions, notably Fatah, facilitated by Egypt. Egyptian officials have also frequented Gaza for negotiations with Hamas over ceasefires with Israel and to discuss blockade restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt. Relations further strengthened when Egypt agreed to a buffer zone between Gaza and the Sinai to prevent Islamic State (IS) group militants retreating into Gaza.
A critical aspect of Egypt’s relations with Hamas is the former’s strong ties to Israel and to the USA. In 2018, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, discussed with Egypt the creation of a trade zone and industrial projects in the northern Sinai and in Gaza as part of Trump’s touted ‘deal of the century’. To realise this plan, Egypt agreed that it would coordinate economic projects with Hamas. In 2019, Qatar announced that it would begin distributing funds to families in Gaza and pay for fuel for electricity generation as part of its National Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza project. This followed indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel, mediated by Egypt, which brought relief to 2 million besieged Gazans. This agreement had been concluded during a twenty-four day trip to Cairo by a Hamas delegation headed by Haniyeh in February 2019. It became clear that Egypt was willing to allow Haniyeh to travel out of Gaza but only for meetings in Cairo; he swiftly returned to the strip after every trip.
For his current trip, Haniyeh left Gaza on 2 December 2019 for Cairo, where he attended a number of meetings with Egyptian officials to negotiate a longterm ceasefire with Israel. This followed an exchange of fire between groups in Gaza and Israel, after Israel assassinated one Islamic Jihad (Bahaa Abu Al-Ata) leader in Gaza. After these meetings, Haniyeh’s delegation departed for his first international trip as Hamas leader. The trip’s schedule was agreed upon with Egypt, and included Qatar, where many former and current Hamas leaders are based, as well as Turkey and Malaysia.
The Egyptians told Haniyeh not to attend the Kuala Lumpur Summit in Malaysia on 18 December, following Saudi Arabia’s insistence. The Saudis viewed the Summit as Malaysia’s attempt to set up an alternative to the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which Saudi Arabia currently heads. Haniyeh obliged and sent a high-level delegation instead. Unimpressed, Egypt nonetheless conceded that Haniyeh had not violated the agreement. Egypt’s conditions included Haniyeh’s not visiting Iran.
When the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qassem Soleimani, was killed by an American airstrike on 3 January, Egypt further warned Haniyeh not to attend his funeral. Haniyeh, however, defied the order. He also met with the newly-appointed Quds Force commander Esmail Ghaani, and, together with Islamic Jihad leader for an international relations trip, visited Soleimani’s home to express condolences.
Haniyeh’s trip to Iran angered the Egyptians to such an extent that they may not let him back into Gaza after he completes his trip, or prevent him leaving the territory again. Egypt also, in retaliation for Haniyeh’s insubordination, temporarily blocked the transfer of gas into Gaza. This resumed only after talks on 9 February. After these talks, little was mentioned about what the Egyptians had said about Haniyeh, who is still in Doha.
Although Hamas has denied that Egypt had been furious over the Iran visit, it is clear that relations between the two parties have been shaken. Egypt believes that since 2013 it has largely managed to exercise control over Hamas, in line with the wishes of Israel and Egyptian allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Haniyeh’s Iran visit was, thus, an embarrassment for Egypt. Although Haniyeh’s trip to Iran might have been strategic from a Hamas point of view, it, however, throws the existing relationship with Egypt into murky waters. Egypt might further restrict the movement of goods and people through the Rafah crossing, in a form of collective punishments against Gaza’s residents.
The US assassination, on 3 January 2020, of Major-General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), greatly intensified tensions in the MENA region, taking it, by some accounts, to the brink of war. Iran responded five days later with attacks on American troops in Iraq, and will likely use its allies and proxies to undertake further attacks on US soldiers stationed in Iraq, thus maintaining a low-level war of attrition, less intense in the days after Soleimani’s assassination, but a longer-term strategy.
The assassination followed and intensified a series of incremental and escalating indirect attacks by Iran and the USA on each other’s interests in the MENA region, especially after the 2018 US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the 2015 Iran Nuclear deal), and more so after around March 2019, when Iran decided to respond more assertively to the US withdrawal. The USA subsequently accused Iran of increasing its support to armed groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen; and of being involved in the May 2019 Fujairah sabotage of four oil tankers, and an attackon Saudi Aramco facilities in Al-Qaiq and Khuraise in September 2019. Both the tanker and the Aramco attacks were blamed on Iranian-backed groups. Contributing to a tense situation, The USA deployed a carrier strike-group to the gulf in May 2019, increased its troop presence in the region, and resolved to no longer grant oil wavers to countries purchasing Iranian oil.
However, neither Iran nor the USA wants an all-out war. Instead, the USA will continue pressuring Iran through current and further sanctions, while Tehran and its allies will conduct numerous low-level actions aimed at disrupting US operations and interests. Further, two of Iran’s main rivals in the region, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have stretched their resources over the Middle East and North Africa, and have realised that they cannot rely on the USA to fight their battles with Iran. Both have thus made overtures to Tehran, especially after the tanker and Aramco operations; Riyadh advocated de-escalation after Soleimani’s assassination, and is negotiating an end to the Yemeni conflict.
Roots of current tensions
Iran and the USA have had long-standing tensions, heightened after the US role in the coup against Iran’s democratically-elected president, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1953. The ouster was supported, financially and diplomatically, by the CIA and the Eisenhower Administration. The Shah, whose powers were then strengthened, making him an absolute ruler, was subsequently propped up by successive US administrations through the 1960s and 1970s.
Relations between the two states further deteriorated after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which forced the Shah out of power and into exile. He was granted asylum in the USA, prompting Iranian students to storm and besiege the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979, holding US diplomats hostage for 444 days. The USA imposed an economic embargo on Iran, and US sanctions have progressively been strengthened over the past forty-one years. Washington also actively supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s eight-year war against Iran, which sought to overthrow that country’s new government, and resulted in a million deaths.
In 2011, the USA, prodded by Israel, added sanctions on Iranian oil as a means of pressurising Iran to halt its nuclear programme. Since Donald Trump’s entry into the White House in 2016, relations between USA and Iran have mainly been related to or a consequence of Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The American president hoped to pressure Tehran to negotiate a more comprehensive agreement with him, to also address its support for groups such as the Houthi and Hizbullah, and the Syrian regime, as well as Iran’s ballistic missile capability. US allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE have used their economic clout, purchasing large quantities of American weapons, to convince Trump to maintain pressure on Iran. The Saudis successfully slowed down the initial JCPOA negotiations in 2013 by using its arms’ purchases to lobby France to demand more restrictions on Iran’s Arak reactor and on Tehran’s stockpile of uranium.
In 2018, after pulling out of the JCPOA, the USA began instituting new sanctions on Iranian companies, and, more significantly, decided not to issue new waivers on the import of Iranian oil, a key source of foreign exchange for Iran. These waivers previously allowed certain countries, such as Turkey, South Korea, Japan and India, to purchase Iranian oil. Then, in April 2019, Washington declared the IRGC a terrorist organisation, the first time the administration had labelled an entire military arm of another state in this way. Trump also deployed an additional 3 000 troops to the region, including an aircraft carrier and destroyer group. He imposed additional sanctions on Iran and Iranian officials, including on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and on its chief diplomat, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, severely limiting his ability to travel within New York.
With an economy ravaged by the sanctions, rebellion from hardliners within the regime, and because of the failures of the EU’s proposed special purpose financial vehicle, which was supposed to facilitate the circumvention of US sanctions, the Rouhani administration began to incrementally reduce its compliance with the JCPOA, hoping to pressure the EU to comply with its side of the agreement and to ease trade and investment with Iran. This series of violations is what Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi referred to as a ‘rebalancing’ of, rather than a withdrawal from, the JCPOA. Tehran will still allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials to inspect its uranium enrichment facilities, has not (yet) increased the level of enrichment to twenty per cent, and has not sought to repurpose the design of its Arak nuclear reactor to process plutonium. This suggests the country wants to salvage the JCPOA, but wants compliance form other partners, especially the EU.
The EU responded by declaring a dispute under the JCPOA. Little will result from this, since any decision on imposing sanctions on Iran will need to be adopted by the UNSC in which Russia and China, both Iranian allies, hold veto powers. A key factor in Iran’s favour is that it has not enriched uranium to twenty per cent – the level which would radically decrease the time and effort required to enrich to weapons-grade ninety per cent.
Tehran has deployed mobile short-range missiles on naval vessels in the Gulf, in Iranian waters, in response to Washington’s deployment of an aircraft carrier and destroyer group to the region. Iran also used its proxies, especially the Hashd al-Shabi (Popular Mobilization Forces/Units) in Iraq and the Houthi in Yemen to attack US troops and interests in the region, and in June 2019 Tehran shot down an American Global Hawk surveillance drone, one of only four the USA possessed at the time.
Soleimani assassination – on a knife edge
On 3 January 2020, the USA military assassinated Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, one of the most influential leaders of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), largely supported by Iran. The assassinations, widely recognised by international scholars – including the UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Agnès Callamard – as being illegal under international law, and even domestic US law. The White House initially claimed the assassination was a pre-emptive strike because Soleimani had been planning ‘imminent attacks’ on US interests, including American embassies in the region. This claim proved to be hollow, with even the US Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, stating that no evidence existed around the imminence and targets of the supposed plans.
Soleimani’s influence and popularity meant that the assassination was especially contentious for both Iran and the USA. He had been the key person involved in providing advice, training and weapons to Iran’s allies in Syria and Iraq, and coordinating between Iran and various PMF forces in Syria and Iraq, as well as with Hamas and Hizbullah. He was also revered by many Iranians who credited him with preventing the Islamic State group (IS) gaining a foothold in Iran. But he was also despised by many Syrians and Iraqis for his role in protecting regimes in their countries. Critics also blame him for Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war, arguing that his July 2015 meeting with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, secured Moscow’s aerial support for the Syrian regime, without which it might have fallen. In Iraq, Soleimani consolidated support in the past few months for the Adel Abdul Mahdi administration, which has been accused of corruption and ineptitude, and which has violently cracked down on protests, killing hundreds.
Soleimani had previously worked with the USA in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the former, Soleimani coordinated certain activities with the USA in the fight against the Taliban, which both viewed as an enemy. The ‘relationship’ broke down, however, after then-US president, George W Bush, named Iran as part of an ‘axis of evil’ in 2002. Later, in Iraq, Soleimani was the point person dealing with the USA for Iran, including in discussions to form the Iraqi governing council, which took office in July 2003, and in 2009-10 to install the Nouri al-Maliki government.
After Soleimani’s assassination and funeral, which millions of Iranians and Iraqis participated in, Iran had to respond to the US aggression. Tehran decided on a two-pronged approach: a direct attack, in its name, on US troops, and a longer war of attrition with the USA through its partners and proxies. The direct response was through the attacks on the Ayn Al-Asad Airbase, west of Baghdad, and on the Irbil base, which host US troops, using around twenty Fateh and Qaim ballistic missiles on the 8 January 2020. Before the attack, the Iranians stressed that they would target only US military interests. They also informed the Iraqis which bases would be targeted. The warning, coupled with the fact that Iran conveyed a message to the USA, first via a Swiss back channel and later publicly, that this was the totality of its response, suggests that Tehran sought immediate de-escalation. The ‘indirect’ responses began soon after, in Iraq, with rockets launched at bases hosting US troops and even a the American embassy, but ensuring there were no casualties. Such attacks will likely continue, in Iraq and perhaps also in Syria and Yemen, targeting either US interests or those of its allies.
Run-up to the assassination
Before Soleimani’s assassination, regional tensions had been increasing. On 12 May 2019, four oil tankers belonging to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Norway, were sabotaged off the UAE port of Fujairah; two days later, Houthi drones damaged Saudi Arabia’s reserve oil pipeline in Riyadh province, forcing its closure. While no one claimed responsibility for the tanker attacks, the Norwegian insurer alleged that the shrapnel from the explosions displays similarities to shrapnel from IEDs used by Houthi fighters in Yemen. Further, a Saudi-UAE-Norwegian investigation alleged ‘state involvement’ in the sabotage.
A month later, Iran shot down an American drone that had entered its airspace. Trump initially contemplated retaliatory airstrikes on Iranian missile defence systems, but later stood down. Then, in September 2019, precision drone and missile attacks on Saudi-Aramco oil facilities in Al-Qaiq and Khuraise forced a shutdown of over half of Saudi Arabia’s oil capacity, resulting in a loss of over two billion dollars. Although Yemen’s Houthi claimed the attack, a UN report suggests that the missiles originated from the north, likely from Iraq.
The USA and Israel responded by increasing attacks on Iranian troops in Syria, killing scores of people. US strikes were more limited than Israel’s, commencing in December 2019 after the death of an American contractor in a PMF attack on a military base in Iraq. Israel was more blatant, continually violating Lebanese and Syrian airspace, and launching missiles at Iranian assets in Syria. The USA also increased its troop deployment to the region, and dispatched more naval hardware to the Gulf.
Gulf countries, specifically Saudi Arabia and the UAE, shocked by what they saw as a lack of an adequate response by the USA to the tanker and Aramco attacks, and believing they could no longer rely on the USA for protection, responded through attempts at rapprochement with Iran. Riyadh sought to initiate indirect talks with Iran, having Iraq and Pakistan simultaneously acting as mediators. The UAE also sought to negotiate with Iran. In August 2019, in the aftermath of the Fujairah attack, a maritime border agreement was concluded between the UAE and Iran, regarding Abu Dhabi’s access to sea lanes. It is worth noting that the UAE’s Jebel Ali port is the largest in the region, while DP World, an Emirati port operator is the fourth largest globally. Abu Dhabi is thus invested in maintaining and enhancing sea lane access as a means of both economic growth and military influence.
In September 2019, Riyadh entered direct talks with the Houthi; Saudi coalition airstrikes in Yemen decreased by over eighty per cent in November 2019; and hundreds of prisoners, including around 130 in besieged Taiz, were exchanged between the two parties as a confidence-building measure. Further, the perceived lack of American support also saw Saudi Arabia commence negotiations to end the Qatar blockade, which Riyadh – along with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – imposed in 2017. Although differences still remain, the blockade has weakened at a diplomatic level with the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini teams attending the Gulf Cup in Qatar in November 2019, and Qatar’s prime minister, Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, attending the annual GCC Summit in Saudi Arabia in December 2019. A ‘cold peace’ between the two sides is likely soon to emerge.
It seems that both the USA and Iran, and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, do not want an all-out confrontation, especially since Iran possesses powerful military assets that can cause real damage, and Iran seems willing to use these. Saudi Arabia called for calm after Soleimani’s assassination, while Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, shortened his trip to Greece and returned to Israel in an attempt to prepare for any Iranian response. Further, both the Iranian and American governments have cautioned against a war, even though Soleimani’s assassination had the potential to cause events to spiral out of control.
With 2020 being a presidential election year in the USA, Trump is unlikely to want a war (especially one that could result in a large number of American casualties) when a key promise of his 2016 campaign was to halt America’s wars and remove American troops from the Middle East. Even though he has not succeeded in this regard, Trump would not want the negative publicity that another war would bring, unless his popularity rapidly drops and he requires something to create a rally-around-the-flag effect.
For the moment, it seems as if Iraq will bear the brunt of these tensions, serving as a key battleground between the USA and Iran, especially since it is dependent on both countries, and because it is seen by Tehran as falling within its sphere of influence. Soleimani was assassinated in Iraq, and Iran’s response was to target American troops in Iraq. The Iraqi protests over unemployment, corruption and for a restructuring of the political system have thus been overshadowed. The protests, which saw tens of thousands gather in December 2019 in opposition to the government, waned after the US attacks on PMF forces in Iraq in late December. More recently, the larger protests have been those calling for US troops to leave, rather than the earlier ones which called for Iranian influence in Iraq to be decreased.
Iranian opposition members in Germany have warned of a "massacre" in their home country. They've demanded that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei "must go" during a protest outside the foreign ministry in Berlin. This as protests continue in Iran against the Islamic Republic's leadership after it admitted its military shot down a Ukrainian airliner by accident, despite days of denials that Iranian forces were to blame. For the latest on the Iran and US tension, we are joined via skype by Executive Director at the Afro-Middle East Centre, Naeem Jeenah.
US President Donald Trump has sought to downplay the significance of Iran's missile attack on two US bases in neighbouring Iraq. Trump tweeted that all was well and that the damage was being assessed. This after Iranian forces fired missiles at military bases housing US troops in retaliation for the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.