[General Qassem Soleimani]
The assassination by a killer drone of Iran’s Pas Daran (Revolutionary Guards) chief, Major General Qassem Soleimani, on the express orders of the US President Donald J. Trump is the sort of historical blunder that will rank with President George W Bush’s initiation of war against Iraq in 2001 to takeout President Saddam Hussein on the blatantly false charge of Baghdad readying nuclear weapons. The Bush decision set fire to West Asia, and completely destabilized an already volatile region that Saddam had kept a lid on by strongarm measures.
Saddam was the hinge on which West Asian peace rested. He had for several previous decades somehow managed to balance the interests of the sunni and shia communities in Iraq, and maintain order, often by bloody means, something both the Saudi led sunni bloc and the Iran-headed shia bloc grudgingly acknowledged. That order was upended. Now Trump’s murder of Soleimani is likely to start a spiral of violence and targeted strikes against American military presence and US economic interests in the Gulf, in Iraq where shias predominate, and generally in the extended area stretching from the Red Sea and the Gulf of Hormuz to Central Asia in the north, Pakistan in the east, and Syria and the Levant in the west. As it is, the Iraqi parliament is on the verge of voting for a resolution asking the US to get out of Iraq.
Hugely respected in the region as much for his political acumen and military expertise as for his understanding of the religio-ethnic dynamic in greater West Asia, Soleimani founded the al-Quds force for action in Iraq after the US military intervention there. Deployed against what Tehran considers the greatest danger to Islam — the US-Israeli combine, and also to fight the spurious caliphate of the murderous al-Baghdadi, the al-Quds force and the Kurdish paramilitary force, Peshmerga, were primarily responsible for reducing the Islamic State to nothing, which actions were discreetly supported by Saudi Arabia — the ostensible guardian of Mecca. The real reason why the people by and large held Soleimani in high regard was because of his physical courage; he led from the front.
It is very possible that with Pakistan getting dragged into the melee with likely attacks on US targets mounted by Iran-backed elements in that country, India will be asked by Washington to not only share intelligence — and in case Pakistan becomes too hot for the US forces to stage military missions out of, to permit American military units to operate out of Indian air force and army bases along the border with Pakistan. In Jaishankar-Rajnath Singh’s recent 2×2 summit with the Pompeo-Esper duo in Washington, the American side was eager particularly to activate the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) that will allow the US military the use of Indian facilities for, among other things, anti-Iran operations.
Permission under LEMOA will be demanded by the US because, with the general elections coming up, Trump will be compelled for political reasons to up the ante — meeting an Iranian counter thrust with a bigger strike — rather than to cool down the situation by making some sort of friendly gesture and even reparations to Tehran in terms of say, weakening the US-led sanctions regime. With much of Islamic Asia, including Pakistan, now unwilling to be any part of this action-reaction sequence, the only two countries on Iran’s flanks — Russia standing aside for the nonce before jumping onto Tehran’s side should America escalate with too much force — are Turkey to the west and India to the east.
Erdogan began building bridges to Iran with his visit to Tehran in January 2014 that was hailed by the Iranian foreign ministry, “As two neighbors and Muslim countries, ….enjoy[ing] many commonalities and many cooperation opportunities”. Indeed, before meeting with Trump in Washington in November last year, Erdogan had hosted a controversial Iranian diplomat who had a hand in an attack on certain Jews in Buenos Aires. So it is improbable that Ankara, which is already on the outs with the US owing to Erdogan’s purchase of the S-400 air defence system, will allow the NATO base at Incirlik to be used for air or any other activity against Iran. That leaves India exposed to US pressure.
One of Narendra Modi’s major claims of foreign policy success is his supposedly warm personal relations with Trump. It has so far fetched absolutely nothing for India and all the country has to-date witnessed is a one-way relationship where Modi keeps trying to please the US with unending concessions and deals for military hardware but receives no consideration whatsoever in return. With a confirmed America-firster — Jaishankar in MEA, moreover, the advice offered Modi is to give the US more and more even if it gets India less and less in return. His natural aptitude for hard bargaining that Modi boasted about is nowhere in evidence, at least not in terms of any substantive strategic gains and economic benefits. What benefits anybody can point to are mainly negative ones, meaning things like US restrictions on India techie movement could have been more severe, limitations on imports of Indian manufactured goods more onerous, etc.!
At the heart of the worry about India getting engaged, willy-nilly, in American initiatives hurtful to Iran, is that Modi, like most Indian politicians, is a proven sucker for praise and flattery, and Trump’s laying it on thick will be irresistible to the Indian PM. One need only recall the “Howdy, Modi!” Houston event and how elated Modi seemed when Trump rained accolades on him, to gauge the dangers ahead.
It may be best for the Modi government to, for once, do the right thing and preempt any approaches for help by Washington, by wagging its finger and asking the US and Iran to refrain from doing anything to escalate tension and, as a well wisher, to suggest to Washington that it make amends, by easing economic pressure on Tehran as prelude to negotiations for ending the long US-Iranian diplomatic impasse. It may be the way to regain for an over-US tilted India room for diplomatic manouevre, some slight self-respect and, perhaps, even an affirmation of shared interests with Iran.