The British scholar D.R. Hafez analyses the the Iranian bombings. on US military bases in Iraq. According to him, they can tell us a lot about the internal struggles of the regime.
In response to the killing of General Suleimani on the 3rd of February, Iran has reported targeted 2 US military bases in Irbil and close to Bagdad (Al Asad), firing over a dozen missiles (essentially Fatteh 110) on the 8th January. Iranian media initially boasted of 80 casualties, though the US armed forces have yet to confirm the extent of the damage. However, the media response by different parts of the Iranian regime hints that there continues to be a power struggle around the correct response to perceived US aggression and in more generally with regards to Iran’s foreign policy in the region.
The limited response by Iranian government officials….
Notwithstanding the taunting of Saeed Jalili – a former Iranian nuclear negotiator and foreign minister – by mirroring President Trump’s own twitter picture of the national flag straight after the respective attacks, the official justification of the Iranian attacks by the current foreign minister Javad Zarif is extremely restrained:
“Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched.We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”
This restraint shows that Iran wishes to appear as the reasonable party in the escalation in order to try to isolate the Trump administration in its aggression. In other words, the Iranian government wishes to personalize the aggression from a US perspective (President Trump is to blame, and not the whole of the US) to try and capitalize on the lukewarm response by the international community to the news of the killing of Suleimani, whilst retaliating against US infrastructure, but not against US citizens, as much as possible.
Indeed, Iran had/has in reality only a few options of retaliation if it wishes to maintain its image of indignant restraint: a tit-for-tat attack on a US general, a personalized attack on Trump’s portfolio (in order to personalize the conflict in the hope that rational minds will restrain the President, but at the risk of crossing a red line of an attack on US soil) or an attack on US military hardware, whilst minimizing as much as possible human casualties. The choice of attack seems to signal a “let’s call it quits” attitude.
…at odds with the fiery rhetoric of the Supreme Leader’s office during Suleimani’s funeral
However, the Iranian government’s rhetoric towards the international community puts it at odds with the internal rhetoric that the Supreme leader’s office and the IRGC have had over the last few days. In other words, it becomes difficult for the Supreme leader to continue to make impassioned speeches à la “rivers of blood” with regards to avenging the death of Suleimani, when the retaliation has been symbolically more measured.
This in turn can either signal that the IRGC and the Supreme Leader were caught unprepared for the US attack, and have yet to digest all of its implications (i.e. degree to which IRGC officers are being monitored by foreign intelligence companies, succession crisis to Suleimani) and thus prefer a measured response for the moment, or, that the national uproar triggered by the killing of Suleimani is less potent than previously thought. Only the Supreme leader’s office will know the degree to which the population has been galvanized to follow the regime down the warpath, given that violent protests broke out in the last months due to a combination of economic sanctions, the fatigue of Iranians and accusations leveled at the regime of administrative incompetence and corruption.
In any case, the contrast between the speech that the Supreme Leader made on the 8th January with its usual rhetoric and the external communication strategy to the outside world might also give clues as to the current power divide between the government and more moderate Iranians, and the hardliners. After all, Suleimani was widely regarded as a political heavyweight very useful to Khamenei.
Have the US crossed a red line?
The US continues to miscalculate the readiness of ordinary Iranians to turn against the regime of the Islamic republic, and to disavow its most visible symbols – the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the office of the supreme leader. Indeed, academic literature has for a long time explained the deep-rooted sense of nationalism imbedded in the Iranian psyche and into which the Islamic revolution tapped in order to cement its legitimacy during the 1980s (most notably during the Iran-Irak war). The current strength of that link between nationalism and Iranian identity on one hand and the Islamic regime on the other is currently debated, but what is certain, is that any crack will come from inside the regime and will stem from its incompetence, and not from a foreign power. In other words, killing off Suleimani will not make the majority of Iranians turn against the office of the supreme leader but will only fuel their paranoia.
Furthermore, Qasem Suleimani symbolized Iran’s struggle against (sunni) jihadism. For many minorities in the Middle East, killing off one of the main opponents to sunni terrorism (Al-Qaida in Irak and Afghanistan, Jubhat al Nosra in Irak, ISIS) will, rightly or wrongly, constitute proof that the US is not interested in peace in the middle or in democracy, but rather in hindering any counter-argument to sunni extremism, most visibly supported by Saudi Arabia. In other words, by killing Suleimani, the Trump administration can have given off the impression that it is assassinating on the orders of Saudi Arabia. Additionally, such a killing will also be interpreted by some (including by Russia) as an admission that the US has lost footing in the Syrian crisis, since it attacks one of the architects of the Assad regime’s revival, without being able to truly influence matters on the ground.
The allies in the region certainly seem to think so
After congratulating the Trump White house for the killing of Suleimani, it is quite revealing to note that M. Netanyahu distanced himself and Israel from the operation – no doubt in order to not add more fuel to the fire and become the number 1 target of Iran in direct response to Suleimani’s death.
Similarly, the international response to Suleimani’s death, and more revealing, the lack of reaction with regards to the legislation passed by Iraqi parliamentarians demanding the removal of US troops from the country suggests 2 developments: a) the death of Suleimani has rocked the Middle East and all parties are scared of the Iranian backlash, which in turn hints that for many western powers the US’s decision signifies consequences that they themselves are not prepared to endure. B) Power in Iraq and in Syria is in reality in favour of Iran – by failing to respond to the Iraqi legislation, the western powers in the region are implicitly admitting to the fact.