Iran, US conflict shrouded in the fog of war

The unlawful killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and the Iraqi deputy commander of the Hashd Al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces – PMF), Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis earlier this month, was based on allegations of “imminent threats.” US President Donald Trump stated that the elite Qud’s Force head, Soleimani, was planning attacks against Americans, in particular, four US embassies.

As it turned out, Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has since admitted that he didn’t know when or where these attacks were to take place, while Secretary of Defence Mark Esper acknowledged that he did not see a shred of evidence from the president of these perceived threats: “The president didn’t cite a specific piece of evidence. What he said was he believed.”

Raising new questions about the military intelligence and strategic planning that led to the MQ-9 Reaper drone strike, Trump also downplayed the importance of any alleged threats, saying on Twitter that it didn’t matter “because of his horrible past!”

It has now been revealed that Trump ordered the killing of another Quds Force commander, Abdul Reza Shahlai based in Yemen, however, this assassination attempt failed, with a lower-ranking operative being killed instead. The Wall Street Journal has also reported that Trump confessed to associates he was “under pressure to deal with Gen. Soleimani from GOP senators he views as important supporters in his coming impeachment trial in the Senate.” This has confirmed what has largely been postulated by myself and other observers.

READ: ‘Horrible past’ justifies assassination, Trump insists

In the wake of the assassination, I argued that Trump is unaware of the implications of his decision, a concern that is even shared by several US officials. Speaking of Trump’s actions, one diplomat serving in the region who recently asked to relocate told Vox that it “feels unplanned and made up,” adding that if Iran decides to attack US outposts in earnest and with rockets, “we are probably fucked.”

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) initial response was the first time a state had stood up to American aggression in a post-Cold War setting. Up until recent years, most attacks against US military facilities or personnel were carried out by non-state actors. Iran launched over a dozen ballistic missiles at several US bases in Iraq.  It is clear Iran sought a “proportionate” response if reports of American requests via the Swiss are credible.

It is also clear that Iran intentionally picked its targets so as to minimalise, if not avoid, US fatalities but also to illustrate the capabilities of Iran’s military force, with impressive accuracy – hangars, storage facilities, and warehouses were specifically struck, the main targets were their localised “war machine”. It was both face-saving and a means to offer a de-escalation, which the US appears to have taken for now. The US also received advanced warnings, with Iraq being informed by Tehran of the impending retaliatory attacks.

Contrary to Saudi-led media seeking to implicate Qatar in the US airstrikes, IRGC commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh stated at a press conference, (with the flags of Iran’s Axis of Resistance alliance on full display behind him), that two bases in Iraq (both targeted), one from Jordan and another from Kuwait, were “involved” in the American “terrorist attack” against Soleimani.

Whilst the Trump administration declared that there were no casualties nor fatalities, some Iranian media outlets reported that at least 80 soldiers died, with witness reports suggesting the wounded were flown to hospitals in Jordan and Israel. These have not been verified independently, however, a CNN reporter who was eventually allowed inside Ain Al-Assad air base in Anbar province which was heavily hit observed that “it’s truly extraordinary how anyone managed to survive, that there were no casualties.” Hajizadeh said whilst the IRGC had the capabilities and intelligence of the locations of the personnel, they were not the primary targets but did claim casualties.

Tragically, the shooting down of the Ukraine International Airline Flight 752 near Imam Khomeini Airport in Tehran reversed any political gains Iran made immediately after the killing of Soleimani – there was an outpouring of popular support among Iranians, some 25 million took part in the funeral processions spread over five cities. International attention on Iran’s missile strikes, part of the “harsh revenge” promised by the Supreme Leader, was soon short-lived as the grim details made its way into the mainstream news. It was not long before international coverage shifted away from the aftermath of the US bases – there was practically a media blackout on it in the coming days.

READ: Iran arrests suspects in plane disaster as protests persist

However, the high civilian death toll justified the focus and scrutiny. Iran initially claimed the plane crashed due to a technical fault, but mounting pressure followed by investigations and leaked footage soon forced an admission of guilt from the government that it was hit unintentionally, partially to control the narrative before the US could. By then, the damage had set into motion hundreds of protesters angry with the cover-up.

Although arrests have been made, there are arguments that due to Iran being on high-alert, especially in the uncertainty and fog of war, they may have expected a counter-strike by the US and mistakenly shot it down, especially amidst the unpredictable tweets emanating from the White House threatening to destroy 52 cultural sites, but this doesn’t explain why flights were not grounded.

A similar incident occurred back in August 2010, an Iranian Air Force F-4 Phantom fighter mistakenly entered a 20-kilometre no-fly zone around the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, which was being launched at the time and guarded by the Iranian Armed Forces on high alert. Reportedly due to miscommunication, Tor-M1 units misinterpreted the friendly jet as a hostile target and effectively downed it. Iranian pilots managed to eject and survive the incident. It has been said that miscommunications occurred in this case too, reportedly leaving a missile operator 10 seconds to make a decision as Flight 752’s transponder suddenly stopped working not long after take-off and was heading towards a strategic military site, according to Iranian media.

In 2012 The Jerusalem Post, citing WikiLeaks, reported that Russia provided Israel security codes to access Iran’s Russian air-defence systems in exchange for an Israeli handover of codes to “hack” drones sold to Georgia. Ominously, a 2017 article by Aviation Today revealed that a US Department of Homeland Security official admitted that his team of experts successfully demonstrated that a commercial aircraft could be remotely hacked in a non-laboratory setting.

The original video footage used as evidence of Iran shooting down the plane was reported by The New York Times – it had been passed onto them by a London-based Iranian dissident, Nariman Gharib, with the video itself filmed by an anonymous source who was stationed in a derelict industrial area about 6am, calmly filming the night sky as if in anticipation of the strike. It is fair to say there are more reasonable questions than there are answers at this stage.

It is important to note that Iran’s missile strikes were the first responses, a mere “slap in the face” as Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei said. A senior IRGC commander also stated that “harsher” revenge will follow. The conflict is by no means over, rather it is just getting started. Trump has resorted to further sanctions against a nation that has become accustomed to these acts of economic terrorism.

READ: Influential Iraqi cleric Sadr calls for anti-US demonstrations

Several Iraqi factions are calling for a united front against US military presence in the country – more attacks against US forces will be expected now that the Trump administration has predictably chosen to undermine Iraq’s democracy and sovereignty by ignoring parliamentary requests to withdraw from the country, thereby returning to an illegal occupying force. The Iraqi armed forces, which includes the Hashd forces, are justified in responding to US aggression – the strikes on Hashd positions last month near the Syria-Iraq border killed more Iraqi servicemen than it did Hashd fighters. The Iraqi paramilitary group are yet to officially retaliate for the assassination of their second in command, Al-Muhandis, which they have vowed will happen.

In bolstering its image as a bandit state, the US is economically blackmailing Iraq should it go ahead with seeking to expel US forces, even going as far as to threaten to freeze Iraq’s oil revenues held at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. Conversely, Saudi Arabia has kept up its protection payments, $1 billion according to Trump in a recent interview, to send over more US troops in order to prop up the Kingdom’s security in an increasingly volatile region.

US-supported civil unrest will also continue to rise, exploiting the peoples’ genuine grievances against the Iraqi government. Caretaker Prime Minister Adil Abdel-Mahdi has also disclosed comments made in parliament that were not broadcast, that the US reportedly demanded 50 per cent of Iraqi oil output in exchange for reconstruction in the country. Abel-Mahdi stated that he refused and opted to deal with China instead. Upon his return from China, Trump threatened him with massive demonstrations that would topple his government.

It is easy to overlook the fact that Daesh will seek to capitalise, minimally, on the absence of Soleimani’s military leadership. Undoubtedly Soleimani and the Hashd forces were responsible for the crushing defeat of Daesh. CNN recognised the Iranian general’s contributions against the terrorist group only three years ago.

For now, though, there have been opportunistic attacks against Hashd positions following the fateful US airstrikes. Israel for one has since bombed Hashd fighters on the Syria-Iraq border who are there to combat Daesh. It’s as if they are fulfilling the role of Daesh’s unofficial air force. It should come as no surprise then when regional leaders start to complain about Daesh’s resurgence.

Trump’s order to eliminate Soleimani may well have been tactically and operationally successful, as for its strategic value that is less forthcoming. The IRGC is not reliant on one person. In fact, it is safe to say Trump really doesn’t have a substantial strategy. Iran’s strategic vision is not for full conventional confrontation with the US, but the US withdrawal from West Asia, Iran’s natural sphere of influence. For this to be truly realised, Iran as a matter of rational state-level security must continue to work on its deterrence capabilities.

OPINION: Trump has no idea what he has done by killing Soleimani

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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