Neither Iran nor the US appear to be keen on escalating the situation
In the midst of public display of grief in Iran over the killing of Qassem Suleimani leading to dozens of deaths of the mourners and postponement of his burial, the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif struck a moderate posture by saying that Donald Trump should “wake up and apologize” for destroying the stability and security of the Middle East. He said that Iran would respond “proportionally not disproportionally.” Iran would defend itself where it has been for seven millennia and the US should defend itself in its own region, indicating that Iran would not seek to take the war to the American continent.
Javad’s statement brought the temperature down to a certain extent, but the war clouds remained thick over the Middle East as the next step by Iran was shrouded in mystery. Iraq has already ordered the American forces out and President Trump has refused to withdraw them unless Iraq paid for the military facilities built by the US in Iraq. Iran has claimed that Suleimani’s mission in Iraq was to bring about stability there and the assassination of Suleimani was an act of aggression at a time when things were settling down in Iraq after the defeat of the Islamic State at the initiative of Suleimani.
Interestingly, the Iranian Foreign Minister placed the responsibility for the US policy squarely on Trump, even accusing him of violating the US constitution and acting against the interests of the US. The US action would end the American presence in the Middle East.
The assassination of Suleimani has brought foreign policy to the forefront of the election debate in the United States at the time of the Democratic primaries. Democrats have been suggesting measures to curb the powers of the President to wage war. Iran, impeachment and Iowa are the key words in the Democratic campaign, but this does not seem to have affected Trump’s popularity yet.
According to the latest reports, Iran has launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at US and coalition military sites in Iraq on January 08, obviously as a retaliatory attack. Al-Asad air base in Iraq’s Anbar province, which hosts a US contingent, was hit at least six times, as confirmed by the US military.
The Pentagon said at least one other base in the northern city of Erbil was targeted in the attack. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), of which Suleimani was a member, issued a statement saying: “The brave soldiers of IRGC’s aerospace unit have launched a successful attack with tens of ballistic missiles on Al Asad military base in the name of martyr General Qassem Suleimani.”
But the Iranian Foreign Minister stated that the attack was a proportional response to the US in self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter. He said the war would escalate only if the Americans reacted to the missile attack on their base in Iraq. The general assessment is that the Iranian action was measured and calibrated. A warning issued to Israel and other neighbouring states was also mild. Iran said they would attack only those countries only if their soil was used to launch any attack on Iran.
President Trump’s initial reaction to the Iranian attack was that “all is well” and that it was “so far so good”, though the effects of the attack was being assessed. He said that he would issue another statement only the next morning. There was a hint of stopping of the conflict at this stage in his words. Having eliminated Suleimani and brought foreign policy into the election debate in Washington, he did not seem to want to escalate the situation.
Happily, important neighbouring countries have shown no enthusiasm in getting involved in the US-Iran confrontation. Prime Minister Netanyahu on distanced Israel from Suleimani's killing while Iran's regional rival Saudi Arabia said the kingdom does not want to see further escalation of tension in the region. “We are very keen that the situation in the region doesn’t escalate any further. It’s certainly a very dangerous moment and we have to be conscious of the risks and dangers not just to the region but to wider global security,” Saudi Arabia said. Pakistan announced that it will not take sides in the escalating confrontation between Iran and the US.
According to the Israeli newspaper, Israeli defense officials told security cabinet ministers Monday that the likelihood of an Iranian response against Israel is low as of now.
The Indian dilemma over the face-off between the US and Iran has been evident. After the initial shock and a sense of helplessness, India began consultations with both sides and also with the countries in the region. India outlined its stakes and concerns over rising tensions in West Asia, and sought reassurance from the US over the deteriorating situation in the region, during a telephone conversation between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump.
But the White House stated that it was a routine conversation. “Today, President Donald J. Trump spoke with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India to exchange New Year’s greetings. The leaders discussed ways to further strengthen the United States-India strategic partnership in 2020, and they also reviewed the regional security matters."
An Indian statement on the telephone call did not refer to talks on “regional security matters" between the two leaders. It said that Modi had told Trump that relations between India and the US were built on mutual trust and understanding and had grown from strength to strength.
“The Prime Minister highlighted the significant progress made in deepening the Strategic Partnership between the two countries in the previous year and expressed his desire to continue to work with President Trump for enhancing cooperation in all areas of mutual interest," it said. It appeared that the stress was on the strength of India-US relations.
The External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s Twitter post, following a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said he had “highlighted India’s stakes and concerns" during his conversation.
Uncertainty over oil prices will have an adverse impact on India’s economy. The message from India to all, including Tehran, is that restraint should be exercised. The indications so far are that the current crisis will be contained.
Oil prices have soared and stocks have fallen, but the indications are that neither the US nor Iran is keen on making matters worse for themselves and the world.