Iran vs US: Bringing a simmering conflict to a boiling point?

Iran vs US: Bringing a simmering conflict to a boiling point?


Text: Tigran Zakaryan


The world woke up on the third morning of the year 2020 to know that US forces had conducted a missile attack on a convoy near the International Airport of Baghdad the night before killing a top-ranking Iranian general along with a number of pro-Iranian Iraqi militia commanders.  Major General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of Iran since 1998, was a quite influential military figure. His division was primarily responsible for extraterritorial military and clandestine operations, including those reportedly targeting US and Israeli personnel.

This was preceded by a tough warning by the Pentagon, with Defense Secretary Mark Esper stating that “the game has changed” and the United States would preemptively strike Iranian-backed paramilitary groups in Iraq in case there were indications they were preparing to attack American forces there.

Earlier on 29 December 2019 US forces in Iraq bombed pro-Iranian Kata'ib Hezbollah group's headquarters killing 25 militants in response to an attack carried out two days before on a US air base, which left one American killed and several others injured. This sparked angry protests outside the US embassy in Baghdad, while some protesters even managed to smash through the gates into the compound.

US accused Iran in orchestrating anti-American operations in Iraq while Tehran vehemently and understandably denied it.

After Soleimani was killed Tehran vowed to “take revenge” for what they termed as “a terrorist attack” and “heinous crime” noting that it also violated Iraqi sovereignty and called the action a “miscalculation”. Later reaction came as unveiled threat to use force against US targets.

In fact Iran is capable of hitting scores of US bases across the Middle East and disrupting the oil trade routes through a most vital chokepoint in the south, the Strait of Hormuz.

Trump’s proclaimed goal in this crisis is to put an end to Iranian growing influence in Iraq and avert an all-out war between the two counties, however it is questionable if this gamble will work. Obviously this move hardly can stop Iran from extending its influence over the region and particularly in Iraq, which is torn along ethnic and confessional fault lines and which is currently a unified country in name only. This move will mobilize anti-American sentiment in Iraq as Tehran stands good chances to capitalize on it among the Shi’i majority in the neighboring country.


Iran’s soft underbelly

There was a Bush-era joke, before US got involved into the war in Iraq, which goes like: “Which one is the correct spelling, Iran or Iraq?”. Currently few if any people would mix one with the other, yet the history of those two countries as tightly interwoven throughout centuries.

Iraq or what constitutes modern-day Iraq had been the “soft underbelly” of Iran for more than a century. It served as a power base starting from the Achemenid Empire, down to the Parthian and Sassanid periods (with the capital in Ctesiphon in modern-day Iraq). The very name of Baghdad is almost certainly of Persian origin. The last great Persian empire, the Safavids lost it to the Ottomans for good as per the Qasr-e-Shirin Treaty of 1639. However that did not end Iran’s special interests in Iraq, centered symbolically around the Shi’i holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. 

Apart from religious symbolism, Iraq has a quite practical value for Tehran. If looked from a pure geostrategic angle, Iran which is surrounded by mountains and seas on all sides, needs a firm lowland “buffer zone” to serve as its outpost, and the fertile Mesopotamian valley in Iraq is the best choice.

In this regard, the US-Iranian row over the supremacy in Iraq is quite understandable and while Washington is bolstering its positions in that country sending in more troops, Tehran is in no mood to give up.

A most important factor in this clash over Iraq is perhaps not that what is waged by missiles, drones or other weapons, but through propaganda and persuasion. In this aspect Tehran has solid grounds given the fact that a sizeable section of the Shi’i majority in Iraq has shared sympathies with the stronghold of Shi’ism, Iran. To sum it up, a US-Iranian war for Iraq is all but over, contrary to what recently Trump announced.   


Implications for Armenia

Armenian Foreign Ministry was quick to react in an expected way. The Foreign Ministry statement underlined that the “Incidents […] risk further undermining the regional security and destabilizing the situation in the Middle East and beyond.” The statement ended with a phrase reading as: “Armenia will continue to closely cooperate with all its partners aimed at ensuring regional stability and security” signaling to both parties in the conflict that Yerevan is not ready to sacrifice its relations with any country for the sake of another.

Nagorno-Karabakh Secretary of the Security Council Arshavir Ghahramanyan stood out of that pattern in a Facebook statement expressing support and condolence to the Iranian people. However later the Foreign Ministry of Artsakh made public a statement, which is exceptionally in tune with the position of the Armenian leadership, leading to an assumption that Ghahramanyan expressed his personal position.

Armenia already suffers some economic consequences due to US-Iranian tensions, including discontinuation of direct air communication between both countries and restrictions on banking operations and it seems that little can be added to them. On the other hand it is Armenian diplomacy’s urgent task to explain to the US colleagues the vital importance of ties with Iran for Yerevan’s independence which is, undoubtedly in the US interest as well.

Armenia is a most unlike battleground for a US-Iranian proxy war, nor it can assume a unilateral pro-US or pro-Iranian position. Armenia should be ready to counter to possible pressures from all sides on this matter.

Meanwhile Armenia can suffer from the conflict’s consequences indirectly, including a possible inflow of refugees (which is unlikely for the moment), soaring prices for oil and possible instability in Iran, including a separatist agitation in the North of the country.

Armenia has to continue its brinkmanship policies, as it has no better choice. Such a political course, if implemented diligently and cautiously, would serve the best interests of the Armenian people.

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