[Author’s Note: The following is largely drawn from a previously unpublished – and, sadly, unfinished – draft of an article I’d been working on in late July 2018, which sought to contextualize the Iranian response to some rather conflagrationary remarks then-recently made in their direction by Trump. Much of it was pertaining directly to Soleimani. Due to the understandable recent explosion of interest in the man and his saliency, along with the regrettable seeming fruiting of the vainglorious threat-making by Trump, it seemed fitting to finally put it to light. Although after almost a year and a half, even despite the notes I left with the draft of what I’d intended to cover towards its closing, I’m not sure that I’d be capable of finishing it off properly. It therefore hangs not so much ‘concluded’ as ‘interrupted’. Which, itself, is perhaps a fitting metaphor for … well, you know. We have a saying – “What is the Joy of Life? To die knowing our task is complete”; “What is the Terror of Death? To die with our work incomplete”. Although as applies Major General Qassem Soleimani – it strikes me that for Him, it shall not so much be a case that “Death is only the beginning”, as “Apres Moi, Le Deluge”. And speaking of Deluges, in place of the uncompleted originally intended second half, there’s a postscript which states what would have been there, followed by a surface look at why the push for an American-led conventional military effort against Iran is exactly what the ‘Soleimani Approach’ was set up in anticipation of and as a direct counter to.]
So, in response to Donald J. Trump’s .. desperate tweet from earlier this week, in which he threatened Iran with “CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. [sic]”; Major General Qassem Soleimani [a figure I have occasionally written about before, with some deserved degree of admiration] made a most interesting speech – the gist of which can probably be summed up in the following quote: “We are ready for you”.
Now, this might seem like an absurdity – particularly if you are of the Neocon persuasion, and haven’t yet realized the rather hard limits on American geopolitical (hard) power. Certainly, there are those within the US foreign policy establishment, and commentariat, who still for some reason persist in the belief that just because they think they’re a hyperpower-Chakravartin in a monopolar world … that this axiomatically makes it so.
But Soleimani is not so much a “student of history”, as one of the regrettably under-acknowledged “contributing authors” – at least, insofar as the last twenty years or more of Middle Eastern geopolitical developments go.
He was there, on the front lines of some of the most brutal fighting of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s; and partially as a result of this, developed an avowed plan – a vision – for an Iranian-Shi’ite expansion in power and influence which would not be contingent upon meat-grinder wastes of life against technologically superior foes in conventional pitched battles.
An entirely and eminently understandable thing.
Flash forward two decades, and it has become abundantly clear that Major General Soleimani has been largely successful in his vision.
Whether in the west of Afghanistan, or in a pretty huge crescent across Northern Iran, Syria, and much of Lebanon [wherein local ally Hezbollah has effectively become a de facto operating Government – and a surprisingly broadly supported/popularly legitimate one at that, in direct response to Israeli excesses carried out in the 2006 war], as well as the present associates in Yemen etc. … it is no exaggeration whatsoever to state that Soleimani has effectively rebuilt Iranian influence and prestige to heights and geographic extents unknown since the height of the Sassanid Empire some one thousand four hundred years previous.
Indeed, the present-day ‘corridor’ running through from western Iran to the Mediterranean – of obvious military utility, especially given Iran’s major adversaries in the region – is basically something that the Iranians have not held consistently since the days of the Seleucids, more than two thousand years ago (barring the span of a few years toward the latter half of the Byzantine-Sassanid wars – and almost immediately prior to both the collapse of the latter Empire and the seemingly meteoric rise of the Islamic Caliphate at its fairly direct expense).
How has Soleimani done this? Well, through three key things.
The first of which, unquestionably, has been his remarked success in setting up or otherwise augmenting local groups capable of advancing Iranian aims in their country of origin.
I have already mentioned Hezbollah – which by this stage must surely be acknowledged as one of the most impressive political success stories of the late 20th and early 21st centuries; and many are also aware of the Iranian linkages of the Houthi movement operating in Yemen.
In addition to these, Iran has also – perhaps surprisingly – made useful local subordinates out of Kurds in Northern Iraq (which caused considerable problems for American designs on that country in the latter 2000s); as well as having long-standing associated elements fighting in Western Afghanistan against the Taliban.
Soleimani’s geopolitical fingerprints are, predictably, on all of these projects. And not in the vague and abstract sense of, say, John McCain suggesting the funding of “moderate rebels” from the safety of his nation’s capital. But rather, entailing his direct, personal presence and oversight in-country. (In fact, as a point of interest, Soleimani appears to have spent much of the 1990s – during a period wherein the West was quite content to forget what it had (part) authored there – in Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban)
But these various local elements would be of comparatively limited use in the absence of the second tool within Soleimani’s arsenal:
The various mis-steps of his foes.
For you see, three of the greatest forces which have leant themselves to Soleimani’s cause are those of the American, Israeli, and Saudi militaries.
After all, prior to the disastrous American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran had held very limited influence indeed within that country. And despite throwing literally hundreds of thousands of men at Iraqi defences during the course of the Iran-Iraq War, had never been able to meaningfully change this situation. One American invasion and ensuing destabilization later, and all of that changed. The precise scope and specificities of Iranian involvement in post-Saddam Iraq is – while fascinating, and at turns highly amusing (particularly as applies Soleimani’s own occasional habit of, I suppose you might say, “trolling” American factotums sent to that country with a view to curtailing Iran’s entrenched abilities there) – well beyond the span of this piece. Suffice to say it was extensive; and according to some accounts, sufficient to secure the Iraqi pressing for American withdrawal in 2010.
[Author’s Note (Postscript): And that, as you can see, is basically how far the draft had gotten in anything approaching ‘finished’ form. The next two paragraphs were going to briefly discuss in more detail the Iranian experience in Lebanon, Syria, and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan – wherein foreign military incursions (to render the term somewhat broadly as applies Syria, to be sure) produced significant strategic openings for the Iranians, and helped to then shore up momentum for Iranian efforts already in play.
This would then have moved to mention of the third ‘weapon’ of Soleimani – namely, “Foreign Friends”; and with particular, especial mention made of the Russian intervention within Syria – not least due to the suggestion made in some quarters that this was, again, not just a Soleimani overseen occurrence, but one which eventuated in large measure due to Putin’s personal regard for the man. Although how much of that is apocryphal and “sounds cool” narrative-threading myth-making, I suspect we shall never truly know.
I might have then compared this to two more distinctly American occurrences as a juxtaposition. First, the frankly bizarre allegation levied by the United States about a supposed IRGC plot to utilize a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the explosive assassination in Washington D.C. of the Saudi ambassador to the United States; which is worthy of mention not only for bathos-value – but also due to the sustained chorus of expert opinion that castigated these claims on the dual bases of a lack of actual evidence (something the Americans later conceded … after they’d placed increased sanctions upon the Iranians anyway and attempted to link the whole thing to Soleimani himself) as well as this particular form of ‘foreign friends’ entanglement being so far outside the established Iranian / Revolutionary Guard modus operandi (as well as general logic and sense) as to be blatantly improbable.
But second, and more … poignantly, especially in light of what has just occurred at the time of publishing [early 2020], the Iranian record (and Soleimani’s in particular) in Afghanistan between the renewal of American armed interest there (this time against certain Sunni militancies, for a change) and the period immediately prior to the run-up to the Invasion of Iraq. Basically, the Iranians were quite keen to actively co-operate with the Americans, viewing it as the West finally turning up to help fire-fight against the blaze which had been smoldering upon Iran’s borders ever since the Atlanticist-aligned powers had stoked it to such potency against the Soviets some decades before. And, alongside this, as a potential pathway towards eventual rehabilitation and reintegration within the international community – demonstrating their capacity to act in good faith as ‘mature’ and ‘responsible’ actor in a problem situation alongside others, including one of their loudest critics.
The sadness of the above, and why it bears mentioning especially in the context of recent events, is because it demonstrates road-map of ‘the path not taken’. The period of tentative co-operation in Afghanistan between the Iranians and the American-led Coalition reportedly worked rather well. It was not allowed to continue, however – although with the severance of the working relationship effectively happening at the stroke of a speech-writer’s pen rather than any actual well-considered and cogent decision-making … as soon as Bush Junior declared Iran a part of the “Axis of Evil” (lumping them in, for added insult to injury, with at least one of their direst foes), that was it. The detente ended, the entente failed, and a pattern of low-intensity conflict began to ensue.
Although with a view to what I had earlier said about making use of the American military, it is perhaps worth additionally noting that during the period of saber-rattling against Iraq, the Iranians appear to have offered co-operation with the Americans in the event of an American-lead Invasion. I understand why they did that, and it made sense from their own perspective … but I do not mean to present it as being an option with which I would have been morally comfortable.
Mention would then have been made of a ‘fourth’ weapon – that of reputation and the intangible armouring of image; partially because I’ve admired Soleimani’s sense of ‘style’, and the accounts of his time in Iraq semi-indirectly liaising with increasingly bemused American counterparts make for both a logical bridging point from the previous and for no doubt intentionally entertaining reading (He later graduated to firing Game of Thrones memes back at the current US President over Twitter).
But also, and rather more substantively because in the game of geopolitics, even despite all the “hard power” rational calculations of, as Truman put it, “how many divisions have you” … it is the force of (myth)perception and belief which drives so much (for a direct example of which, witness George W. Bush’s Iran as Axis of Evil co-conspirator speech effectively meming the President’s misguided belief into reality over the top of the actual reality being almost the diametric opposite); and the belief, the damn near superstition that somebody is powerful, successful, untouchable, which thence goes on to make it so as the web-like fabric of actions begins to ‘bend’ around them in result.
Soleimani’s own reputation is a grand example of this in action as well, of course (up until Friday, when it uh … wasn’t; Ideas, while they may in theory be “bulletproof”, turn out to be questionably effective at stopping physical projectiles; although it’s probably worth noting that an Idea, unshackled from its former mortal embodiment, can become all the more potent as a fairly direct result); but, then, so is the American President’s – and Trump’s more so than most.
A situation which also encapsulates many persons’ belief, whether ordinary civilian or soldier or elected representative or even paid-for analyst in agency, company, or “company” employ … that America and the ‘Pax Americana’ is likewise. In extremis, that there are no ‘hard limits’ thereupon – for they are the ‘hard limits’ upon the power of any and all others, likely even combined. And that the indefatigability, implacability, inchoate-ability of American Hyperpower means that unlike almost literally every other empire in the history of human civilization worthy of the name they shall neither fall, nor stumble rather spectacularly thanks to some protracted land-war in Asia [to reference Field Marshal Montgomery’s Second Rule of War] [And with especial mythic resonance wrong-genre-savvy points for the Americans, casting themselves as Rome to Thassalocratic Britain’s Athens … not noticing the striking pattern of Roman military adventurism against Iranid peoples and polities going spectacularly badly to the point of the Romans doing the unthinkable and having to sue for peace, ask nicely for the return of Imperial standards, etc. ]
This is basically what Soleimani was getting at in the message to Trump which had formed the initial spark of inspiration for the mid-2018 piece. That whether speaking in a (geo)political or a personal sense, the illusion of being ‘untouchable’ was just exactly that.
He did not simply ‘puncture’ the self-inflating and over-inflated ‘myth’ of American hypremacy; he pointed out that it had already met its limits and rolled back bleeding from Afghanistan, torn at by over a thousand asymmetric cuts. To quote him himself upon the subject: “You came to Afghanistan with tens of tanks and armoured vehicles and hundreds of advanced helicopters and committed crimes there but what the hell have you achieved between 2001 and 2018 with 110,000 troops? Isn’t it that now you are begging the Taliban to negotiate?”
He also observed that even well in advance of any ‘official’ American military action, the Iranians would have the ability to significantly impair American (and Saudi) activities in and around the Persian Gulf, even potentially closing the Red Sea – with obvious impacts upon Saudi-sourced oil flows going in both directions. A mirror image, in some ways, of the American sanctions then being ratcheted further up (but when have they not been over the past few years) against Iran and her oil exports in particular.
Ever one for the personal touch, Soleimani went from recalling Trump’s commercial background in the casino business (both as a gambler by nature, and his downright vaude-villain “cabaret” proprietor hype-man ethos) through to stating “We don’t go to sleep at night before thinking about you.”
“I’m telling you, Mr Trump the gambler, I am telling you: know that where you are not thinking of, we are near you. Places you cannot imagine, we are next to you.” Like I said. The personal touch. Emphasis upon the “touch”. As in, reach out and.
Anyway, despite what you might perhaps be forgiven for presuming after wading through all of the above post-script and draft, the purpose of the original (uncompleted) piece was not simply to provide an escalating litany of Soleimani Does Cool Stuff with a view to burnishing his already impressive reputation.
But rather, to respond to a trend I had observed in many of those voices supporting a more aggressive American stance, both prior to Trump’s mid-2018 bloc-caps outburst, and also more especially subsequent to the Soleimani issued reply to same.
Namely, that the ‘inevitable’ outcome of any U.S. conventional war effort against Iran would be near-total American victory, attained with nil or virtually nil casualties, complications, setbacks or losses in other areas, or pretty much any real risk at all (except, presumably, from friendly-fire incidents).
And while it’s not that hard to see how somebody who might remember the dizzying progress of the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, could come to the erroneous misapprehension that an American invasion of the other “I-” country right next door might transpire in pretty much exactly the same manner, but faster due to technological advancement or something … there are so many things wrong with that perspective that it’d literally be an entire other article (completed, this time, or otherwise) even starting to explain why.
Running supply-lines through unfriendly Mesopotamian towns and desert to troops attempting to battle their way through the downright inhospitable Zagros Mountains would be bad enough even before reaching the somehow even less forgiving flatter lands of the Iranian interior … which are significantly salt-desert. A situation not made particularly easier if a sea-bourne invasion across the Persian Gulf were contemplated instead or in addition to, given the Iranians’ demonstrable facility with and stockpile of anti-shipping wargear. Even conventional bombardment, bombing, and missile- or airstrikes would be at a significant risk in light of the Iranians’ advanced ABM and anti-air defences.
This is not to say that the Americans (and er .. “Friends”, or whatever it is they’re calling Saudi Arabia these days – the ‘hydration technicians’ of McWorldistan Empire, perhaps, due to their well-observed position down the back prepared to fight to the last NATO-man while doling out the oilectrolyte ‘sports’ beverage of sugar-water) would be utterly unable to take Iran; nor that they would be completely frustrated at any and all attempts to seriously flatten appreciably large proportions of its most populated areas.
Just that the costs of making a serious play at doing so – both in terms of the manpower and money-power going into the initial invasion, and the amount of each decidedly unlikely to ever come back therefrom – would make it a prohibitive undertaking on par, perhaps, with what Field Marshal Montgomery identified “Rule 1, on page 1 of the Book of War” as militating most strongly against – namely, some foolhardy vainglorious attempt to “March on Moscow”.
Yet all of this is actually only of secondary relevancy to my point.
Which is, to endeavour to state it succinctly (quelle ironeia), that suggesting the Americans shall successfully subjugate Iran via a victorious conventional war … is so far wide of the mark as to be like Christopher Columbus attempting to reach the East Indies by heading in completely the wrong direction and then stumbling onto a ‘New World’ entirely instead. It’s not even the “right question”, let alone the “right answer”. It’s Two Plus Two Equals Fish. And not just due to the odour.
It doesn’t matter that some American Vultures (not Hawks, definitely not Doves, although perhaps with deference to the age and pate of some of the culprits as well as the fowl in question’s actual food-gathering habits … Bald-Spot Eagles) are rather keen to try and fight a conventional war against Iran, whether they dress themselves up for it as Alexander the Great (who did, in fact, manage it … albeit with much of the necessary ‘heavy lifting’ done outside of modern Iran, in various locales to the west thereof), or whether they show a bit more insight and choose to larp as Crassus, instead. Crassus, as is well known, was an early recipient of advances in Iranian missile technology
It may be the sort of conflict which these sorts want … but the Iranians are under no obligation to oblige them. And after all, why would they. The rest of the world does not merely exist so as to provide target practices, exotic locales, and robotically scripted OPFORs for American video-game pseudo-John Wayne foreign/imperial policy. [Partially, what I am referencing here is the outcome of a 2002 US military war game carried out against an opponent closely modeled upon Iran … which the Americans managed to lose badly (the first time around, anyway) – total (simulated) casualties of well over twenty thousand men, and pretty much the entirety of the US carrier battle group and amphibious operations vessels. Why this occurred – again, the first time around – was because the OPFOR commander behaved like an intelligent, capable foe rather than a punching-bag. With the end result that the exercise was declared a failure, and ordered to be run again in a manner which had the OPFOR behaving not even as a ‘conventional’ enemy, but a deliberately extra-stupid and incapable one. There’s more to the exercise in question – much more – and at some point I may write up a proper piece upon it; but suffice to say, it demonstrates a historic difficulty on the part of the Americans both with asymmetric opponents, and with casting themselves militarily in a headspace which doesn’t feature them as all-conquering insta-win Designated Protagonists]
It has been said that when one is faced with a heavily rigged, hugely unfair game in which loss is an almost certainty, that sometimes the only ‘winning’ move in such circumstances … is not to play. And that is often pretty useful advice. But not always. Sometimes, the contest, the game, the confrontation, the strife, the struggle, comes for us whether we are capable of evading it or not. And in those regrettably bleak scenarios, it can turn out that the ‘winning move’ – or, at least, the vanishingly small array of moves that are not almost insta-losing ones – is not to simply throw up hands and “not play”. Rather, it is something quite different, yet related. It is not to play their game, but something else of your own devising. Preferably while your self-appointed castigationary opponents are still labouring under the comfortable delusion that you’re still playing (and near-certainly to be losing) by their rules. Or even, better yet, before the game’s ever actually begun in earnest.
This is partially what the great Dr. Hunter S. Thompson was getting at with his spin upon the words of Ecclesiastes –
“He talked about luck and fate and numbers coming up, yet he never ventured a nickel at the casinos because he knew the house had all the percentages. And beneath his pessimism, his bleak conviction that all the machinery was rigged against him, at the bottom of his soul was a faith that he was going to outwit it, that by carefully watching the signs he was going to know when to dodge and be spared. It was fatalism with a loophole, and all you had to do to make it work was never miss a sign. Survival by coordination, as it were. The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but to those who can see it coming and jump aside. Like a frog evading a shillelagh in a midnight marsh.”
It is also the lesson of Lord Major-General Qassem Soleimani. It is the entire point of much of his active existence ever since that young water-carrier managed to survive the horrors of the Western-facilitated Iraqi war against Iran some decades before.
Namely, that the logical and inevitable response to perceiving an onrushing conventional conflict … does not have to be receiving the charge, engaging in it, and accepting as some meagre compensation for the unavoidable ensuing loss a certain measure of gloriful remembrance of heroic last stands and pious martyrdom. But rather, that through skillful action and far-sighted (oft decidedly ‘unconventional’) intervention, the circumstances pertaining to the confrontation can be significantly altered; whether before the first ‘official’ shot has been fired, or while the conflagration has yet commenced in earnest. This can change the course of events to avoid ensnarement in a costly conventional war entirely; or, where such things are less avoidable, provide a significant set of force-multipliers and other contextual advantages that help to ‘level the playing-field’ (and then dig into it considerably for the purposes of entrenchments and ‘nature reserves’, to reference one of the ‘nastier’ surprises the Israelis encountered in Lebanon circa 2006 – a conflict which should, on the basis of past experience, have gone far better for the IDF than it in fact did; hence, no doubt, why Soleimani referenced it directly in his aforementioned reply to Trump).
I’ve attempted to avoid citing the usual cliche (but absolutely true) axioms from Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, etc. in this piece ; but it really is the case that just as warfare is the continuation of politics by other means … so, too, is geopolitics both a continuation and an encapsulation, a preparation, or an alternate expression to warfare carried out via conventional means. In much the same way that the Soviet Union learned from both Hitler and Napoleon’s attempted-invasions, and constructed itself a half-a-continent sized Cordon Sanitaire in Eastern Europe against future Western encroachment or invasion behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ even before the Second World War had concluded, so too has Soleimani’s multilayered and multi-pronged approach built just such a proverbial minefield all across much of Iran’s westerly neighbourhood.
Iraq, whether we are speaking about Iranian-backed militias and other irregular forces, or whether we are looking at the official Iraqi political demands for American troops not to utilize it as a staging post … has been crafted by him to be the diametric opposite to what the Americans had wanted it to be post-Hussein (i.e. an ominously looming American force-projection platform’s housing, producing a corridor of Atlanticist influence and geopolitical alignment running from Turkey as it was at the time down through to Saudi Arabia, keeping Syria isolated, among other things).
The Saudis, meanwhile, who had previously put resources into the American-fronted efforts against Hussein in the twilight years of the 20th century, and who had involved themselves significantly in Afghanistan against the Soviets, in all manner of other pies subsequent wherever Sunni extremism is being served – now have their hands full almost to overflowing attempting to combat the Houthis in Yemen; who have even managed to carry out successful attacks upon Riyadh, and upon key infrastructure targets – as well as granting the ability to the Iranians to shut down the Gulf of Aden shipping-route that lies beyond the Suez Canal [this, in concert with their ability to do likewise on the Persian Gulf, and to carry out quite some efforts in the eastern Mediterranean from the Lebanese coastline north to Turkey, means that the Iranians have a power-projection capacity through almost every viable approach to the Saudi oil-fields, particularly along two of the busiest shipping routes in the modern world … thus granting the Iranians the power to wage an economic front against the West, in the manner of the 1973 Oil embargo, without even requiring the co-operation of much of OPEC to do so]
The Israelis have gone from being near-undisputed rulers of all they can survey and/or range in artillery upon, through to being trepidacious about cross-border incursions into Lebanon; and having to themselves rely upon proxy-forces [funnily enough, the local Al Qaeda affiliate among them) in Syria. Partially due to direct Iranian affiliated groups such as Hezbollah, or even IRGC manpower and hardware; and partially, especially as applies Syria, due to the Iranian securement of Russian intervention (again, identified by various sources as Soleimani’s own doing) which effectively locks down most of the area (as seen, for instance, during the recent Russian further intervention against Turkish territorial-filching in Syria’s Kurdish-heavy North]; and may even render swathes of northern Arabia an effective ‘no-fly zone’ for NATO (the irony) in the case of serious escalation. [The Russian point also matters for another reason – it was not at all that long ago that the USSR sided with the Americans, the Israelis, the Saudis, etc. against the Islamic Republic of Iran. A warm working relationship between Tehran’s agents and Moscow has secured not only a powerful friend, but virtually Iran’s entire northern front thanks to Russian influence and/or looming-ness over its former Republics]
The Americans had also alleged the IRGC had begun operating in strength in Latin America in the last few years as well, although while I do not have strong reason to doubt an Iranian assistance to the Bolivarian government in Venezuela … the notion of Revolutionary Guard cells co-conspiring with cocaine cartels to open an insurgent and high-pow(d)ered ‘southern front’ against the United States, has always struck me as just another “Saddam has a wood-chipper!” style flight of rhetorical fancy on the part of Venezuela and Iran’s mutual detractors about the Neocon-isphere. In much the same way as you occasionally see confused boomers ranting about commu-nazis, it is always appealing to presume that all one’s psychological bete-noirs are actively working together, and within conveniently co-proximate physical space. And besides, the last actually proven interface of the Iranians and cocaine-dealing Latin Americans for military purposes … was authorized by Ronald Reagan.
What does all of this mean? That any American-lead escalation towards full-scale armed conflict with Iran shall be seriously costly indeed. This was partially why Trump’s predecessors showed far more sense when contemplating Soleimani – and pointedly refused to touch him, lest his death trigger uprisings, instability, insurgencies, and all manner of unpredictable, uncontrollable wildfire “Hell Breaking Loose” that would indisputably seriously imperil US and US-aligned interests. This is also why Soleimani kept personally pointing out in response to Trump’s proclamations upon the subject, the evolving Iranian capacities to cause merry asymmetric chaos in key areas which would hurt, such as oil exports and shipping lanes. This wasn’t just for Trump’s benefit on the off-chance that he happened to be listening, but also to remind any number of third party smaller actors of the cost which they, too, would be shouldering in the event of American active-intervention. Who would then, as we are seeing right now, lend their voices and what influence they could bring to bear, to the cause of dissuading any further American-led escalation-ism. A weaponization of other states in service of the Iranian cause, almost regardless of what they actually might think of Iran.
Now to be sure, even despite all of this, there are some prominent weaknesses within the Iranian position. The most obvious of which being called Pakistan and Afghanistan – both of which happen to house American military staging points, both of which happen to have governments that are at least nominally on-side with the Americans, and both of which, entirely ‘coincidentally’, have strong Sunni insurgency movements which occasionally carry out attempted-actions against Iranian targets. The Eastern route into Iran is not hospitable, either – it’s more mountains and a tough logistical slog even before you get to the border, followed by further salt-plains in between more (smaller) mountains all the way to the major population centers in the more western side of the country. It is also something of an open question as to whether Western forces attempting to make use of either or both of Iran’s eastern neighbours as an invasion vector would find a countryside laden with Sunni armed groups to be particularly more accomodating than transversing those approaches to Iran’s west embedded with Iranian-affiliated militias and operatives. Who knows – perhaps Trump’s recent stab at peace-talks with the Taliban will have rather more on the agenda to break bread over this time than at any point since the Reagan Administration’s hosting of their forerunners at the White House in 1983.
But I have gone on for far more than well long enough. The point of the original piece I had drafted and then half-completed in mid-2018, was to demonstrate that Iran was capable of responding to American emanated, sponsored, supported, enabled threats … because in point of fact, it already had been for quite some time. And that, as applies Soleimani Himself, a strikingly significant proportion of this was either his direct doing, or strongly in accordance with his personal strategic vision. Therefore helping to demonstrate that when he had taken Trump to task over the latter’s incendiary “CONSEQUENCES” tweet anti-diplomacy … Soleimani’s responses were not just words (even words in Game of Thrones memetic format), but actual and reasonably plausible statements of Iranian capability and intent.
Events have since then taken on a life and a logic of their own, as is so often the case upon the eve of crises – or, more hopefully, of crises just narrowly, inchingly averted.
Looking back upon what I had thought and what I had written circa a year and a half ago, it is curious to think how much of it ‘remains in place’, ever closer to ultimate, untimely “activation” – even in the conspicuous-via-his final absence state of lacking its grandest insurgent-architect. That is the test of a great man, I suppose – seeing the extent to which his works are capable of surviving him. Or, oddly enough, in this particular case, whether it is precisely his death which causes the construction he wrought to become that much more closer to ‘perfect’ and ‘complete’. It is almost a situation comparable to the words of Talleyrand upon hearing of the death of Metternich (for those unaware, Metternich was significantly responsible for building the post-Napoleon ‘Concert of Europe’ politico-diplomatic order designed to keep said continent ticking over rather than ticking down like a fuse again; and was regarded as a master of plots, plans, designs, intrigues, schemes) – “I wonder what it was he meant by that?” [As in, the feeling that although it could not likely have been, that the nature of the result is almost as if it had been …. intentional, or at the veer-y least, so thought through and integrated as to be a furtherance, another Just As Planned moment, rather than near-catastrophic chance for a derailment].
Yet there is much more urgency, now, to the whole scenario. And not just because we are now in a position wherein the Americans are moving closer and closer to the situation meditated upon by JFK during the course of the Cuban Missile Crisis – that of actions which cannot be taken back, and which instead push the whole edifice over the brink into active, overt warfare. Kennedy had been caused to ponder this ‘tipping point’, and the desirability of behaving with utmost caution the closer one inched towards its precipice not merely because of the then-unfolding crisis in Cuba, but also due to a book he’d been reading upon the outbreak of World War One entitled The Guns of August. He directly ruminated upon what was meant by that – the mobilization plans drawn up by all the Great Powers of the day, and which, once the order had been given to initiate them, could not be stopped or resiled from.
Perhaps one foolhardy drone-strike, one early Friday in January 2020 was just such a similar ‘irrevocable’ order, at least in terms of its rippling agglomeration of the waves of possibility-consequence. Or perhaps, just perhaps, we are still yet to find ourselves well beyond that point (such lines of no return are all too often only to become readily apparent when they are seen darting backwards from us through the rear-view mirror of hindsightful perspicacity).
But in one of life’s more lamentable ironies, I rather strongly suspect that with a single burst of Hellfire late last week, the world actually lost one of the men more consciously and conscientiously committed to avoiding large-scale armed conflict between Iran and the United States. Whether you believe him or not about his purported actions to try and stop the shelling of US facilities in the late 2000s by Iraqi militias, or whether you take at something closer to face value his indisputable keenness to co-operate with the Americans and their allies in Afghanistan some few years earlier … I do not think that Soleimani had anything like the same irrational, irascible urge to topple “the other guy” that various Republican and NeoCon voices in Washington (the former of which have Trump over a bit of a barrel right now via their protecting him from Impeachment) seem ineluctably to harbour about Iran.
Rather, quite the diametric opposite.
He did not want senseless war – neither with the Americans, nor for that matter with anybody else. He’d seen too much of it already as a much younger man. [Although it is important, as a qualifier, to note that his world-view did not hold all war nor all militant expenditure of life to be senseless. Losses, he considered acceptable if regrettable – failure, and the waste of lives (as distinct from their needful expenditure), he did not. One wonders if the John Boltons, and other such ‘hydration technicians’ of bloodshed harbour similar depths of compassionate consideration for their mortal instruments. I somehow doubt it.]
It may, perhaps, be a bit of a stretch to suggest that he wanted peace with the Americans, but there is strong evidence in support of his actively working towards mutually-beneficial co-operation with his latter-day fatal adversary where appropriate and where this could actually be in some measure attained.
Whatever the case on that score, it is inarguable that he was not keen on the idea of a full-scale shooting confrontation with the superpower. If this state of non- (or, at least, significantly less ) conflict could be secured via good-faith interaction, shared purposes in particular areas, and common goals worked towards in earnest … then so much the better. If it had to be pushed towards not via gestures of magnanimity and warmth, but rather through shows of strength and intimidation – the frank communication of just why an intentionally sparked conflict with Iran was not something the Americans should either actively want, nor expect to come out of anything like unscathed .. well, that is the nature of realist relations between powerful and proud states, just as it has been for about as long as ‘diplomacy’ has been an identifiable, practicable thing.
Yet to return to the incidence of Talleyrand and Metternich to which I had but briefly referred to earlier, the present currents of events in and about the Middle East and further afield appear to be producing two general trends.
The first, is that the Americans are isolating and vilifying themselves at a greater pace than they had been before. Certain European countries were already rather heartily sick of the American antics in relation not only to Iran (and the Nuclear deal in specia) but also Russia and the sanctions upon economic engagement with same. Trump posturing about carrying out war-crimes against Iran and just expecting everybody else to go along with it can hardly have helped the cause of trans-Atlantic rapproachment; with the entire situation helping to present the Iranians as far more reasonable either in absolute terms or more especially via relative comparison. It is therefore – although a risky proposition indeed – possible to suggest that the current crisis, if it doesn’t wind up “wiping [at least one country] off the map”, will likely result in a further reduction in relative power position for the United States; something which also, in its own way, has been ongoing as a fairly direct result of its previous bout of mis-entanglements in the Middle East, for the last nearly sixteen years.
The second, is that notwithstanding the possible consolidation of Iranian power position represented by the retreat of their current oppressors (and here I do not simply mean whether the Americans withdraw some or all of their troops from Iraq as the Iraqis have been demanding; but also the Americans losing some measure of their ability to enforce their will upon slash through and via other second-rate countries or blocs), we are about to witness a direct putting into practice of the theories underpinning the Soleimani Doctrine. It has already had numerous ‘field tests’ and stages of progressive refinement – an organic, living thing; calibrated in each instance for its specific terrain and localized opponent.
The fighting faced by the IDF in 2006, which brought them if not to a standstill, then at least to what they themselves branded a “disaster” (and which, not coincidentally, lead to Israeli defence planners worriedly starting to speak about the possibility of Hezbollah seizing entire towns during any presumptive ‘next war’ between them), was an early demonstration. Particularly in terms of its indirect results – the shoring up of a considerable swathe of support inside Lebanon behind Hezbollah as a political force, directly in response to the Israeli military intervention.
The form being employed currently by the Houthis in Yemen is a parallel development rather than a strict ‘upgrade’, for it has somewhat different localized goals: the drawing in and draining of Saudi and Gulf-State attention, financial resources, stomach-for-conflict, and other such things; the occasional lobbing of missiles at Riyadh and key infrastructure, which also helps to demonstrate the hard limits upon modern American ABM technology; and the provision of a staging post from which to launch attacks upon the Gulf of Aden and attendant Suez Canal shipping route, so as to cut off both major Arabic marine approaches and thus impact oil and (more especially in the case of Aden, given just how busy the Suez is) other flows.
Syria was a further success of again, a different kind. It cut off a series of Saudi and Sunni attempted-salients, helped to underpin the Iranian corridor to Lebanon and the Mediterranean, and hugely importantly it directly brought in the Russians, and in partial consequence of this, helped to move the Turks away from being a pretty active adversary to a quieter one who is a warming friend to a friend of theirs, so to speak. The ouster of ISIS et co has also lessened the ability and facility of American troops to remain within Syria, while the perceived abandonment of the Kurds to the Turks helped flip a potential fertile grounds for American support over to, of all things, Iranian amicability.
Previous employments of the “Soleimani Doctrine” in Iraq, as well as further afield such as western Afghanistan, have also featured the long, slow, and drawn-out grinding down of American engagements there via means conventional, unconventional, diplomatic, political, and “ungentlemanly”. The results have been broadly positive for the Iranians … but it can be argued that they have never had to test the ‘full strength’ of insight and of technique which they have mustered, up against a more direct and directly targeted aggressive frontage of the Americans.
So why do I reference once more that open-ended question asked by Talleyrand after the death of Metternich – I wonder what he meant by that?
Because as applies Soleimani, while I do not mean to suggest that his death was deliberate – well, deliberately sought by himself, rather than the Americans, I mean; there is a certain poignancy to the fact that his (final, rather than living) martyrdom is what has apparently been necessary to kick various phases of his long-developed Doctrine into the proverbial “higher gear”.
It would have been difficult for further escalation to have taken place in the absence thereof. Perhaps thankfully for all involved and concerned. But the time for such longed-for alternate-facts theorizing about roads we could have gone down is passed.
Presuming that there shall be no last minute back-down by the Americans (and such a thing is not entirely impossible – the willingness of American military personnel to publicly contradict their President and state that they will not be carrying out certain alleged orders around the striking of Iranian targets and such, is interesting), then there is but one question remaining:
And that is whether the Soleimani Doctrine, having so successfully accomplished for much of this century without requiring active and overt ‘official’ warfare against other powers (Great, Regional, and Otherwise) … shall now manage to perform the other roles expected, nay demanded of it. The dissuasion of further aggression against Iran; the infliction of an undesirably high ‘price tag’ for any such actions which do go ahead against them regardless; and the weakening, countering, even dissipating and riposte-ing back against such American thrusts which may take place even so.
The board is set, the pieces are moving. If all of this goes “according to plan” [Soleimani’s one, I mean – I am not sure that Trump actually has one; and the Boltons of this world appear instead to have drawn up designs for victory parades rather than armoured advances, as a matter of course], then the man himself would probably have two things to say. The first, the observation that in the war business (holy more so than otherwise), “Loss is acceptable; Failure is not”. But second, and as applies the hoped-for eventuation of circumstances more generally, that:
“Death is as nothing compared to Vindication”.