By Punsara Amarasinghe
The killing of Iranian leader of famous Quds force Gen.Qasem Soleimani in Bagdad seems to have made an apocalyptic move in the beginning of this new decade as some critics have already viewed this incident similar to the the assassination of Austrian crown prince Duke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo which paved the path to the First World War in 1914. Perhaps, the assumption could be an exaggeration with the balance of power in the world in early 20th century and now, but certainly the aftermath consequences of death of Soleimani could escalate severe political turmoil that might lead to a grave crisis.
The deteriorating relations between Iran and the US in past months have clearly suggested that the killing of Soleimani was not entirely an abrupt situation, but a culminating act of a serious of disturbing events between the two countries. The statement issued by Iranian supreme leader vowing to revenge indicates the wounded pride of a nation, yet the it is disputable whether Iran would retaliate without concerning the strength of the US war machinery that could bring catastrophic effects to the whole country. However, it is a fact beyond doubt, Iran is a regional power with a strong war machinery which has been trained for any military encounter for years and this military and technological sophistication have made Iran a unique example from any country that the US had gone to war since the end of Second World War. But, it seems to indicate that Iran is likely to choose asymmetrical escalation through using proxies or small group attack on American targets to deter Washington.
On the other hand, the main assumption that has fascinated many armchair critics is that Russia will unconditionally assist Iran in any military campaign against the USA. This argument can be bolstered by examining the political affinity between Teheran and Moscow in the recent past. In particular, when Iran was threatened by Trump in last May, it was Moscow who made an official statement in supporting Teheran and also Russia is clearly aware of the importance of keeping Iranian regime without allowing external forces to cripple it, because Iranian stability is a paramount factor of deterring the US and its involvement in the middle east. More importantly both Moscow and Tehran have strengthened their ties for common cause of protecting Assad’s regime in Syria. Furthermore, Russia’s recent involvement in global politics from its relative passivism during Yeltsin’s era have given a signal to its ultimate ambition becoming a global player. This agenda was brought by president Putin in 2007 in his Munich speech showing his antipathy over a “unipolar” world, in other words his denial of US domination in word politics.
The audacious conduct of Iran and its military mechanism as a strong state is Russia’s major knight in the Middle East that Moscow does not want to lose. In fact, it was just several days before the killing of Soleimani Iranian, Russian and Chinese naval forces conducted a joint naval exercise in Gulf of Oman. Also deceased general Soleimani was regarded by Moscow as an astute strategist who played a cardinal role in making Russian military presence when Syrian army was in a decaying stage in 2015. Russia’s air strikes finally changed the game and Soleimani made one more visit to Moscow in 2017, this reportedly was to discuss Russia’s bilateral cooperation with Sunni monarchies in Persian Gulf. This background is a good evidence to suggest the dismay of Iranian general to a major blow to Moscow as a loss of a shrewd strategic thinker who could have been further used as a proxy for Russian involvement in the middle east.
However, still it is bit of a hyperbolic assumption to think that Moscow would directly lead her armies to support Iran or encouraging such a military confrontation between the US and Iran. Regardless Moscow has been vociferous in criticising the macho gesture of Trump administration for killing Soleimani, so far it has maintained its silence of what Russia will really do about it. Unconditional military pact with Tehran seems to be a fancy idea to revive old Soviet super power status as how it protected Cuba, yet the political reality piercing Moscow is something bitter. It convinces that any military confrontation Teheran world launch against the US will be devastating blow that would simply weaken the Iranian regime and this will lead to undermine Iran’s role in supporting Assad’s regime.
Furthermore, the rapport built by Moscow in the Middle East with Iranian rivals such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and even Israel can be come adversaries again leading to an unmitigated disaster of Putin’s grand strategy of keeping ties with American allies in the middle east. These circumstances will create twilight scenario to assess any possible moves by Moscow. Another notable factor emerged after the death of Soleimani is the rapid increase of the oil price as the price of a barrel jumped from 2 US dollars to 69 US dollars and being one of prime oil producers this situation has created a sudden financial benefit for Russia. All in all, Russia’s next move would not definitely be a blatant military assistance to Teheran as a brother in arms. But, Russia is likely to play a key role through its diplomatic means to impede any crisis that would be detrimental to its ally Iran.
Punsara Amarasinghe is a PhD researcher at institute of law and politics, Scuola Superiore Sant Anna in Pisa, Italy. He holds LL.M in International Law from South Asian University, New Delhi and completed one year fellowship at faculty of law, Higher School of Economics in Moscow.