As US President Donald Trump and the “Supreme Leader” of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, raise the pitch of their rhetoric, it is quite easy to underestimate the political constraints on both leaders that limit the pressures for an escalation.
Khamenei has promised “harsh revenge” for the killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani and Trump responded with the threat to bomb 52 Iranian sites, including its precious cultural heritage. While the world gasped at Trump’s threat, he insists that nothing is off-limits if Iran takes another American life.
Khamenei certainly can’t afford to look weak in the face of an unprecedented provocation from Trump. He, however, would certainly not want to lose his head in trying to save his political face. The Supreme Leader will also have to factor in Trump’s unpredictability. Barely 48 hours before Soleimani was killed, Khamenei had dared Trump last week by saying “you can’t do a damn thing”. Trump’s campaign of maximum pressure has put Iran’s economy under great strain and deepened domestic political discontent. While the killing of Soleimani helps Khamenei in the near term to close domestic political ranks, a prolonged war with the US could sharpen the Islamic Republic’s internal contradictions. For Trump, too, the elimination of Soleimani has played well with his political base. But pushing the confrontation too far carries huge risks for Trump’s campaign to retain the White House in the general elections later this year. Like Khamenei, Trump would not want to lose the crown in trying to win a distant war.
Is there some room, then, for de-escalation? US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly emphasised that the Administration’s strategy is to establish deterrence against future threats to Americans and that it is prepared for de-escalation. Meanwhile, Trump has also sent signals of reassurance to Khamenei by affirming that his Administration has no interest in engineering a “regime change” in Tehran. Through the last few years of his presidency, Trump has often talked about a potential deal with Iran’s clerics. And it was Khamenei who spurned Trump’s offer of an unconditional dialogue as unacceptable amidst the pressure of sanctions.
Until now, Khamenei had some success in running a proxy war against the US but a direct confrontation would be suicidal. Triggering self-destruction can’t be a strategy for Tehran. Despite all the talk of a “third world war”, a direct military contest between US and Iran is loaded in America’s favour.
Iran’s leaders are also realists. Recall the decision of Ayatollah Khomenei, the founder of the Islamic Republic, to accept a ceasefire in the prolonged and bloody war with Iraq in 1988 amidst domestic difficulties. Iran’s decision to stop fighting was also influenced by the brutal use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein and the accidental downing of an Iranian airliner by US that killed nearly 290 passengers. Khomeini was convinced that the US was about to destroy his clerical regime. Khomeini’s words on “drinking the poison of peace” are very much part of the Islamic Republic’s political lexicon. More recently, Khamenei accepted quite a humiliating set of terms in concluding a nuclear deal with the Obama Administration. That Trump wants ever harder terms is another story.
Tehran’s first responses to the killing of Soleimani have been measured. One, Iran has resumed uranium enrichment as part of its step-by-step withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement with the international community in response to Trump’s decision to tear it up. Second, it has got its political allies in Iraq to get the parliament in Baghdad to pass a resolution demanding an end to US military presence in Iraq.
The two moves ramp up pressure on US allies and mobilise anti-Americanism in the Middle East. The Europeans are deeply committed to the nuclear agreement. They are eager to contribute to the de-escalation of the current crisis if only to save the nuclear deal. But Trump does not set much store by America’s traditional alliances like NATO. He did not bother to consult the allies in Europe before taking out Soleimani.
The second move feeds into the declared long-term Iranian objective of driving Americans out of the Gulf and brings us to the ultimate irony of the present crisis. During the 2016 campaign and since, Trump has repeatedly affirmed that he would rather bring the American troops home.
Unlike the security establishment in Washington, Trump does not believe the US needs a permanent military presence in the Middle East in the name of “American global leadership”. With the US emerging as a major oil producer and exporter, energy security is no longer a driving force for Trump. For Trump, counter-terrorism is perhaps the only credible reason to sustain a large military footprint in the Middle East. That, arguably, could also be achieved through off-shore military presence.
Trump might not be averse to taking US troops off the ground in the Middle East. But he would like to do it on his own terms. In responding to the non-binding resolution in the Iraqi parliament, Trump threatened Iraq with major sanctions if the US withdrawal is not on friendly terms. Trump is also conscious that not everyone in Iraq wants America to leave the country and cede it to Iranian domination. The minorities in Iraq — the Sunni and Kurdish communities — as well as sections of the majority Shia see US presence as critical in ensuring Iraqi sovereignty vis a vis Iran.
Trump’s radical departure from the conventional US thinking on the Middle East and the deepening of many regional contradictions make the current crisis very different from those we have seen in the past. While there is always the danger of miscalculation by one or more of the actors, it would be unwise to assume they are irrational.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 7, 2020 under the title ‘Realism behind the rhetoric’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express