Suleimani assassination will continue to echo – inside Iran and beyond
It is too early to say what will be the long-term impact of President Donald Trump’s dramatic decision to assassinate Major-General Qassem Suleimani of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. But Tehran’s belated admission that it was indeed responsible for the downing of a Ukrainian passenger aircraft, and the deaths of the 176 people who were on board, may turn out to be some kind of historic turning-point.
Nearly three days elapsed between the first reports of the crash, close to Imam Khomeini International Airport, and the announcement that Flight 752 had in fact been targeted by IRGC air defence personnel who feared it was a US cruise missile. That followed Iranian strikes against two US bases in Iraq in retaliation for the Suleimani killing. No American or Iraqi personnel were injured and little damage was done.
Iran’s response was cautious. Initial claims that 80 US servicemen had died on the bases were untrue – and clearly intended for internal consumption. In terms of international public opinion Tehran was helped by Trump’s extraordinary threat to attack its “cultural heritage” - which, as was widely pointed out – would be a crime under international law.
Pundits who assessed that Suleimani’s death was a “Franz Ferdinand moment” – a reference to the Sarajevo assassination of 1914 that marked the start of the first world war – looked embarrassingly wrong. Iran’s measured, almost symbolic retaliation, which was communicated in advance to the Iraqi government, seemed carefully calibrated. It was a clear sign that, already facing crippling US sanctions and serious internal unrest, it did not want to go to war with the greatest power on earth.
Tehran’s categorical denial that it was responsible for the disaster of Flight 752 was, however, extremely damaging. The eventual finding that it was caused by “human error” was described by President Hassan Rouhani as an “unforgiveable mistake” – fuelling speculation that his language may have been aimed as much at IRGC hardliners as a way of appeasing a horrified international community.
Several warning signs appeared – both domestic and international. Amir-Kabir University in Tehran saw protests against the IRGC where students deliberately avoided ritually stepping on American and Israeli flags. Iranians took to social media to ask why the Ukrainian plane had been allowed to take off at a time of heightened tension. That seriously undermined the official narrative suggesting that patriotic Iranians were united in response to Suleimani’s death.
For one Iranian intellectual, this was the “Chernobyl moment” of the Islamic Republic. “The tragic incident itself and the lies and deception were all clear signs of incompetence.” Going forward, predicted Bijan Khajehpour, “either there will be significant structural and governance reforms or the regime will collapse.”
Abroad, the admission of responsibility was welcomed as the right thing to have done, though Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, was criticized for having still implied that “US adventurism” was to blame. Ukraine, Canada and Germany called for an international investigation into the crash and the payment of compensation to the families of the victims – 82 Iranians, Canadians and others.
On a cautiously optimistic note Iran’s confession may open up the way for a wider dialogue, promoted by Europeans, that could ensure the survival of the 2015 nuclear agreement and ease US sanctions. Still, the arrest of the British ambassador to Tehran – at a vigil for the victims of the disaster that turned into an anti-regime protest – did not augur well.
The UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, warned that Iran was at a “crossroads moment” where it could “continue its march towards pariah status with all the political and economic isolation that entails, or take steps to de-escalate tensions and engage in a diplomatic path forwards.”
In Arab countries where forces under Suleimani’s command were deployed, reactions to his death were largely positive. Independent observers saw him correctly as the spearhead of the Iranian state who was personally complicit in supporting Bashar al-Assad in Syria and serving as the patron of Iraqi Shia militias that fed the Sunni radicalism and resentment from which Isis benefited.
It still seems unlikely that Trump authorized Suleimani’s killing as a part of a wider strategy. But it makes sense to assume that the threat to the US embassy in Baghdad reminded him of the 1979 Tehran hostage crisis and the assault on US consulate in Benghazi in 2012.
Of course it remains to be seen whether Iran will retaliate against US or allied targets in future, though the repercussions of the Ukrainian plane tragedy will make it harder to do that. On balance the president’s decision may have added, albeit inadvertently, to his long-standing policy of “maximum pressure.” In the words of Ryan Crocker, a former US ambassador to Iraq: “Qassem Suleimani was many things, almost a unique individual. Nobody is irreplaceable, we all say, but he may be pretty close.”