For weeks, survivors would later recall, the bodies lay littered on the streets: some were machine-gunned at point-blank range or blown apart by grenades casually tossed at their feet; others’ throats bore the marks of the executioner’s traditional tools. In August, 1998, the Taliban rolled into the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif, and began a savage massacre of the city’s ethnic Hazaras, Shi’a by faith, unbelievers to the victors. Perhaps 6,000 were killed.
No one in the West cared. In 1996, the United States of America had begun engaging the Taliban on an ambitious project to link central Asia’s gas to the Indian Ocean. Late in 1996, diplomat Robin Raphel called on the international community to “engage the Taliban”.
The next year, Afghanistan foreign minister Mullah Muhammad Ghaus was hosted by energy giant Unocal’s headquarters in Sugarland, Texas; their itinerary included supermarkets, museums, and the local zoo.
Eight Iranian diplomats, and a journalist, were among the dead at Mazar-i-Sharif, though, and Tehran did care. General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Council, massed a quarter of a million troops on the border. “Give us permission for the punishment of the Taliban”, he petitioned Iran’s then supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “to advance to Herat; annihilate, punish, eliminate them and return”.
But one military commander disagreed: rage, he argued, held only the prospect of inferior kinds of vengeance. Major General Qassem Soleimani, assassinated by the United States on Friday, instead advocated working with allies and proxies to bleed the Taliban slowly, a strategy that, in coming decades, became Iran regime’s blueprint for survival.
The death of that one man marks a moment of decisive confrontation between the United States and Iran with enormous consequences for the region, and the world.
In New Delhi, the prospect of a United States-Iran confrontation disrupting global energy is causing alarm: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has sailed forth on a sea of cheap oil. From $113 a barrel when the prime minister took office in May 2014, prices fell to just $50 by January 2015. In spite of efforts by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries to tighten supply, they’ve stayed low, in part, because of the United States’ gargantuan shale oil reserves coming online.
Expert estimates tell us exactly what Soleimani’s assassination could mean in hard cash: A $10 per barrel rise in the price of crude oil translates into a 0.2 percentage point cut in Gross Domestic Product, and widens the current account deficit by 0.4% of GDP.
The story of how Iran and the United States came to this point, and where things could now head, began the day of carnage in Mazar-i-Sharif.
In 1998, as India joined the arc of nation-states waging the great secret war against the Taliban, Indian diplomats and intelligence officials saw Soleimani’s imprint everywhere. The Northern Alliance of warlord Ahmad Shah Masood received funding and weapons from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, just as it did from India and Russia. Bar a single meeting with a senior Indian diplomat, Soleimani maintained his distance, instead using emissaries in Iran’s intelligence services to speak on his behalf when needed.
India’s Research and Analysis Wing, sources familiar with the issue said, at one stage proposed a meeting in a neutral country to coordinate supplies, but the idea fell through for fear of the meeting becoming public and irking the United States.
To India’s Afghan allies, though, Soleimani emerged as a key tactical mentor. Known to his adoring rank and file as “the Goat Thief” for his skills in cross-border operations during the Iran-Iraq war, Soleimani was willing to put himself in harm’s way.
“There was one time he spent three days on the ground in Mazar-i-Sharif personally”, one official recalled, travelling to combat zones with the ethnic Hazara leader Muhammad Muhaqiq. “We thought he was crazy, exposing his presence. That was not our culture”.
In the wake of 9/11, and the eviction of the Taliban, Soleimani was key to efforts to seek normalisation with the United States. The two countries’ relationship had ruptured in 1979, when revolutionary Islamists took diplomats at the United States embassy in Tehran hostage. Iran provided military intelligence on the Taliban to the United States, and operated aggressively against Al-Qaeda.
Facilitated by Swiss diplomats, this effort at normalisation showed real promise: the two countries’ interests, after all, neatly coincided on almost everything of significance, from containing jihadists operating in West Asia to the security of energy-shipping routes in the Persian Gulf.
Israel and Washington, though, just weren’t willing to make peace with a power that challenged the Saudi Arabia-led order in the Gulf. In 2002, then president George W Bush branded Iran part of an “Axis of Evil” that had to be overthrown.
Faced with the prospect that Iran could be targeted for regime change like former Saddam Husain’s Iraq, Soleimani drew on the lessons learned in Afghanistan. From 2003 to 2011, Shi’a insurgents in Iraq staged hundreds of attacks on American troops, tying them down in an un-winnable urban war. In addition, Iran allowed Al-Qaeda jihadists to transit to Syria from where they set up bases to target United States operations in Iraq.
Iran also played a key role in saving President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and stuck a knife in Saudi Arabia’s hopes of controlling Yemen’s future. Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanon-based client, also received enhanced support.
Following a visit to Lebanon in 2006, during which time bombings in Iraq fell sharply, Soleimani is reported to have sent a mocking text message to United States commanders in Baghdad: “I hope you have been enjoying the peace and quiet in Baghdad. I’ve been busy in Beirut!”
Terror was a key part of Soleimani’s arsenal, though, in fairness, he wasn’t the only actor engaged in that particular business. Tehran’s 2012 terrorist attacks on Israeli diplomats in New Delhi, and similar attacks in Georgia and Thailand, for example, were retaliation for the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.
Indeed, Iran’s actions have been pragmatic, not ideological: it has backed largely-Christian Armenia, rather than Shi’a-inhabited Azerbaijan, to thwart nationalist tendencies among its ethnic-Azeri minorities; supported Sunni-dominated Hamas in Palestine; and carefully avoided stoking Islamism in neighbouring central Asian states, wary of the consequences of its relationship with Russia.
The critical bend in the road came in 2015, when the then US president Barack Obama agreed to lift sanctions against Iran in return for Tehran agreeing to stringent, internationally-monitored limitations on its civilian nuclear programme designed to ensure it could not develop nuclear weapons to threaten its neighbours. Iran kept its end of the deal, but Israel and Saudi Arabia became increasingly worried by the country’s drive to enhance its conventional military capabilities.
President Trump, in the face of protests from his European allies, walked out of the nuclear deal, compelling evidence, for Iran’s leadership, that the United States was bent on regime change, irrespective of its conduct.
Tehran moved rapidly to find new strategic allies, key among them China. From 2014 to 2018, Chinese companies invested $2.3 billion in Iran, up from the meagre $110 million pumped in from 1996 to 2015, Iranian government figures state. The State-owned investment arm, China International Trust Investment Corporation, has established a $10 billion credit line for Iran, while the China Development Bank is put $15 billion more on the table.
From the expansion of the Tehran Metro, and the construction of high-speed railway lines to the eastern city of Mashhad and the Gulf port of Bushehr, Beijing’s presence is everywhere in Iran today.
Tehran also consolidated its relationship with Russia, making extensive weapons purchases from that country, and working with it to shore up al-Assad’s government in Syria.
Iran’s survival strategy, though, doesn’t rest on superpower patronage. Tehran knows it will be annihilated in in a conventional confrontation with the United States, but has acquired the capacities not to go down with imposing catastrophic costs. In 2018, the United States acknowledged that Iran had “the largest ballistic missile force in the Middle East”. Those missiles can hit targets up to 2,000 kilometres away, across Saudi Arabia and even Turkey.
The United States responded, through sales of its Patriot PAC3 and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems, to build a Gulf Cooperation Council-wide missile defence system. But Iran served notice in September 2019 that those defences could be penetrated: drone-borne explosive devices forced the heavily-defended Saudi Aramco oil facilities at Abqaiq to shut down for weeks, impacting the entire global energy chain.
Now, Iran knows it has reached a moment of decision: President Trump has drawn a line in the sand, and dared the country to cross it. Iran knows large-scale violence — like the use of missiles against Saudi Arabia — will invite reprisals on a scale that could obliterate the regime. Failing to respond, however, will erode the credibility of the threats that underpin the regime’s survival.
In Tehran, somewhere, retribution is almost certainly being planned, because from the regime’s optic, there is no choice. That retribution, though, will be carefully calibrated and then served up ice-cold.
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Updated Date: Jan 03, 2020 22:13:41 IST