by Yusuf Dhia-Allah (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 48, No. 12, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1441)
The January 8 early morning (Iraqi time) Iranian missile strikes on two US military bases in Iraq were not meant to cause mass casualties. This is what the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Aerospace force, Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, said on January 9. He also revealed that Iran had prepared several hundred more missiles for launch in the event of an American attack. He went on to say that had Iran intended to kill American forces, “it could have planned high casualty operations to kill 500 US military men in the first step and 4,000 to 5,000 others in the second and third phases within 48 hours.”
It seems Washington got the message. Despite his bombastic rhetoric, Donald Trump was made to climb down. His officials — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Mark Esper — could not offer any convincing explanation to their own media outlets about why the US assassinated Quds Force commander General Qassem Soleimani. They continued to indulge in verbal gymnastics about the general planning “imminent attacks” on US embassies but could offer no proof for their assertions.
Iran’s messages delivered through missiles were also meant for different players. The first message was directed at the US in retaliation for the assassination of General Soleimani. Two missiles fired from a US drone had killed Iran’s top commander at Baghdad International Airport in the early hours of January 3. By firing missiles at the ‘Ayn al-Asad base as well as Irbil airport in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran conveyed to the US that their forces were not safe from its missile strikes anywhere in the region.
Iran’s other message was directed at its neighbours in the Persian Gulf: the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia. All host American forces. Tehran made clear that if their bases were used for carrying out aggression against Iran, then there would be serious consequences.
The Arabian rulers seemed to have received Tehran’s message with stunning clarity. The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash immediately issued a statement calling for “de-escalation.” Saudi Arabia dispatched its deputy defence minister Khalid bin Salman (the younger brother of crown prince Muhammad bin Salman) to Washington to urge restraint. He met both Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner.
It is interesting to note that Saudi Arabia and the UAE together with Zionist Israel were in the forefront of urging the US to attack Iran. So what forced the Arabian rulers to suddenly become peaceniks? Their new-found enthusiasm for “peace” in the region is not the result of a change of heart but the realization that should war between Iran and the US break out, their glass towers will come crumbling down and their oil fields will go up in smoke. If the US despite its massive arsenal and deployment of tens of thousands of troops in the region was not prepared to take on Iran, what chance would the Arabian potentates and their pleasure-loving armies have against Islamic Iran?
Of all the states in the Persian Gulf region, Qatar adopted the most conciliatory stance. It dispatched Foreign Minister Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Thani to Tehran to offer his government’s condolences over the assassination of General Soleimani. Then, on January 12, Qatar’s Amir, Shaykh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani himself went to Iran to meet Iranian officials including Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei. He held wide-ranging talks with Iranian officials on strengthening economic ties. Shaikh Tamim also said “Qatar believes that comprehensive dialog should be held among regional countries,” to enhance security in the region. He emphasized that his country attaches importance to cooperation with Iran as an influential player in the region, pointing out that any security coordination among regional countries will be of no avail in the absence of the Islamic Republic.
It must be borne in mind that Qatar’s al-Udaid base is used by the US air force, the largest base in the region. Saudi Arabia and its regional allies Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt have blockaded Qatar since June 2017 soon after Trump’s visit to Riyadh the previous month. But for immediate help from Iran and Turkey, Qatar would have been on the verge of starvation. Since that time, Doha has pursued a policy independent of its overbearing Saudi neighbor. Recent developments have vindicated Qatar’s position.
Iran’s standing up to the US has also put paid to the idea of an “Arab NATO.” While never a serious proposition since it was based on hiring troops from other countries, notably Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Egypt, the fact that the US could not defend its own military bases in the region drove home the point to Arabian potentates that they were vulnerable. This had already been demonstrated in June 2019 when Iran shot down an intruding US drone over its territory. Then on September 14, Yemen’s revolutionary forces struck Saudi Aramco’s plants at Abqaiq and Khurais temporarily disabling them with drone strikes. American-made Patriot missile batteries costing $1 billion a piece, were unable to intercept drones costing merely $15,000. If the Saudis did not get the message then, recent developments have finally brought home the point of how vulnerable they are.
Iran, however, is not wielding only the stick. It has offered the carrot to its regional neighbors in the form of the Hormuz Peace Endeavor with the appealing acronym HOPE. Even during heightened tensions with the US, Iran’s foreign ministry held a conference of diplomats to discuss the HOPE proposal. It got an enthusiastic reception from senior officials from Iraq, Qatar, Oman, Pakistan, and China.
As the US military is forced to wind down its operations in the region, a new regional security arrangement is beginning to take shape in the form of HOPE. Always thinking in collective terms, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has repeatedly stressed that no one state in the region should think it can buy its own security. Security of one state can only be obtained by the security of its neighbour.
The US may have killed Iran’s top military commander but it has lost the entire region in the process. Even its closest Arabian allies have realized that the US is an unreliable “protector.” It was foolish to have reposed such trust in the US but if they have understood this even at the eleventh hour, it is a good sign.