The killing of General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force in an U.S strike in Iraq on the wee hours of January 3rd 2020 has led to widespread tension amongst the two countries. Qassem Soleimani was one of the most prominent and influential military figures in Iran today. Soleimani was involved in Iranian military activity in many countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan and the Caucasus states, and was considered one of the people closest to Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Once an ordinary construction worker, Qassem Soleimani quickly climbed the Revolutionary Guards’ ranks to become one of Iran’s most prominent military figures. The Trump administration has characterized its strike on Suleimani as an act of self-defense, saying that the commander was planning imminent attacks against dozens and possibly hundreds of Americans. But following classified briefings on Capitol Hill, numerous lawmakers from both parties claimed that the administration had failed to present direct evidence of an “imminent threat,” even when they asked repeatedly and directly.
The strike on Suleimani came in the midst of escalating hostilities between American forces and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. Following the strike on Suleimani, the U.S. sent a letter to the U.N. Security Council, saying that the U.S. had “undertaken certain actions in the exercises of its inherent right of self-defense,” and that the actions “include” the operation to kill Suleimani, leaving open the possibility that the U.S. conducted other strikes that night. However, killing Suleimani has united Iranians like never before. Even among reformers, the fallen general was seen as a hero who stayed out of domestic politics. Grief and anger seized Iranians after the U.S. killing of the General resulting in enormous numbers of people taking to the streets in cities across the country to commemorate him. It was a passionate outcry in favor of a figure whom American media described as “the world’s No. 1 bad guy.” But while Suleimani was a bogeyman for the United States, within Iran he was seen as both a heroic figure and politically far more neutral than he has sometimes been painted. He walked a careful line between moderates and hard-liners, avoiding domestic political fights and allowing others to project onto him their own visions of Iran’s future. Some Americans have recognized this. In the BBC documentary Shadow Commander: Iran’s Military Mastermind, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the special operations chief during George W. Bush’s presidency, says, “I don’t think we should view him as an evil person. I think we should view him just like I believe in my country. I think Qassem Suleimani believes in his country.”
The current crisis in West Asia hangs by a fine balance —and held by the stability of oil prices. That alone makes it possible for several countries like India to hold their nerve for the time being. But will that continue to be the case? The US, as of now, seems to be indicating that it will ensure that it will remain this way. After the initial shock, the prices have held, much to the relief of big importers like India, Japan and South Korea. The Iranian military response has not moved the price needle either. This is quite unlike the first Gulf War, which saw prices spike by about $15 between August and October 1990. Even in 2003, prices rose quite sharply compared to the recent trend. The big change has been the emergence of the US as a major oil producer. Indian oil imports from the US have quadrupled over the last couple of years. Conventional economic wisdom would suggest that in such a scenario, US companies only stand to benefit if there’s a surge in prices. But then, the price of oil has always been a political question, just as has been its rate of production. As for Iran, the battle is truly regional. In West Asia, regardless of political differences, the consensus around oil has usually been largely on the basis of mutual recognition of the high stakes involved. If there’s a country that can be potentially disruptive or unpredictable, it’s Iran. The political urge to harness Shia power spread across Iran, Iraq and in other West Asian countries can be a security threat to the region, which is where the US tilts the balance.
India, for its part, will have to reconcile Iranian regional ambitions with a repackaged US idea of global power. And in doing so, it would have to take into account that 65% of its crude comes via the Iran-controlled Strait of Hormuz and about 20-22% of its crude is sourced from Iraq — not to forget the Chabahar project connecting India to Afghanistan via Iran. The truth is, it’s a new fight on a familiar old oil-spilled mosaic, with better technology and weapons to revive historical notions of power in a region where India has to be in business with all, at the cost of none. The fact that Trump spoke at length over US’ oil self- sufficiency during his address over the Iran imbroglio points to the preponderance of oil in the strategic calculus. By eliminating Iranian oil from world markets and rendering Iraqi oil uncertain, the US along with Russia and OPEC are the biggest beneficiaries. To make matters worse, Iran has painted itself into a corner with the downing of Ukrainian airliner and is unlikely to be let off easily. Five nations whose citizens died when the Ukrainian airliner was shot down will meet in London on Thursday to discuss possible legal action, Ukraine’s foreign minister told Reuters news agency. Speaking at the sidelines of an official visit to Singapore, Vadym Prystaiko said the countries would also discuss compensation and the investigation into the incident. In all this, we in India will be collateral casualties. The disruption of oil supplies and possibly large-scale destruction in the region will have a direct impact on our economy. India has to tread carefully and one option worth considering is to offer mediation between US and Iran.