Katyusha. An old Soviet missile system, part of the massed artillery strategy during the Second World War, was the weapon of choice for Iran backed Shia militia to respond to the grave provocation by the Americans. Uncle Sam had just taken out Major General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike. The bonus was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis; leader of the Iran backed Popular Mobilization Forces, also dead.
In today’s day and age, you don’t use a 1941 Katyusha to harm. You use it to send a message. President Trump was waiting for that message. How he will respond is anyone’s guess but he is clear that 52 Iranian targets have been identified. If Iran chooses to respond, America will unleash the dogs of war. Dramatic? That’s exactly how Trump likes his day.
It is clear, even to the most benighted that Trump, caught in between an ugly impeachment following years of showdowns with the Democrats and the Iranian leadership of Khamenei and Hassan Rouhani dealing with years of massive unrest on the streets of Iran, would be looking at this synthetic conflagration as godsend. Provocative Tweets in US. Red flags on mosques in Iran. Both have ensured that in times of crisis, questioning the national leadership is tantamount to treason. Iranians have already rallied behind their leaders.
Trump is still smarting from his North Korean adventure. In spite of nuclear threats, Kim Jong Un did not blink. When Iran downed a US drone, Trump had no answer. This, amongst many other things, led Trump to sanction the killing of Soleimani. There is no secret sauce in this conflict. It is largely about how Trump sees himself; a ruthless negotiator and a tough guy. That he is being impeached does help.
Iran and the US have had no formal diplomatic relations from 1980 onwards. Before the 1979 revolution, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s regime was perhaps America’s closest ally. There could be many reasons why this relationship cooled off to the present freezing point. Iran’s post-1979 Shia Muslim clergy saw America as the Great Satan. To establish its still untested credentials with the Iranian masses, an external bogeyman was created. There are many other theories. From 1980-1988, Iran and Iraq were at war. Iran, overwhelmingly Shia and Iraq, a Sunni led Shia majority nation, inflicted horrendous casualties upon each other.
Saddam Hussain, the President of Iraq, was a Sunni in a nation that was sixty-five percent Shia. His army was equipped by America. Iran, on the other hand, tried to get Iraqi Shia soldiers to revolt. Eight years and a million dead and displaced later, there were no victors. But Iran’s hatred for America had been institutionalized.
Qassem Soleimani is a hero to Shias across the world. From Kashmiri students to African taxi drivers in London, Shias see him as a hero. He broke the back of the ISIS, they say proudly. Also true is that Soleimani was directly and indirectly responsible for planning and executing terror attacks that killed Americans. Some have called him a bigger threat than Osama bin Laden.
Iran may not go head-to-head with the US on this one. America is simply too powerful. Red flags on mosques are a great rallying point, but a B-52 sortie is the more compelling argument. With Iran not having any known nuclear capabilities, the US could push the envelope further. And this leaves India in a quandary. That we have major investments in Chabahar Port is well known. Lesser known is the fact that the Indian Air Force operates a base in Farkhor, Tajikistan. And, Tajikistan is land-locked.
The North Korean miscalculation forced Trump to understand the unique Eastern obsession with ‘face’. If you back down, you lose respect. Trump will not back down. In the remote chance that he does, he will find it almost impossible to recover. The Iranians are watching. They will play the long game. They will get their proxies to attack US assets and personnel, thus playing the deniability card. The world understands that Iran doesn’t have to attack the US mainland. Any US embassy is deemed to be US soil. That is what just happened yesterday in the Green Zone in Baghdad.
It’s not Armageddon, but our neighborhood just got a lot more interesting.