USA - Iran: Retaliation Diplomacy

The events of January 8, when attacks were launched on two American bases in Iraq, were the latest step in the escalation of the conflict between Iran and the United States. However, the Americans did not launch a quick retaliatory strike, and this gives hope that the situation will not get out of control. Nevertheless, in the next couple of days it is worth watching how the Americans behave in Iraq. There are two options: either they will sharply activate the evacuation of their bases, or vice versa – they will begin to strengthen them. In the latter case, the chances of an escalation of the conflict with a harsh American response will increase, writes Oleg Barabanov, programme director of the Valdai Discussion Club.

The attacks on US bases in Iraq in response to the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds special force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, were Iran’s most calculated reaction: it’s close, it’s within the reach of Iranian missiles.

Aside from those in Iraq, the closest American bases to Iran are in Qatar and in Turkey. But Iran has particularly constructive relations with these two countries. Iran’s main adversary in the Islamic world is Saudi Arabia, with the United Arab Emirates supporting it, which are in a confrontation with Qatar. Between them, there is a serious proxy war, which we are now witnessing in Libya. Qatar is working closely with Iran. There was information, that after the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, the Qataris got in touch with the Iranians, probably in order to convince the Iranians not to strike back at the American base in Qatar. A number of Iranian statements said that if the Americans inflict a new blow on Iran, the allies will suffer, but, naturally, Qatar and Turkey weren’t named, whereas Israel and the Emirates were. There is an American air base in the Emirates near Abu Dhabi. Therefore, most likely, the next goal of Iran will not be Qatar, but the Emirates. But if this happens, it will blow up the region as a whole.

The crash of the Ukrainian Boeing 737 passenger plane in Tehran in this context could also turn the situation in an unpleasant direction. While there is  conflicting data, messages have appeared in the social media that cast doubt on the official explanation of the crash, which is that there was a fire in the engine. The authors point to the holes in the wing and fuselage, which may be the result of damaging elements from an explosion. The version of the story which has gained traction is that the crash of the Ukrainian plane did not occur for an internal technical reason, but was the result of a mysterious rocket attack. And if this version of the story isn’t officially confirmed, it will only sustain the popularity of the theory. The crash could have huge psychological significance in possible further pressure on Iran, especially from the American side.

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Chinese issue

After the assassination of General Soleimani, the media started talking about the fact that he was almost a Chinese agent of influence. It is hard to say how objective this information was. Foreign analytical materials presume that after the death of Soleimani, China lost its key driver in this region, and now China’s position there is slated to be significantly weakened.

Recently, anti-Chinese sentiment has begun to gain traction in the Muslim world, which is related to the issue of the oppression of Muslims in East Turkestan and in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The position of many Muslim countries is still quite restrained, since no one wants to openly quarrel with China. In the context of the Belt and Road project, many countries are connected with China by mutually beneficial projects and do not want to imperil them. At the same time, signals from Islamic NGOs are aimed at exerting severe pressure on China in connection with the violation of human rights in Xinjiang.

Assuming that China takes a pronounced pro-Iranian position and the conflict escalates, opposition from Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and other Sunni Islamic countries due to an alleged or real violation of human rights in Xinjiang could be transformed into a fierce campaign of pressure against China, which in fact Washington and Donald Trump need. That is, if China dares to actively intervene in this conflict now, then it can receive a very unpleasant retaliation, since its Xinjiang flank is a weak link.

Russian diplomacy

Russia is playing an active diplomatic game from all angles in the Middle East region. If we talk about the further development of events, it is worth emphasising that not a single party is interested in a serious escalation of the conflict. This is despite the fact that it is clear that the armed forces of Iran are weaker than the armed forces of the United States and its allies, and if an open war begins, then the result will be more likely negative for Iran.

To keep this conflict from sliding into a big war, we will need serious preventative work and Russian diplomacy. Hints about an objective interest in the negotiating position of Russia were made by both the European Union and the US President. The task is difficult, but it is an opportunity to strengthen the peacekeeping positions of Russian diplomacy.

In addition to Iran, the conflict in Libya recently witnessed a new development: Turkish President Erdogan has decided to send troops there. As mentioned above, Libya is the site of a proxy war between Qatar and the Emirates. Qatar supports the government of Fayez al-Sarraj, while the Emirates and Saudi Arabia support the army of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Turkey, of course, stands with its partner, Qatar, and will support the government of al-Sarraj. With the Turks joining the conflict, the proxy war, which has already increased the polarisation of the three leading Arab countries of the Gulf, could spread to other countries.

And here the Russian diplomacy faces a serious task: to align the positions of the two warring factions. It is important to find a point that can fix a ceasefire, while all parties to the conflict, including the Turks, have to save face. This is very important, since the East is the East – no one should feel like a complete loser or deceived. Until now, Russia could find this delicate balance: on the one hand. Moscow has maintained and developed constructive relations with the Emirates and Saudi Arabia; on the other, Russia has closely communicated with Turkey, Iran, and Qatar.

In this situation, Russia has new opportunities to resolve the Libyan conflict. The country is pursuing a neutral and fairly clear line; that is aimed at a constructive dialogue between all parties in the Libyan conflict. And here the possibilities of Russian diplomacy, both official and unofficial, including through Islamic regional channels, are quite large. The discussion of problems can lead to real diplomatic solutions.
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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.