This article was originally published in The Australian Financial Review on 10 January 2020.
By Kevin Rudd
The world has spent much of the last week holding its breath following the Trump administration’s assassination of Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force, the external wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. For close observers of the region, it was arguably the most significant development since the foolhardy decision of the Bush administration, backed by Australia under John Howard, to invade Iraq in 2003.
Iran is among the most powerful states in the wider Middle East. Its population, military and economy are sizeable, even despite sanctions. It has a broad suite of cyber capabilities, commands terrorist organisations with global reach such as Hezbollah, and, since Donald Trump’s cancellation of the Iran nuclear deal, has a serious nuclear weapons program.
By taking out Iran’s single most celebrated military leader, the US President has dared Tehran to strike back, at the risk of triggering a wider regional war. And by doing so, Trump has gone where none of his predecessors dared to go. For those who think the initial, muted round of Iranian counter-strikes will be the end of the matter, think again. Iran doesn’t often behave that way.
There should be no illusions that Iran is an innocent party in any of this. The Iranian regime has considered America a mortal enemy since before it seized hostages at the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979. It has ruthlessly deployed paramilitaries in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen for years. And most recently, it launched an unprovoked attack on Saudi oil refineries.
But few serious analysts have argued that the decapitation of the Iranian military leadership represents a rational, proportionate response to Iran’s most recent provocations. The US Secretary of State argues this strike was to pre-empt further Iranian attacks. If so, the international community needs to see the evidence. So far there has been nothing.
I will let the American commentariat speculate on Trump’s political motivations here, coming as the action does in the middle of an impeachment crisis and immediately after the release of potentially incriminating new documents on the Ukraine affair. Whatever his intentions, he is unlikely to appreciate the full consequences of his actions.
So, how did we get to this point? The most critical strategic upheaval in the region this century was the 2003 invasion of Iraq, because it effectively delivered that country into Iran’s sphere of influence. Iraq’s secular dictator Saddam Hussein had until then either been at war with Iran or abiding by a volatile truce. After he was toppled, the the Shiite regime in Tehran co-opted the Shiite majority in Iraq – politically, economically and militarily. Successive Iraqi prime ministers have become progressively more dependent on Iran.
Eventually, the administration of Nouri al-Maliki pursued a vicious sectarian campaign against Iraq’s Sunni minority – which, among other factors, fuelled the rise of Islamic State. Maliki’s refusal to renew a US status of forces agreement in 2011 led to the effective withdrawal of US forces, which in turn created a military vacuum that allowed Islamic State to occupy large swaths of Iraq and Syria. It was only after Maliki’s successor, Haider al-Abadi, asked the Americans to return did the US and its partners finally defeat the extremist outfit last year.
Iranian paramilitaries also participated in this campaign against Islamic State, following their victory, were effectively absorbed into the Iraqi armed forces. After this, they began targeting US forces in Iraq. Last month’s killing of a US contractor in Iraq by these militiamen led to US counter-strikes with multiple casualties, followed by the storming of the US embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone, only called off after acting Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi reportedly promised militia commanders new laws that would remove all US forces from Iraq.
This brings us to the Trump’s decision last Friday to assassinate Soleimani at Baghdad airport. The result is that Iraqis, previously divided on the future of the US troop presence, are now increasingly united in favour of expelling the Americans, particularly given the violation of Iraqi sovereignty. A prominent Tehran-aligned Iraqi, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was also killed in the airport attack.
In Iran, the massive recent protests against the regime have been quelled as the nation unites behind its clerical and military leadership. The hardliners in Tehran, previously wedged between crippling US sanctions and an alienated populace, have been given the best possible new year present by Trump.
So, what happens next? First, we should be prepared for further retaliatory strikes against US military and diplomatic targets worldwide, using military, cyber or terrorist means. Second, while Trump tends to blink when things reach crisis point, his response to Iranian escalation is impossible to predict, particularly in an election year. Third, it’s now probable that US forces will be expelled from Iraq, thereby placing the country in Iran’s hands for the foreseeable future. The consequences for any allied forces and diplomats remaining in Iraq, including Australians, are also likely to be significant. Fourth, America’s regional allies including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel will now be more exposed to Iranian action. Finally, whatever remains of the Iran nuclear deal will be dead in the water.
So, well done all those folks – Howard, Rupert Murdoch, Tony Blair and the rest – who supported the invasion of Iraq back in 2003. There were neither any weapons of mass destruction, nor any link to al-Qaeda warranting invasion. By invading Iraq, you set in motion the chain of political events that handed this majority Shiite country over to Iran, thereby rendering our friends in the region infinitely more vulnerable. And in so doing you also created a much bigger training ground for the terrorists of the future.