Military, Diplomatically and Societally Changes in Iranby OPINIONEXPRESS.IN June 27, 2019 0 comments
The nation today is very different from what it was in 1991 or 2003. Societally, militarily, diplomatically and even morally, it is a very strong country
In a speech in January 1991, the then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had invoked a popular idiomatic expression, exhorting his military and simultaneously warning the US against intervening in his invasion of Kuwait by threatening a “mother of all battles.” Hussein had under his command supposedly the world’s fourth largest Army with over a million and a half in uniform and reserves — a number larger than the US Army and Marine Corps combined. Iraqi forces were also battle veterans of the decade-long Iran-Iraq war and had displayed complex helicopter-borne assault-like commando capability in seizing the Kuwait Emir’s palace much before Iraqi armour columns rolled in. However, there were clear chinks in the Iraqi narrative beyond the presidential bravado. The sheer numbers of the Iraqi forces, who were subjected to an unchallenged pummelling of a 30-day air bombardment that broke the country’s infrastructure and spirit, are testimony. Ultimately, it took less than 100 hours of ground assault for the complete capitulation, destruction and humiliation of the Iraqi retreat from Kuwait. The Second Gulf War in 2003, entailing a more expanded mandate to oust Hussein, lasted only 21 days before the “end of major combat operations” was announced. However, the strategic aim of “containment” was not achieved in either of the Gulf Wars, yet the mainstream Americans believe in their ability to bulldoze any military opposition in the Middle East.
Today, Iran faces a potential military action from the US following the latest escalation of tensions with the shooting down of a $130 million worth ‘Global Hawk BAM-D’ surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz. The ratcheting of mutual distrust has been in the making for sometime, with the Iranians and their proxy forces holding sway in the multiple battles in the Iraqi-Syrian swathes, Yemen and Lebanon to even in the Iran-beholden, modern Iraq nation. The sectarian divide in the Middle East is increasingly tilting in favour of the numerically lesser Shia forces, much to the consternation of the US-supported Gulf sheikhdoms and Israel. The decimation of the Islamic State (IS) landmass and its conventional capabilities has shifted the US’ focus onto Iran in order to contain what it calls “the leading state sponsor of terror.” Towards the same, the US has unilaterally reneged on the path-breaking Iran nuclear deal and reinforced crippling economic sanctions, even though the international community remains a mute spectator despite the global nuclear watchdog organisation, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), giving Iran a clean chit in abiding with the terms of the nuclear deal, which Trump accuses Iran of violating.
But Iran has not undertaken any military intervention as done by the US (all inconclusively) in the last 30 years in the Middle East. It has simply put a lot more challenges. First, unlike Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen or even Afghanistan — which were deeply divided and polarised societies from within — Iran is relatively homogenous and united in its animus towards the US aggression. Unsurprisingly, the US-led sanctions have had a “catastrophic humanitarian consequence” on the Iranian civil society and has had no support from any of the Iranian Opposition leadership, inside or outside of Iran.
This is starkly a different situation from Hussein’s Iraq which had well over 65 per cent of its population composed of persecuted Shias and Kurds, who were happy to see Hussein fall. Likewise, a theoretical US intervention in Syria may just be welcomed by the approximate 90 per cent of the Sunni population, who are ruled by the Shia-Alawite Assad Government.
Similarly, any action against the Shia-Hezbollah forces in Lebanon may be acceptable to other competing stakeholders like the Sunnis, Christians or Druze. Not so in Iran, which has over 90 per cent Shias. Even other minorities like the Kurds, Achomis, Turkmen (barring the Balouch) are also reasonably integrated into the Iranian society with no major discrimination. This puts a rock solid block of at least 110 million — 85 million in Iran and at least 25 million co-sectarian Shias in the contiguous western border with Iraq — in direct confrontation with the US. This is demographically an impregnable minefield for the US to potentially penetrate and try to hold ground. Thus, physical land occupation of Iranian soil is absolutely ruled out as can be seen from the parallel fate of the American military, in the face of rag-tag militias in Afghanistan. With 20 per cent of the global oil traded through the narrow Strait of Hormuz (24 miles wide at one point), Iran could pose unimaginable asymmetric threats to the US interests even if its considerable naval fleet of an estimated 15 submarines and anti-ship systems were to be neutralised.
Third, as the emotional flagbearer of Shias globally, Iran commands considerable clout and loyalty via its powerful proxies across the world to inflict severe damage on US’ interests that could be thousands of miles away from the principal battleground. Some of these Iran-supported militias have simply out-performed the Saudi-US supported forces and retained the upper hand, even where out-numbered. Even diplomatically and geopolitically, Iran today is not like Iraq in the previous two Gulf wars ie, internationally isolated, condemned and subjected to multi-lateral sanctions — the recent US moves against Iran have not been met with enthusiasm in the European Union and Donald Trump’s unilateralism may not lead to an effective “coalition” against Iran as was the case in 1991 or 2003.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dashed to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to muster support, who along with Israel remain in the forefront of the very limited anti-Iran sentiment. Unlike the UN-approved sanctions that preceded the US moves in 1991 and 2003, approval of other nations against Iran in the UN Security Council is extremely unlikely. The possible realisation of the cost of misadventure against Iran may have led to the last-minute cancellation of US military operations despite being in “cocked and loaded” status. Perhaps electoral considerations may still lead to a very limited military action, but only that as Iran is no pushover societally, militarily, diplomatically or in the present case, even morally.
(The writer, a military veteran, is a former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry)
SWriter: Bhopinder Singh
Courtesy: The Pioneer