The assassination of Major General Qasim Soleimani by the US in the opinion of many not only constituted a flagrant violation of international law but also irreparably weakened an already tottering Iranian regime. But this is simply received wisdom and like many things in the murky world of international relations, the public persona of belligerent regimes often belies their private dealings.
Like the protagonist and antagonist in a Punch and Judy puppet show, the relationship between the plutocratic US administration and the theocratic Iranian regime is purportedly both combative and acrimonious. The US accuses Iran of comprising of the primary sponsor of international terrorism and a lynchpin in the axis of evil. The Iranian regime labels the US as the Great Satan and the principal source of mayhem in the Middle East and the rest of the world.
But do both countries do what they say? Do their actions match what they say about each other?
The reality of the relationship between these regimes is quite different from the public display of animosity which is mostly for domestic consumption. The Iranian regime has in fact been indispensable to US interests both in the Middle East and Afghanistan and conversely far from seeking regime change the US has removed the principal threats to the Iranian regime and bestowed upon it the expanded role it has sought in the Middle East.
This covert relationship between Ayatollah Khomeini and the US predates the Iranian Revolution. There are documented communications between Ayatollah Khomeini and US officials as far back as 1963. Although during the Iranian Revolution, Khomeini had popular support on the streets, the US influence on the Iranian army was considerable and pivotal. It was US pressure alone which prevented the Iranian army from launching a coup and smoothed the return of Khomeini to Tehran in the weeks preceding the revolution. So, for all intents and purposes the US installed the clerical regime of Khomeini in Tehran .
Despite the confrontational rhetoric from both sides immediately after the revolution, the relationship between the Great Satan and its adversary continued unabated, such that Hassan Rouhani was able to secure access to US weapons for the clerical regime despite the public imposition of an arms embargo by the US. Access to spare parts and maintenance was critical to the Iranian regime during its protracted war with Iraq, as the bulk of its equipment was of US origin, which was bought before the revolution.
But it is US policy post 9/11 that really highlights the strategic importance that Iran constitutes for the US. The cooperation between the US and Iran in general, but Soleimani in particular, was both covert and deep. The Washington Post reports that Ryan Crocker, then a senior State Department official, flew discreetly to Geneva to meet a group of Iranian diplomats. He stated that “I’d fly out on a Friday and then back on Sunday, so nobody in the office knew where I’d been.” Crocker further stated that: “We’d stay up all night in those meetings.” It seemed clear to Crocker that the Iranians were answering to Soleimani, whom they referred to as “Haji Qassem,” and that they were eager to help the United States destroy their mutual enemy, the Taliban .
In fact, Iranian involvement and its tacit support for the US is a significant factor in the longevity of the US occupation of Afghanistan, without the Iranian regime sealing the eastern border, preventing the flow of arms and ammunition into Afghanistan, the US position in Afghanistan would quickly become untenable.
The assistance given by Iran to the US in Afghanistan is considered important but its facilitation of the US occupation of Iraq is considered indispensable. Iran played an instrumental role in the stabilisation of the US occupation of Iraq after the Iraqi insurgency confined the US occupation troops to their fortified bases, Iran and specifically Soleimani, were responsible for the creation of the Shi’ah militias whose indiscriminate brutality against Sunni civilians turned the tide for the US in Iraq.
The control that Soleimani and Iran wielded over these militias who in essence secured the US occupation of Iraq is revealed in an incident from 2008. After the five American soldiers were killed in Karbala, Soleimani sent a message to the American Ambassador saying. “I swear on the grave of Khomeini I haven’t authorised a bullet against the US. Again if the order was given to these militias to resist the occupation then the US position in Iraq would again become untenable” .
The conflict in Syria also underscores the strategic cooperation between the US and Iran in securing US interests. The US from the onset of the revolution in Syria had no intention of letting its principal client and the most important factor for the security of the Zionist entity fall, and all US actions and policies were designed to help rather than hinder the Assad regime. Again it was Iran and its proxy Hizbullah which came to al-Assad’s rescue, with the US haste to accommodate the Iranian regime in this endeavour that it airlifted $1.7b in cash to Iran to pay it for its services .
Even when we consider the assassination of Soleimani, rather than a major blow to the Iranian regime, it is the gift that breathes new life into its decrepit body. The incompetence and corruption of clerical rule has brought the Iranian economy to the edge of ruin, the legitimacy of the regime is at an all time low, but the assassination of Soleimani allows the regime to paint all its detractors as agents of the US and Zionism and justifies their silencing and imprisonment.
Iran and the US have for long acted very differently to their public positions.
The stage-managed responses and the fore-warning that the Iranian regime gave to the US about its retaliation ensured that there were no casualties and no serious intent to start a conflict, rather the reciprocal gesture of goodwill highlights the depth of the mutual if not unequal relationship between the US and Iran.
So despite appearances, the reality of the conflict between the US is like the conflict between a master and its unruly slave, sometimes the master has to rattle the chain to bring the slave to heel.