A Superficial US Victory
Politically, the killing of Soleimani was one episode in the US-Iran tensions – albeit a heightened aggression by the US, but still an indirect one, which is unlikely to change the proxy game and certainly does not bode prospects of a war. It was a huge setback to Iran, but one against which Iran cannot do anything. For US, it is more of a personal national achievement – akin to satisfying the ego and irrational bloodlust by harming its own long-term interests. For, Soleimani’s leadership of the Quds Force was the chief force which led to the defeat of terrorist organizations like ISIS or Daesh, Al Nusrah and Al Qaeda, among other Sunni terrorist groups, which had wreaked havoc as far as India. It was the Shia zeal for the cause of Islamic Revolution in Iran that checked these Sunni terror groups. With Soleimani’s death and the weakening of Iran, the epicenter holding together and boosting Shia solidarity is bound to suffer temporarily.
With Soleimani’s death and the temporary weakening of Quds Force of IRGC, these terror groups are bound to revive with a vengeance. ISIS threat especially looms large. It was not the US-Saudi-UAE-France alliance that led to the defeat of ISIS from Syria, but a combination of lethal force manifested by the Kurds and IRGC. The US – through its mercantile, brutal and backstabbing policies – has weakened both Iran (understandably so) and bartered Kurdish interests off to Turkey (irrationally so, for uncertain domestic election mileage).
Besides the potential revival of terrorist groups, regional instability will likely increase over the coming months and years. This will weaken the US in the region. What the US fails to realize is the nature of Iranian power and Soleimani’s role. Accustomed to a selfish understanding of role of political power, the US assumed that Soleimani was the epicenter of Iranian power. The reality is more complex. Soleimani was the epicenter of Iranian power, and yet he was not. He manifested, strategized and executed the collective impulse of Shia unity that went beyond him. The US is accustomed to thinking of figures like him as dictators fulfilling selfish interests, as the Western idea of reason for politics is based on pursuit of competitive selfish interests – conceptions which do not apply to countries like Iran and China. Therefore, the US assumed that by killing Soleimani it was clipping the roots of the Iranian revolution.
Iran has already signaled that it is going to wage a ‘long war’ against the US, while Hezbollah commander, Hassan Nasrallah, has called it the start of a new US war in the region. These Shia groups based in other countries are seeing Soleimani’s death as a turning point in their struggle against the US. Already, the plan may be in the process of being executed, as after Soleimani’s death, Iran’s Supreme Leader tasked Hezbollah’s Nasrallah with the work of uniting clashing Shia units in organizations such as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)* PMF – a Shia outfit – was formed in 2014 to fight alongside Iraqi army to defeat the ISIS. The PMF’s factions are divided into three main groups – “The first is linked to the supreme religious authority in Najaf (Southern Iraq) represented by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani; the second is associated with Iraqi cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr; while the last group, which represents the most numerous and best armed, is associated with Iran directly” (Goel 2020). as well as the Shia political parties in Iraq, which resulted in success. Houthis in Yemen are also seeing a new gusto of anti-America energy, as are Shia groups spread across Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
While a war is unlikely, the developments would result in new and more lethal forms of technological warfare, which may make things difficult for the US and may bring Israel into the line of fire from Iranian militias.
Stakes for India
From India’s perspective, a difficult balancing act has to be undertaken. Economically, rising oil prices due to increasing Gulf tensions will be the biggest immediate problem for India, leading to inflation and fuel price rise – a political predicament – and forcing India to strengthen diversified sources of energy, such as Russia and US. India will also have to balance out its growing close economic ties with Iran’s enemies like Saudi Arabia, UAE, Israel and US, while maintaining good relations with Iran. India still cooperates with Iran on Chabahar port – which was exempted by the US from the sanctions regime – but business and trade incentives to make the port operational are difficult to come by.
Politically, Iran has, in recent times, taken a subtle stand against India in Kashmir – which India has preferred to ignore and overlook – and has participated in the Malaysia-led Islamic conference held some weeks back. Whatever Iran does, it is a Shia country and has not instigated India’s Shias, who have largely supported the Indian government on key issues, including the Ayodhya dispute and the Kashmir issue. India and Iran share a common enemy in the form of Sunni Wahabi Islamism, and India even recognizes that Iran’s verbal support to causes like Kashmir – driven by Sunni movements – is just a facile gesture to show leadership in the Muslim world rather than any action against India.
India has severely dealt with Malaysia for commenting on Kashmir and India’s Citizenship Amendment Act, forcing Malaysia to acknowledge that they are too ‘small’ to retaliate. Iran’s participation in Malaysian Islamic conference was not directed against India, however, but against Saudi Arabia and UAE which saw the conference as an affront to the Emirati and Saudi-led Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Throughout most of the last year and since 2018, thanks to the Indian closeness with US and compliance with US sanctions against Iran, India-Iran relations have been limited to just a formality. China and Russia have instead developed close strategic ties with Iran, although they too are complying with US sanctions. However, ever since Soleimani’s death, there has been a subtle upswing in India-Iran relations. Immediately after Soleimani’s killing, the foreign ministers of India and Iran exchanged a series of phone calls and, despite the turbulence in Iran due to people’s protests against the regime and the killing of Soleimani, the Iranian foreign minister did not call off his India visit for the Raisina Dialogue.
The Iranian foreign minister’s visit was meant to show to the world that India and Iran are good friends, at a time when Iran is getting increasingly isolated. Iran also signaled to India, more than once, to mediate with the US on their behalf. They know that – more than their any other ally like China or Russia – India is best placed to talk to the US.
Even as Iran will wage proxy warfare against US in the Gulf region, its immediate critical concern is to prop up the economy, curb rising unemployment and tackle the growing protests against the regime since last year – many of which have, allegedly, seen a Western hand. India will be an important partner in achieving these economic aims, while politically Iran continues to be well-placed to weaken the US in the Gulf region. India has been cautious thus far. While India will maintain good relations with Iran, it will also not antagonize US, Saudi Arabia and UAE.
The assassination of Soleimani and its significance highlights an important point viz. US’s ruthless model is failing. While the immediate victory may be US’s, in the long run, if Shia militias succeed in uniting in an unprecedented manner (as they are now trying), the US’s days in the Gulf will be numbered. In many ways, Iran has been the undoing of the all-powerful US, since 1979. During the days of Shah, US and Israel were supposed to have supported Shah’s brutalization of his own people through secret services like SAVAK, and led to the Shia Islamic Revolution of 1979. The events that followed – US embassy siege in Tehran in 1979, Iran’s upper hand in Iran-Iraq war with Iraq supported the US and Sunni states, and recent developments in the region post-9/11 – show that not even once US has been able to gain upper hand over Iran.
Historically, the US has acted more out of frustration. This was the case even when Bush declared Iran as a part of ‘Axis of Evil’ in 2003 despite Iran’s help to the US in Afghanistan. The US has found itself trapped in successive political failures, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya (which is currently disturbed), Lebanon and Syria. The killing of Soleimani was again out of frustration, based on deriving crude satisfaction even while being aware that it will further reinforce Shia solidarity against the US.
Thus, the history of Middle east, in a way, has been the history of the US and West’s international failures – exposing a country that regards itself as a superpower. Culturally, it has been a failure of the Western mission of imposing human rights and democracy and western model of ‘development’ in different cultures and countries. This particular failure extends beyond Middle east to Eurasia and Asia also, especially China. Despite funding protests in the name of ‘democracy’, the US’s failure in non-Western countries is glaring. It’s missionary zeal to impose Western culture and dominance in the name of democracy has not only resulted in a backlash, but has produced a mess worse than the original situations of the non-Western countries.
As Sri Aurobindo had written, “Democracy is by no means a sure preservative of liberty; on the contrary, we see today the democratic system of government march steadily towards such an organised annihilation of individual liberty as could not have been dreamed of in the old aristocratic and monarchical systems…there is a deprivation of liberty which is more respectable in appearance, more subtle and systematised, more mild in its method because it has a greater force at its back, but for that very reason more effective and pervading” (CWSA 25, 1997, p. 508).
Goel, A. (2020, January 20). The Hindu Businessline. Retrieved from
Shah, S. (2020, January 9). The Indian Express. Retrieved from