Jan 5th 2020
FROM BAGHDAD airport, where an American air strike killed him, to his hometown of Kerman, about 1,300 kilometres away in Iran, hundreds of thousands of people filed into the streets to mourn General Qassem Suleimani on January 5th. They came out in Baghdad and Tehran, and the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Top officials in both countries joined the crowds of people beating their chests for Iran’s most prominent commander. And as the funeral procession advanced from city to city, the government of each country began to respond to the American attack.
The first move came in Iraq, where the parliament passed a resolution calling for foreign troops to leave the country. The move was aimed at America, which has some 5,000 soldiers in Iraq. But whether America actually leaves is another question. Sunni and Kurdish politicians, unlike their Shia counterparts, want the Americans to continue keeping tabs on Islamic State (IS) and training the Iraqi army. Since 2014 America has spent nearly $6bn on military aid for Iraq. The money alone may be reason enough for the Iraqi government to relent. The resolution, which is non-binding, says it “must work to end the presence of any foreign troops on Iraqi soil and prohibit them from using its land, airspace or water for any reason”. How fast that work occurs could depend on how (and where) the conflict between America and Iran escalates.
Iran has taken a step that could prove more troubling. On January 5th it said it would no longer abide by any of the operational restrictions imposed by the deal it signed in 2015 with America and five other world powers that curbed its nuclear programme. “Iran will continue its nuclear enrichment with no limitations and based on its technical needs,” said the government, referring to the process of spinning uranium in centrifuges to obtain its most fissile isotope. The fissile material can be used for energy or, at higher purities, in a bomb. Since America pulled out of the nuclear deal in 2018, Iran has been rolling back its commitments under it. The latest announcement paves the way for more serious breaches, but it is not yet a dash to a bomb.
Last summer, in response to tightening American sanctions, Iran breached the deal’s limits on the quantity and purity of uranium it is allowed to keep. Now Iran says it will ignore caps on the number of centrifuges it is allowed to spin, essentially removing all limits on enrichment. But the move is “calibrated to be reversible”, says Wendy Sherman, a former State Department official who helped negotiate the deal. Indeed, Muhammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said Iran would reverse course if America rejoined and upheld the agreement. Mr Zarif also said Iran would continue to co-operate with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which under the terms of the deal monitors all nuclear activity within Iran to a greater degree than in any other nation.
Iran has left itself with room to manoeuvre. It has not formally abandoned the pact, which would alienate the remaining signatories. Nor has it committed to speeding up enrichment. But should relations with America deteriorate further, Iran is signalling that it might pile up more uranium and enrich more of that stockpile to near-weapons-grade levels—steps that would shorten its path to a nuclear bomb. And it need not stop there. Iran’s nuclear options, so to speak, would be to expel inspectors and withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which forbids the development of an atom bomb. “Today’s step falls far below this,” says Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank. “It leaves plenty of room for both negotiation and escalation.”
United, For Now
Suleimani’s death has stiffened the sinews of Iranian officials, who were tested by big protests late last year. The killing has brought most of the country together in public mourning. Persians and Arabs, hardliners and reformers, Islamists and nationalists have all come out. Even in Ahvaz, an Arab city in south-western Iran where hostility towards the regime runs deep, thousands paid their respects as the coffin of Suleimani passed through. “Death to America,” shouted the throngs filling the long bridge spanning the Karun river. Such displays fill regime insiders with confidence. “It’s over for America in the Middle East,” says one.
Away from the cameras, though, Iranians argued over how to remember Suleimani. Officially he was the commander of the Quds Force, the foreign legion of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). But he leapfrogged the IRGC’s chain of command, reporting directly to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He was said to be Mr Khamenei’s most trusted adviser. In the cafes around Tehran University some praised the general as a Persian khan, or leader, who expanded Iran’s influence and saved it from external threats, including IS. Without him, they fear, the country will be more vulnerable. His rise from humble provincial origins also provided inspiration to poorer Iranians.
Others thought Suleimani had grown too powerful. During protests in 2018 and 2019 Iranians criticised his foreign adventurism, which wasted huge sums, earned Iran enemies throughout the Middle East and helped provoke America into imposing sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. The government’s killing of some 1,500 peaceful protesters in November led to more anger at the regime’s security apparatus. Some Iranians called for Suleimani to be denied a public funeral, as the murdered protesters were. “Most think he was against the people,” says a lecturer in Tehran, who wished that Iranians, rather than an American missile, had removed him.
Mr Khamenei has already named a successor: Esmail Ghaani, who lacks the stature of Suleimani. Most of the IRGC’s commanders remain loyal to the clerics, but some analysts think the supreme leader will find it harder to keep ambitious officers in check. “Khamenei is more alone than before and might lose control over the Pasdaran,” says Pejman Abdolmohammadi of the University of Trento in Italy, using the Persian name of the IRGC. Some analysts predict that after Mr Khamenei, who is 80, dies, the next supreme leader will be a figurehead, with the IRGC calling the shots. But a lot is likely to happen between now and then.
Original Headline: Iraq and Iran raise the stakes after the killing of Qassem Suleimani
Source: The Economist