Dyab Abou Jahjah
Like many people with roots in the Middle East, the assassination of Qassim Soleimani in Baghdad last week literally kept me awake at night. My parents live in Lebanon, as do many other family members and friends. So when something like this happens, the most important question for me is: Will there be war? Will my parents, family members and friends suffer as a result? This gives a political analysis another dimension that transcends curiosity. That's why I was working on this every day. I called many people, and chatted with even more. Mainly people I knew well when I was very close to the leadership of the Lebanese Hezbollah between 2006 and 2012, up to my break with them due to their interference in the Syrian war and their support for the Syrian regime. Most people from Hezbollah are therefore no longer on "speaking terms" with me since then, but there are always exceptions. Most of the people I have spoken with had questions rather than answers, and tried to analyse and speculate. A few of them had already met Soleimani and knew how the Iranian Leadership reasons. I never really met the man, but I saw him up close at a conference in Tehran in 2008 when he passed next to me and a Hezbollah MP with whom I was there told me, " This is Qassim Soleimani, the Imad Mughniyeh of Iran. " So who was Imad Mughniyeh and why am I convinced that the analogy between the two men holds the answer as to the nature of the Iranian response?
Imad Mughniyeh was the mythical military leader of Hezbollah who was assassinated by Israel in Damascus in February 2008. And oddly enough, Soleimani at that time led the investigation into the circumstances of his death. The Death of Mughniyeh unleashed bombastic rhetoric on the part of Hezbollah. “This will bring about the end of Israel”, Hassan Nasrallah said in one of his eloquent fiery speeches. In his speech on the Soleimani assassination few days ago, Nasrallah also said that the murder of Soleimani will be the end of the American presence in the region. If the reaction to the assassination of Mughniyeh is any indication in this, we are twelve years later, and a specific revenge action for his death is still to happen. But talk to Hezbollah people about it and you'll hear a different story. You will be told that Hezbollah's power has tripled since the death of "Hajj Radwan" the nom de guerre of Mughniyeh. That victory against Al Qaeda and IS and other rebel factions in Syria is "the fruit of the blood of Mughniyeh". Hence, through slow but certain strategic evolution, "the blood of Mughniyeh has conquered the sword".
As someone with Shiite background I fully understand the logic behind this. It is part of the martyrdom culture in Shi’ism. A reference to the battle of Karbala in the seventh century, where Hussein the grandson of Prophet Mohamed with a small army revolted against Yazid the corrupt Umayyad Caliph and was massacred. The battle in Karbala and the martyrdom of Hussein are the founding myths of Shi’ism. And it is believed that Hussein's uprising and martyrdom preserved the true Islamic "call" in the form of Shi’ism. So by safeguarding Islam, the blood of Hussein eventually won against the swords of Yazid and his army. This is comparable to how Christ is believed to have saved humanity with his blood on the cross according to Christianity. And for Shi’ites, this kind of esoteric belief permeates politics and ideology and even geopolitics.
Whoever really believes that the attacks in Iraq on a few military bases, with few or no casualties, is what the Iranian understand by revenge action, is illusory. This is only a slap in the face with the intention of appeasing the urge for direct revenge within Iranian public opinion. The real revenge, however, will be gradual and slow.
Iran would now conduct a strategic offensive on two fronts, without having to mobilize a single Iranian soldier. The first offensive is in Iraq, where the objective is to expel the last American soldier from there before the end of 2020. By doing that, Iran will have complete control over that country. This will unfold through a combination of political decisions of the Iraqi parliament and government, but also through popular mobilization and demonstrations against American bases. If the Americans do not yield and leave, an open guerrilla war will follow. So for the Americans the choice is pretty simple, either leave Iraq, or relive the Vietnamese nightmare on its soil.
The second offensive will take place in Yemen and will target Saudi Arabia. But this time it will not only be about dropping the odd rocket against an oil refinery or flying a drone above an airport. Instead, the Houthis, the allies of Iran in Yemen, will carry out insurrections deep into southern Saudi Arabia, thus destabilizing that regime completely. The goal is that in the medium term the Saudi regime will collapse.
There remains a third element that concerns me the most as Lebanese: Hezbollah is very likely to hit a major Israeli target in the coming months. A well-known general, an influential politician, or someone of that calibre. Such a hit, will avenge both Imad Mughniyeh and Soleimani. A war is then very likely to follow. A war that Hezbollah always believed is inevitable, and that it will be a final show down that will lead to the clear defeat of Israel. No one can really predict what the outcome of such a war will be, but one thing is sure, the entire infrastructure of Lebanon will be destroyed, and tens of thousands of Lebanese civilians will die in it. But then, the blood of Mughniyeh and of Soleimani would have "flourished with victory", according to the esoteric logic of Shi’ite political Islam.
But even more dangerous and more otherworldly is the logic, or the lack of it, that Trump is displaying by his reckless actions. The man finally turned out to be the trigger happy cowboy that we all feared he was. And with things escalating, he is capable to commit even more stupidities. His threats to bomb cultural heritage sites in Iran, something that only IS and the Taliban have done so far, illustrate how far he can go. If he does so, he will then unite the Iranian people even more strongly behind the regime and give Iran the chance to further strengthen its control in the Middle East.
Only chaos and blood will come out of this whole situation. The blood of ordinary people, not of leaders and not of historical figures. That kind of innocent blood does not “overcome a sword”, and never “flourishes in victory”, it only causes more blood and suffering and dramas, until something or someone breaks that cycle.