A blood-red flag was raised over the Jamkaran mosque in the Iranian holy city of Qom last week, one normally reserved to commemorate the death of martyrs. This time, it was intended as a call to arms. ‘We have unfurled this flag so that all [Shia] believers in the world gather around it to avenge Qassem Soleimani’s blood unjustly shed,’ said the mosque’s leader. In Tehran, there were calls for bloody retribution for the air strike that killed Iranian general Soleimani — and everywhere, talk of all-out war. If it was also intended to strike the fear of Allah into the hearts of Iran’s Sunni Arab enemies, it certainly succeeded.
In Riyadh, there was panic. The Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, hastily sent an anti-war delegation to Washington and London. At home, his officials emphasised that the kingdom had not been consulted beforehand about the drone strike. ‘Please don’t blame us,’ was the message to Tehran. The Emirati foreign minister likewise called for restraint, warning of the devastating consequences for the Persian Gulf if war between the US and Iran were to break out.
The foreign minister of the UAE’s arch rival Qatar, home to a US air base that would be a crucial launching pad for any American war against Iran, went one step further. He visited Tehran, met with President Hassan Rouhani and offered his condolences. ‘Qatar understands the deep pain and sadness that the Iranian people and government are enduring,’ he said.
This unified Sunni Arab response to Soleimani’s murder is hardly what Washington had envisaged. After all, from the beginning of his presidency, Donald Trump’s Middle East strategy — orchestrated by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — was aimed at fomenting an alliance between Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arab states (particularly Saudi Arabia and the Emirates) against Shia Iran.
The unified Sunni Arab response to Soleimani’s murder is hardly what Washington had envisaged
The goal for the hawks Trump has surrounded himself with was to isolate Iran diplomatically, then to confront the country militarily on multiple fronts. To this end, Trump gave the Saudis a free pass at every juncture, even when Bin Salman had the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi chopped to pieces and his remains cooked in a tandoori oven.
Israel, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia had been flaunting their new intelligence co-operation and their united front against what they saw as the growing Iranian menace. They flirted with closer diplomatic and cultural ties; at one stage, the idea of an ‘Arab Nato’ was floated. Leaked documents reveal that the Saudis — like the Israelis — had previously been pushing Washington for a direct US strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
So Trump could have been forgiven for thinking the Saudis would be elated at Soleimani’s demise. Instead, they and the Emiratis waved the white flag before a single shot was fired. As per Iran’s request: its military offered a truce with Arab states that distanced themselves from America. It said Sunni cities would only be directly targeted if they assisted any US response to its air strikes against US bases in Iraq (in which case Dubai would be the first city to be ‘destroyed’). At the same time, Israel and the US were considered by Iran ‘as one’.
General Jonathan Shaw, former commander of UK forces in Iraq, put it well: Iran’s objectives are political, not military. Their aim is not to destroy any American air base, but to drive a wedge between the US and its Arab allies — and the Soleimani assassination has achieved more to this end than anything that could have been cooked up in Tehran. The Sunnis are standing down and the US and Israel now once again face being without real friends in the region. When push came to shove, all Kushner’s efforts amounted to nothing. How elated the Iranians must be, even in the midst of such a setback.
For those who had been paying closer attention, there were in fact plenty of reasons to believe that the Saudi royal court would respond cautiously to Soleimani’s murder. There were also reasons for them to doubt Trump as an ally. America’s supposedly state-of-the-art defence systems didn’t detect the recent drone strike on Saudi oil facilities. Adding insult to injury, Trump ordered the return of American planes that had been en route to Iran for a retaliatory strike.
This led to a big rethink in Riyadh. Iran might have no navy or air force to write home about, but it does have more missiles than any other country in the region. The attacks on the US air bases in Iraq on Wednesday, and the earlier Saudi strikes, prove it knows how to use them. The damage to the Saudi oil industry if war breaks out, then, would be immense. Riyadh had to ask: if this were to happen, how certain could they be that Trump would come to their aid? It goes without saying that the bold Saudi drive to diversify their economy would come crashing down with the oil installations and water desalination plants. And Bin Salman could also kiss goodbye to the dream of mass tourism. No one but YouTube weirdos would want to visit a war zone.
More to the point, after losing faith in Trump — and seeing what the Iranian military was capable of — the Saudis had decided to talk. Extensive back-channel negotiations had been taking place to ease tensions with Tehran as well as with the Houthis in Yemen. In recent months, the Saudis and Iranians had been using intermediaries in Oman, Kuwait and Pakistan, and reconciliation talks were speeding up. The Iraqi Prime Minister has said that when Soleimani was killed, the general was not planning attacks on American soldiers (as the Pentagon claims) but was on his way to a meeting in Baghdad to discuss how to speed up Saudi-Iran peace talks.
Perhaps no one in Washington realised how quickly things were moving. Or perhaps they did, and killing Soleimani was an effort to stop that rapprochement taking place. Either way, the Saudis had every right to be angry, and after Trump met the Saudi delegation at the Oval Office this week unusually a transcript of the meeting was not released.
The behaviour of Washington since the strike will have underlined every Saudi fear about Trump’s reliability. The US military released a letter declaring it would withdraw from Iraq (as per its parliament’s recent instruction) but the Pentagon said it had been released in error. Trump then tweeted that he could hit Iran’s cultural sites, only to be contradicted by his Defence Secretary.
Just after Iranian missiles were fired at a US base in Iraq this week, an Iranian presidential adviser tweeted that Saudi Arabia could have ‘total peace’. It is not inconceivable that we will see closer ties being forged in the coming years between Iran and Saudi Arabia than between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Washington hawks will not be pleased, but it would be an easier — and perhaps more dependable — option for Riyadh. After all, ordinary Arabs have long considered Israel, not Iran, to be their main enemy.
What is certain is that Iran is now far more united. Its economy shrank by about 10 per cent last year, taken in Washington as proof that sanctions were working. The mullahs were in trouble and badly needed a cause to rally the nation behind. Soleimani’s assassination has given them one. The demonstrations in Iran over fuel price hikes a few months ago already seem like a thing of the past; those who had been on the streets protesting against the government have now turned out in its support. The crowd that marched in Tehran on Monday — chanting ‘Death to America’ — was one of the largest ever seen in the capital.
‘All is well!’ chirped Trump after the Iranian retaliation, signalling that he now sees this episode as at an end. Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, offered his own verdict: that we have just witnessed the beginning of the end of the ‘malign US presence in West Asia’. For Trump, it will be an awkward point. He set out to weaken Iran and its control over the Middle East — but may have ended up handing the region to the mullahs on a platter.