The unified Sunni Arab response to Soleimani’s killing is not what Washington envisaged
John R. Bradley
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 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. …