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Armed Negotiations between the Gulf and the Mediterranean

David Petraeus, Commander of the US forces in Iraq and the Gulf in 2007-2008, then director of the CIA in 2011-12, described the elimination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani on January 3rd in Baghdad as a defensive action, with which the Trump presidency restored a US deterrence, which was weakened by recent Iranian actions. This is a reference to the attacks conducted indirectly, unclaimed by Tehran, against the Saudi oil infrastructures on September 14th 2019.

In March 2008, when the forces under Petraeus’ command supported the Iraqi Army in the fight against local Shite militias, Soleimani sent a message to the American general: informing him that he was the person in charge for Iranian policies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza therefore the channel through which to define an agreement to resolve the various issues with Tehran. Petraeus holds the advisors of the Quds Force, the spearhead of the Pasdaran asymmetric operations, responsible for the killing of around 600 American soldiers in Iraq between 2003 and 2008 and the injury of a further 1,500.

Targeted eliminations

The former American general claims to be unaware of the antelligence assessments used by the Trump administration to authorise the targeted elimination of the Iranian general and of Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, head of the Iraqi Shiite militia Kataib Hezbollah. The elimination of Soleimani, other commentators remind us, had previously been evaluated by both the administrations of George W. Bush and of Barack Obama, but always dropped, considered to be the most extreme option given the high profile of the target and his political-strategic role in the leadership of Tehran.

Le Monde notes that the preference for targeted eliminations by means of drone-missile combinations has taken hold in the war on terror since 2001 and has experienced an industrial expansion with the Obama administraton; however it has been juridically justified by restricting it to non-state figures. The Financial Times recalls that since 1976 American legislation prohibits the authorisation of political killings. According to Gideon Rachman, Washington falls victim to the Hollywood’s Dr Evil syndrome: a simple and spectacular solution to a complex problem, eliminating the bad guy.

According to David Ignatius, influential voice of The Washington Post and of intelligence and military sectors, Trump was preparing the legal basis for the elimination of Soleimani since 2017, affirming that he wanted to stop the export of the fanatic and destabilising revolution represented by the General, ie. to persuade Tehran to change its regional behaviour. A reference to Henry Kissinger’s position that Tehran had to choose whether to be a State or a cause. The problem, however, is that, in pursuing this strategy, he ignored the three conclusions reached by the American intelligence: guitting the nuclear deal would have created dissent among the Allies without bringing benefits; resorting to massive economic sanctions would not have encouraged Tehran to return to the negotiating table; finally, the elimination of Soleimani would have created more problems than it would have solved.

The general of the shadows

In the biographical reconstructon made by the Financial Times, Soleimani, born in 1957 in the Kerman province from a peasant family, had trained in the Iran-Iraq conflict, fighting as a volunteer in the Pasdaran formations, after working as a construction labourer. He is believed to have participated in the operations for the liberation of Khorramshahr, in the oil region of Khuzestan, renamed during the conflict Khuninshahr, the city of blood. The fierce fighting that took place, despite the Iraqi tactical victory, led Russets firesal prate fort Sadden ence of war, Soleimani reached the conviction that Iranian borders should no longer be threatened by hostile forces. Since 1998 he took the lead of the Quds Force (from the Arabic name of Jerusalem), estimated at about 20,000 men. According to the IISS of London, this force is the spearhead of external asymmetric projection for the Tehran regime: among its tasks is the organisation and training of entities such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Iraqi, Afghan and Syrian Shite militias both in the so-called Shiite crescent and in the Iranian near abroad, which includes the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Soleimani was dubbed the general of shadows, so named because he was charged with overseeing what — in the intelligence jargon — goes by the name of covert operations, meaning underground, illegal operations. His role was also to set up pro-Iranian parties or factions and to mediate with the regional Shüte factions, for example in Iraq or Syria. Soleimani made the headlines in the Syrian war, having negotiated with Moscow over the Russian intervention in support of the Bashar al-Assad regime in the summer of 2015, and for the role he played in fighting ISIS within both countries. In the opinion of the Indian diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar, Soleimani embodied the stance of rivalry and cooperation with the USA, which allowed for tactical convergences and tacit agreement with Washington in a context of strategic rivalry, particularly in the Iraqi theatre. At the end of the nineties, according to various sources, he would have been in favour of joint action with the USA against the Taliban regime, which had just been established in Afghanistan; this option was then ruled out by the Clinton administration.

Strategic patience and maximum resistance in Tehran

Soleimani was certainly in the restricted cabineb of Ali Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader and final decision maker on foreign and security policy. That body includes Admiral Ali Shamkhani, head of the National Security Council since 2013, the head of Iranian Nuclear Agency Ali Akbar Salehi (also former foreign minister), and Ali Larijani, president of parliament and former national security adviser.

According to some French versions, Tehran would be following a double track in response to the Trump administration’s strategy of maximum pressure: a balancing between the line of strategic patience, diplomatic actin pursued by President Rohani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and the strategy of maximum resistance, embraced by the Pasdaran; Ali Khamenei would be acting as the tiebreaker. According to Le Figaro, the second part of the balance would include the use of fighting gestures, such as the shooting down of the American drone in the Gulf last June, sabotage actions targeted againat oil tankers and the attack on Saudi installations. Even if these two lines are not mutually exclusive, they can still be a cause of friction between Iranian factions.

According to the Financial Times, Soleimani was a likely candidate for the leadership of the Security Council, if not even to the Iranian presidency in 202I. His interference in the conduct of the foreign policy in February 2019 was the likely cause of the threatened resignation by Foreign Minister Zarif, another possible successor to Hassan Rohani. Zarifs resignation was then rejected by Khamenei. Andrey Kortunov, director of the RIAC and a voice very close to the Kremlin, does not exclude that Soleimani’s targeted elimination also served the purpose of intervening in the internal Iranian balance, perhaps with the goal of favouring moderate currents. Legislative elections, which will actually open the presidential campaign, will take place in February.

The renewed tensions with Washington follow December’s social protests, heavily repressed, with a backlash, this time by students, linked to the fact that Iranian surface-to-air missiles accidently shot down a Ukrainian Boeing passenger jet carrying 176 passengers, more than half of them were Iranian. This is the collateral damage of Tehran’s political-military response to the American action. Soleimani’s public funeral, one of the major demonstations in Iran since Khomeini’s funeral in 1989, was also part of that response. According to some observers, the fact that the funeral involved also Iraq, with the participation of religious authorities and of the outgoing premier, but also part of Hezbollah in Lebanon and of the Houthi in Yemen and Gaza, indicates the internal and external mobilisation capacity of the Iranian regime. The renewed protests are supported by some reformist currents, which call for the resignation of Pasdaran officers and which become an instrument of influence on Tehran.

American deterrence and appeasement in the Gulf

In his speech to parliament, after the vote on a resolution calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq (especially the American ones), the outgoing Premier Adel Mahdi stated that Soleimani was in Baghdad at his invitation and on a diplomatic mission: he was there to receive a message from Riyadh on the measures to reduce bilateral and regional tensions, with Baghdad acting as mediator. This Iraqi mediation, added the premier, was also carried out at the request of Donald Trump shortly after the attack on the Saudi refineries.

According to Le Monde the elimination of Soleimani appears to be a relative reassurance for the Gulfs oil monarchies, which cannot be certain whether the US would resort to military actions if Tehran tried again its attacks without directly affecting Washington’s interests. Le Figaro writes that the Saudis explored possible agreements with Tehran on their respective spheres of interest, from Lebanon to Yemen. And after the missile exchange in January, the prevailing line among Gulf countries, but not only, appears to be one of de-escalation and appeasement. In reassuring the allies, Washington may also have attempted to bind them to the front of maximum pressure, trying to prevent separate agreements.

Tehran’s political missiles

Tehran’s military response, with 16 ballistic missiles fired at two American bases, caused no casualties. However, this is the first direct military action against US forces since 1988: they can certainly be defined as political missiles by the Iranian side, which however still retain their military value and recall the attack of September 14th on Saudi installations. Le Monde stressed that Iran announced the withdrawal from further compliance with the nuclear agreement before its military retaliation and, Bhadrakumar remarks, before the end of the Soleimani’s funeral. A precise signal to the other members of the agreement, in particular to the EU, to decouple the issue: Tehran empties the content of the agreement, with reversible measures, but preserves its container. In other words, it leaves the negotiation matrix open.

The EU has activated the dispute mechanism with respect to Tehran’s non-fulfilment of the terms of the nuclear agreement, a prelude to restoring sanctions; but it points out that it does not support America’s strategy of maximum pressure and still considers the framework of the Vienna agreement valid. Russia and China do the same, claiming that the Iranian decision was driven by external causes. All powers, including the US, have acknowledged the political dimension of the Iranian missile volley.

The US strike was preceded by the first ever trilateral naval manoeuvres involving Iran, China and Russia in the Gulf of Oman, which signalled, at least, the non-diplomatic isolation of Tehran. Tokvo has confirmed, despite the renewed tensions, the decision to send its naval mission into the region; a mission independent from the coaliton organised by the US and functional to the attempts at diplomatic mediation by Shinzo Abe. He obtained, as The Japan Times writes, Iranian and Saudi approvals, enforcing his relatons with Washington, Tehran and Riyadh. A French-led European mission should start in February, at the same time as the Japanese one. Tokvo has indicated the possibility of linking up with both the European and the Indian naval missions, the latter also autonomous from Washington.

The Indian Express, a major Mumbai newspaper, writes that the Iranian signal, transmitted through its retaliation, of wanting to avoid an escalation should be used by Washington as an opportunity to seek direct contact. New Delhi, with important stakes in the Gulf, from energy imports to the presence of about eight million Indian workers in the region, should evaluate a more active role in promoting regional peace: linking to the European and Japanese initiative could make the difference in Gulf’s political outcomes.

Four Iraqi Armies

Both Washington and Tehran are pressuring the Gulfs multipolar energy artery and alarming the Asian powers. New Delhi reminds of its dependence on Iraqi supplies, vital to compensate for Iranian supplies, which are subject to the US embargo. The Baghdad Parliament’s vote against the US military presence, resulting from Iranian pressure, was boycotted by Kurdish and Sunni members of parliament. The Iraqi Shite religious leadership attempts a balancing exercise by calling for an end to all foreign interference in the country. Washington threatens to implement sanctions against Baghdad should it formalise the parliamentary resolution and argues that the Iraqi military is in favour of maintaining the US presence.

The unilateral action by the US has also created tensions within European allies, which add to those that have occurred in Syria. It is true that the American presence in Iraq is 5,000 soldiers, between NATO and the anti-ISIS coalition missions, while Europeans deploy around 3,000 soldiers, mainly from Paris, Rome, London and Berlin.

Iraqi sources stress that the exercise of influence over Iraq also takes place through the plurality of armed forces only nominally under Baghdad’s control. Basically four Armies: the regular Armed Forces, about 200,000 men; Iraqi Special Forces, formed under the aegis of America, with about 10-15,000 men; the popular mobilisation forces, created in 2014 to deal with ISIS and the crisis of the regular Forces, which include not only Shiite militias but also Turkmen and Arab militias, a force of 150,000 men; finally the Kurdish peshmerga, which report to the Irbil regional government, estimated at 200,000 units. The fragmentation plays against a centralisation by Baghdad and in favour of a plurality of influences.

According to Ignatius, Trump’s Iranian strategy should also include an agreement with Tehran for a stabilisation of Iraq. A disorderly American withdrawal would give Iran a victory it doesn’t deserve; however, the exertion of US influence should not be based on perpetuating the military presence, undesired in both Iraqi and the American public opinion, but should go through a framework in which the training of Iraqi Special Forces is conducted outside of the country, perhaps in Jordan. These units, carefully cultivated by their American mentors, represent the best guarantors of some Baghdad independence from its large easter neighbour. Tehran, which hasn’t got the strength to control Iraq on its own, should accept this American role as a guarantee against the resurrection of ISIS and Sunni radicalism.

Ignatius’ reference model seems to be the British tradition of exerting indirect influence, applied both in Mesopotamia since the 1930s and in Jordan itself through the military training of the Bedouin component, the Arab Legion, loyal to the Hashemite monarchy. In turn, Washington should accept that presence and a modus vivendi with the Iranian influence networks. Something that was present in the determination operated by Tehran through Soleimani.

Ankara, Moscow and Berlin in the Libyan truce

The tensions in the Gulf have partially obscured Libyan events, in which both Moscow and Ankara accelerated their plans. Le Monde recognises Ankara’s masterful diplomatic strike over Libya, which overlaps the dispute over energy flows, the management of migratory flows and the Turkish positoning both in the eastern Mediterranean and in Syria.

At the end of November AnkaStandened a me morand on ofender exploitation of Libya’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ for the exploration of offshore gas fields. The memorandum also provided for the supply of Turkish military assistance to the Tripoli government, which is in a position of growing military disadvantage against the Benghazi-Tobruk rival, General Khalifa Haftar. The latter is strengthened by the air-force support provided by the Emirates and Egypt and, since November, by the presence of Russian military contractors, already deployed by Moscow in Donbass and Syria.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan uses the Libyan shore in the gas issue to reiterate the need for a Turkish partnership in the trilateral agreement between Egypt, Greece and Israel; with Italian-French participation. However, he also wants to raise the issue of the exploitation of Cyprus oilfields for the Turkish Cypriot component. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus was the product of Ankara’s military intervention in 1974 and it proclaimed itself a sovereign State in 1983, but without international recognition. In Libya, Turkish companies have credits for $25 billion for contracts signed with the Gaddaf regime. Russia, whose oil groups have signed agreements with both Tripoli and Tobruk, also claims credits, especially military ones, with Libya. In the resolution authorising the presence of Turkish military forces in Tripoli — voted for in early January — it is significant that Turkey offers to assist the Tripoli government also in the fight against illegal immigration flows: clearly an offer to the EU and, in secondarily to Rome, a channel through which Ankara applies for the role of guarding against migratory flows on the southern shore of the Mediterranean, in addition that on the eastern shore.

Erdogan highlighted that the Turkish military presence should be considered a deterrent towards Benghazi, apt to restore a symmetry and military balance. Paris reports that the Turkish presence is currently limited to MIT (Ankara intelligence) officers, drones and several hundred pro-Turkey Syrian militiamen. Hürriyet, which raised the risk of a Turkish over-extension in Erdogan’s bet, after the Libyan truce mediated with Moscow and endorsed by Berlin in the talks between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, considers that a great deployment of Turkish forces may not be necessary. Again Hürriyet, the voice of a Euro-Turkish party, emphasises Ankara’s recognition of the German diplomatic action and Italian interests. Rome has not signed the joint declaration with Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and France, which accused Ankara of being responsible for the Libyan escalation. With Turkey and Russia as the major powers influencing the Libyan game, says Hürriyet, Rome wants to be on board. Turkey does not rule out Haftar’s infuence and his role in the Libyan present and future.

According to the pro-government Sabah, in Libya, similarly to Syria, there has been a convergence in — Turkish-Russian interests which does not exclude competition. In many respects, Turkey has replicated the Russian script for Syria on a smaller scale in Libya. But it also recalls the assistance given to Qatar in 2017 in the confrontation between Doha and Riyadh, which has turned into a permanent military presence in the Gulf. Ankara, always according to Sabah, could also obtain something in Tripolitania.

Oil cantonisation

Simultaneously with the precarious Libyan truce, a new ceasefire was signed in the Sunni canton of Idlib, Syria. In several respects it is plausible that Ankara, Moscow and the European chancelleries may converge on a Libyan cantonisation, given that the truce ratifies, for the moment, the freezing of the partition between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Le Monde reports the three negotiating positions in Paris for the Berlin Conference on Libya: the demobilisation of the militias, the unification of the armed forces, and finally a fairer distribution of oil resources. The first two are hardly acceptable by Tripoli, as they would favour Haftar; the third one appears to be the real crux, but that’s not enough. We do not deal here with the outcomes of the Berlin Conference, but it is significant that Le Monde itself signals that the persistence of a differentiated French line is a contradiction within the European position. Paris — this is the point — links the stabilisation of Libya and the role that Haftar can play in it to the situation in the Sahel, where it is engaged in military operations.

According to various sources, one of Benghazi’s requests would be to have access to the board of the Libyan Central Bank, which would allow a role in the distribution of oil revenues. Benghazi, financed by the Emirates and the Saudis, has contracted large debts and does not have the international credentials to sell oil on its own, so this remains in the hands of the energy authority and, financially, of the central bank. A Libyan federal or confederal structure, that is, the political form of the possible cantonisation defining a compromise on revenue between the local factions, could paradoxically pass from the unity of monetary power. This is a compromise which, in any case, must also be negotiated with other actors, both old and new, already sitting at the table.

Lotta Comunista, January 2020