Iranian regional missile reach for selected ballistic and cruise missiles (Source: IISS)

Analysis: The Strategic Implications of the Soleimani Crisis – 9th January 2020

image: Iranian regional missile reach for selected ballistic and cruise missiles (Source: IISS)

DefenceSynergia is obliged to Prof Dr Julian Lindley-French for permission to publish his most recent strategic analysis which covers an assessment of the Soleimani crisis, together with its implications for Europe and the wider West. This is what he says:

Analysis: The Strategic Implications of the Soleimani Crisis – 9th January 2020

Abstract: The purpose of this analysis is to consider the strategic implications of the Soleimani Crisis and its impact on US and European policy at the start of the 2020s. Whilst a major war is unlikely to break out as a consequence of this crisis, a major war could be triggered at some point during the next decade, given the political and strategic tinderbox that is the Middle East. Given the region’s importance to Europe why do Europeans have so little influence over world affairs at the start of what looks like a potentially tumultuous decade?  

“Nobody could say that from any one moment war was an impossibility for the next ten years … we could not rest in a state of unpreparedness on such an assumption by anybody. To suggest that we could be nine and a half years away from preparedness would be a most dangerous suggestion”.

Arthur Balfour, former British Prime Minister, 1919


Headline: In a perhaps chilling taster of the coming decade of power and fracture, President Trump last Friday ordered the killing of Iran’s most influential military officer and second most important political figure, Major-General Qasem Soleimani. Iran responded by launching twenty-two medium-range ballistic missiles at US forces based at Iraq’s Al-Asad base and Arbil in Northern Iraq. Is war imminent? Unlikely. Iran does not appear to wish to confront US armed forces head on, probably because Tehran has an informed appreciation of the power the Americans could unleash if so moved. The immediate strategic choice both Americans and Iranians face is whether the greater threat to them is posed by Daesh, or each other.

Implications: The crisis is by no means over and the Middle East is extremely volatile. Soleimani might have been the very essence of Iran’s regional-strategic imperialism and Tehran’s strategy of destabilising its neighbours through a host of proxy wars, but he was only the architect of the strategy. Soleimani successfully blurred state and non-state action, which is at the heart of this crisis and the changing character of war in the region and beyond. His importance to the Tehran regime should not be under-estimated, nor the symbol of Iranian power he represented, and Iran greatly feels his loss. Soleimani was Commander of Iran’s Quds Force, the central pillar of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC), and the de facto Iranian Chief of the Defence Staff, much to the discomfort of the Iranian Army and parts of the regime led by President Rouhani.

In the wake of the missile retaliation, it is highly likely Iran will intensify its proxy war in Iraq against US and allied forces, with potentially profound regional-strategic implications, because it believes it is succeeding in dismembering Iraq and forcing what is left into its sphere of influence. If that happens the further implications would be far-reaching both for the region, Europe and the world beyond. Iran clearly thinks the West might be entering what could be the final phase of a military withdrawal from the region, much to the benefit of Tehran, Damascus and Moscow. The Kurds are close to seceding from Iraq, which would almost certainly see Turkey move in force into the north of the country. Western efforts to counter Daesh and strengthen the Iraqi state would end. The NATO Training Mission-Iraq has already been suspended, although the Alliance has promised to up its counter-terror activities. Iran has also suspended its participation in the admittedly moribund Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal, from which the US withdrew in 2018. Tehran has also promised to again begin refining uranium, albeit at a level below weapons grade. The danger to Iran is Daesh, which is reconstituting, albeit in a more fragmented and digital form than hitherto.

For all Tehran’s bullishness the Iranians are right to be cautious about triggering a large-scale force-on-force clash with the Americans, something Moscow has no doubt emphasised to Tehran. Iran has gained much from being seen to tweak the American tiger’s tail, which has helped the Persian state galvanise anti-US forces across much of an Arab world with which Tehran has traditionally had a complex and difficult relationship. For Tehran to put its head in the tiger’s mouth would invite the Americans to bite it off. Moreover, by skilfully making itself a pivotal power in the Middle East, Tehran has also built powerful alliances beyond the region, most notably with President Putin’s Russia, although Iran’s relationship with Turkey has worsened since President Erdogan’s 2019 decision to launch a military offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria.

China could also now play a critical role in a region where Beijing’s influence is growing. In 2019, Iran signed up to China’s One Belt, One Road plan, with Beijing now assisting the Iranian armed forces with training and the development of advanced military systems. China, a major market for Iranian oil, has also said it could even go to war to protect Iran, although there is little sign of Beijing wishing to do so in this instance. It is likely Beijing is also urging caution on Tehran.

Strategic implications I: lawfare versus warfare

What do the events of the past week say about Western cohesion and European influence? Neither the US nor Europe writ large have a strategic plan, let alone a shared plan, to help move the Middle East beyond the matrix of unstable balances that constitute the cold peace therein: sectarian, regional-strategic and geopolitical.

Europeans have adopted an essentially legalistic response to this crisis. The specific point at issue for them concerns the right of a state to act pre-preemptively in self-defence. In 1837, British forces chased American and Canadian rebels up the River Niagara on board a boat named the Caroline into US territory, and then destroyed it. The British claimed they were acting in self-defence. The ensuing 1838 Webster-Ashburton Treaty set a precedent in international relations that has hitherto acted as a benchmark. The so-called Caroline Test for self-defence deems an action must be “…instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation”.

The principle is important for Europeans given the damage Realpolitik has done to Europe in the past. There is a profound sense in many European capitals that the world is slipping back to ‘might is right’, and that if the world’s most powerful democracy is seen to disregard such prescripts it establishes a precedent that autocracies, such as China, Russia and, of course, Iran, will exploit.

Interestingly, the US has traditionally taken a slightly different ‘shining city on the hill’ view of international law and its right to act unilaterally. Many American leaders have believed the essential purpose of such law is to constrain Europeans from taking extreme action against each other. In other words, the US has always seen itself as a form of Leviathan in international affairs. At critical moments Washington reserves the right act in what it deems to be the common public good and the maintenance of order in international affairs.

Strategic implications 2: Europe and the cauldron of geopolitics

With the emergence of the EU as an international actor, complete with its own legal identity as an actor, Europeans have retreated steadily from power politics. This is even as their power to influence events and people has been further eclipsed by the return of said power politics. However, there are several other reasons why European influence over the Middle East is weak. First, historic European interventions in the region by the British, French and Italians are blamed by many therein for much of the contemporary fissions of the Middle East. For example, the Iranians tend to see a British plot round every Tehran corner. Second, many Europeans believe the Middle East is simply too complicated and too difficult to engage to effect. Establishing an effective European policy and strategy for the region would be hard. Where to start? To what end? With what means and over how long? Third, the Middle East is seen by many Europeans to be the responsibility of the United States, albeit an America that wobbles uncertainly between strategic engagement, punishment and withdrawal. Washington’s not-at-all clear policy-planning process exaggerates Iran’s power and influence. The Trump administration’s desire to both ‘bring the boys home’, avoid complex foreign entanglements, and defeat Iran are not compatible.

And yet, many whilst Europeans disagree with the Americans over how to resolve the many regional tensions which abound in the Middle East, particularly the critical regional-strategic conflict between Israel and the Palestinians that Iran manipulates to effect across the Levant, they are also content to hide behind the US. As with so many difficult strategic issues Europeans complain about the Americans, but are only too happy to cede leadership to them.

Strategic implications 3: Europe’s real crisis management challenge

There is a wider concern that Europeans need collectively to address. Moments of dangerous confrontation, such as the Soleimani Crisis, reveal the extent to which Europeans have become locked into a seemingly interminable exercise of strategic and political navel-gazing that is the European Union, Many Europeans now routinely absent themselves from external danger by explicitly pleading the need to focus on institution-building, and implicitly the ‘enduring’ need to protect themselves from each other. Consequently, decision-making in action is now so complicated that inaction has become the European strategic method, an alibi to justify doing nothing.

The most egregious example of this is the failed experiment in common inaction that is the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, and the lamentable Common Security and Defence Policy. For too many Europeans, Brussels to the fore, geopolitics has become a game of living Stratego, in which inaction has few or no consequences, and in which appearance rather than substance is what passes for statecraft – the art of pretending to conduct state affairs in strategic complexity.

The 2020s will surely disabuse Europeans of such complacency, the only question is when and to what extent the shock when it comes. The US-Iranian stand-off, for that is what it is, must remind Europeans that if they fail to engage more fully and more effectively in world affairs they will surely become victims of them. Therefore, Europeans must urgently re-engage threats rather than export that responsibility to others, and by so doing impose difficult choices and actions on them, and then complain when the manner and nature of any such action is not to their liking. 

The Soleimani Crisis also reinforces the need for Europeans to exert greater influence over the choices made by an America ever more in need of capable, able and willing allies. Allies that are also able and willing to share risk with Americans, and thus earn the right not just to speak truth to American power, but be heard by it.  A Europe that no longer bleats from the strategic side-lines in the vain hope that the toxic power of adversaries and enemies will somehow leave it alone in a world increasingly characterised by strategic predators and prey. A Europe that no longer seeks a free ride from anyone and which no longer goes strategic AWOL when it matters. A Europe that finally ends the strategic vacation upon which, for too long, too many of its leaders, have slumbered.

Course of action: the E3 must lead

Common European inaction is dead, long live collective European action. Such leadership can only come from the so-called ‘E3’, Britain, France and Germany, working in concert. The Joint Declaration on the crisis by Prime Minister Johnson, President Macron, and Chancellor Merkel, clearly points to such a future. Europe’s two permanent members of the UN Security Council, Britain and France, in conjunction with powerful Germany, must lead Europeans back to strategic seriousness. Such a proposal may seem counter-intuitive given Britain will this month formally leave the EU. However, far from drifting apart the three powers must make strenuous efforts to realign their foreign and security policies.

The EU? For all its failings as a tool of statecraft the EU still has an important role to play in securing Europe’s external border and promoting coherence. However, only the E3 have any chance of corralling Europeans to effect in the face of the dangerous geopolitics of the 2020s, and afford the US allies of real substance who can both support and constrain Washington, as and when required. For that to happen Berlin, London and Paris must themselves rescue their own respective strategic cultures from the defeatism, short-termism, declinism and strategic introspection which has for too long afflicted all their respective elites to some extent or another. In other words, they must again learn to think big and act big together!

The specific focus of E3 efforts in the immediate aftermath of this crisis should be the rehabilitation of the JCPOA. The specific outcome Europeans should seek is the return of the US to the Accord, in return for the lifting of some sanctions on Iran and, critically, the opening of discussions to include limits on ballistic missile arsenals in some form of protocol. It will not be at all easy for Europeans to achieve this, but as Churchill once said, ‘jaw-jaw is better than war-war”. In any case, effective statecraft is not the practice of the easy.

Conclusion: Europe now end its virtual Ten Year Rule

The Soleimani Crisis is simply another marker on the descending road towards a Middle Eastern war. It is the absence of strategy and statecraft that makes the Middle East so dangerous, to itself and the wider world. Just as there are never silver bullet solutions in Europe, there are certainly none in the Middle East. Europe’s very experience of conflict mitigation at home could at least help prevent the worst effects of a Middle East sliding steadily towards another major war. However, for Europeans to collectively play such a role they will need to generate a level of strategic ambition, responsibility and cohesion they have hitherto only pretended to aspire to. Europeans must thus stop talking the talk of power and values, and finally walk its walk.

In August 1919, at the behest of the then Secretary of State for War and Air Winston Churchill, Britain adopted the so-called Ten Year Rule. Under the Rule Britain assumed that it would not be engaged in a major war for at least a decade, and thus could cut defence spending accordingly. In March 1932, shortly before the rise of Hitler in Germany, Britain scrapped the Ten Year Rule. In 1934, following the collapse of the Geneva-based World Disarmament Conference, and the effective defenestration of the League of Nations, Britain embarked on a massive military rearmament programme which helped it narrowly avert defeat in 1940. Too many European leaders are trapped into a kind of virtual Ten Year Rule that affords them the comforting blanket of delusional false security. Europeans cannot be safe, nor will they make its own region or the wider world safe, if they continue to hide in the virtual world they have created and continue to justify their choice to be weak.

This is because sooner or later the dangerous world on Europe’s doorstep will engulf it. The Middle East is but a symptom of a wider geopolitical malaise, in which balances of power and spheres of influence are magnified through the lens of many hatreds. The world’s two superpowers, plus a host of other powers, some in the Middle East, are once again engaged in an arms race.  In that light, more than ever, the world needs an engaged Europe, a Europe credibly able to exert influence in all its forms, a contemporary Europe that can credibly and collectively uphold the values it claims to espouse.  A Europe willing to exert the one thing that has been sadly missing for so long – leadership.  Peace will need defending, as will democracy and freedom, and Europeans will be needed to defend them.

Professor Dr S.J. Lindley-French – Chair & Founder of TAG – Geopolitics, Strategy and Innovation.website