Iran’s mullahs taking advantage of unexpected sacrificial lamb

By Claude Salhani

US President Donald Trump may sound victorious when talking about the killing of the Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani by a US drone. Trump may have looked victorious when he announced the slaying of Soleimani, the head of al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whom Trump accused of being responsible for the death of thousands of people, including hundreds of Americans.

Trump no doubt believes he is following the right path by ordering the assassination of a lethal enemy. As much as we would like to believe the Trump administration was correct in targeting Soleimani, it seems Iran is playing chess while the United States is playing checkers.

The winner in this round of political/military sparring could be, not Trump or the United States, but the regime of the ayatollahs in Iran.

The death of Soleimani, as perceived in Iran, comes at an opportune time for the revolution that was running out of steam. Seen as a villain in the rest of the world, Soleimani was regarded as nothing short of a national hero in Iran.

There is no doubt of the role the charismatic 62-year-old general was someone who promoted terrorism when it suited the interests of Iran in pursuing its foreign policy through the use of proxies.

There is also no doubt of the role Soleimani played in meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and the Palestinian territories.

That he was an evil person responsible for the death of hundreds of people, again there is no doubt. Also, that Iran has lost an important player in its struggle to remain in power and to mark its position on the global political landscape is also certain.

However, the Iranian revolution will continue through this bump in the road; one the mullahs hope will be a long road. This is where their chessboard can easily be turned upside down.

Why and how are the mullahs pursuing their quest to outsmart the Americans in this round?

A look at the crowds that oozed onto the streets of Tehran to accompany the body of assassinated general to his final resting place were chanting a refrain as old as the revolution: “Marg bar Amrika” (“Death to America”).

This was the rallying cry from the very early days of the Islamic Revolution. It must have been sweet music to the mullahs.

So the mullahs have bought some time by offering the revolution this unexpected sacrificial lamb.

Of course, Iran’s ruling mullahs, as it is the case with all authoritarian states, have an interest in diverting the attention of the population to the notion of outside threats. Blaming the United States for all their troubles is a time-honoured tradition for the rulers of Tehran.

Their approach can be short-lived because people quickly discover that the reasons that had previously sent them into the streets have been unresolved. The show of solidarity for the slain hero will quickly be forgotten.

Sooner or later, the people will remind their government of their demands for better living conditions.

Blaming the US bogeyman will probably work for a while and will serve to ease some of the pressure from an unhappy street but the mullahs are living on borrowed time because the unaddressed fundamental demands put forward by the protesters will come back to haunt them.

All that is obvious in the manner the Iranians responded to the killing of their beloved general: Threaten the United States with fire and brimstone but respond in a very calculated manner by launching their missiles on a practically deserted section of al Asad Airbase in Iraq where there were no Americans, therefore avoiding escalating the situation.

In the eyes of his own people, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remained defiant in the face of the United States and retaliated — by shelling an Iraqi airbase — where there were no casualties.

In Washington, Trump comes across as a president who is not afraid of going to war (though he should be). He wastes no time in ordering an additional 3,500 troops to the Middle East, thus flexing US military muscle. That will help with the 2020 presidential election, now just around the corner, and it will help the Iranians push their anti-US rhetoric.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist for The Arab Weekly.

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