In 1827, while in command of a British squadron observing the ongoing war between Greek rebels and the Ottoman Caliph-sultan, Admiral Edward Codrington sailed past the entrance to Navarino Bay, caught sight of the Turkish fleet lying at anchor, and blasted it to the bottom of the bay. The absence of a state of war between Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire notwithstanding, Codrington was celebrated and promoted because beating up on Turks seemed to a lot of Brits like an intuitively good thing to do. Afterwards, since the overextended Ottomans did not respond militarily, the incident was officially declared “an untoward event.”
How does the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani stack up as a modern parallel? No state of war exists between Iran and the United States, but most Americans do seem to believe that beating up on Iran is an intuitively good thing to do. No credible casus belli has been adduced to justify the drone strike on Baghdad airport that killed Soleimani. Iran chose to make only a token military response, even though it was universally acknowledged that a more severe response would have had both right and reason on its side. And after a few tense days, everyone let out their breath. Nothing done. Just one of those things. “An untoward event.” But events do have consequences, even though “untowardness” may make them hard to clarify.
The path of clarification starts with asking how a general like Qassem Soleimani achieves celebrity status, and thereby martyr eligibility, in a clerical quasi-democracy that has not formally been at war with anyone for thirty years. What distinguishes the Iranian Revolution of 1979 from the Arab Spring events of 2011 is the success the Iranian revolutionaries had in removing from military command the colonels and generals who had been personally vetted by the Shah—that is, all of them. Those who were not executed or put on the retirement list made their way into exile, where some of them actively encouraged military action against the Islamic Republic. They achieved their greatest success by helping persuade Saddam Hossein to initiate a war that lasted for eight years, ending in a stalemate. This war, called by the Iranians “The Imposed War,” ended up cementing two potentially opposing currents of Iranian public opinion: nationalism and support for a regime dominated by clerics. This ideological fusion bought the regime a generation of domestic support and still contributes to its relative, by Middle Eastern standards, stability.
Catastrophic as the Iran-Iraq War was, the post-Arab Spring civil wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya have done greater damage to those countries. Iran emerged from its war in 1988 more-or-less unscathed physically and with incipient internal unrest among Kurds and Baluchis firmly tamped down. In addition, the leftist Mojahedin-e Khalq counter-revolutionaries had been either executed or forced into exile during the war years. Even those American neocons who continue to worship at the altar of regime change do not visualize the Iranian population dividing into rival ethnicities, sects, or regions. The same cannot be said of the four Arab countries where wars continue.
Given the close relations between the Arab militaries and their foreign backers, primarily, in recent decades, the United States and Russia/USSR, it should not be surprising, I suppose, that army officers and militia commanders ended up coopting the popular disorder generated by the Arab Spring. But I was surprised anyway. I had argued since well before the Arab Spring that the Arab officer corps based their dominance less on military competence than on two quite different sources of support: first, ever since the 1950s, the ideological belief among imperialists in both East and West that modern armies were the vanguard of national modernization and that bonds of clientage generated by weapons sales guarantee regional stability; and second, a 700-year legacy of internal political and economic domination focused on the role of senior military officers. Where Western theorists were inclined to see military officers as “change agents,” I saw them as neo-Mamluks wedded to government of, by, and for the officer corps. The shift to European-style officer training that began in the nineteenth century had failed to eliminate a long-standing tradition of officer privilege even when the recruitment of officers evolved away from the traditional preference enjoyed by Turks and Circassians.
Neo-Mamluk officers, I opined, paid more attention to building villas, marrying their children into the civilian elite, and gaining a preponderant influence in all parts of the economy, both military and civilian, than they did to economic efficiency, competent satisfaction of human needs, and listening to public grievances. Because the avowedly Muslim political movements and parties of the late twentieth century promised to correct these horrific governmental failings, I thought they should be allowed to run for office and, if elected, to enjoy at least a brief trial period to see whether they might do better. This vision of what the Arab Spring might accomplish collapsed in every country but Tunisia; but there, where the officer corps shaped by Habib Bourguiba was weakest, it has not done too badly.
Given the horror of combining religion with politics that most liberal-minded Americans express—based on a near total ignorance of both political and religious forces in the Islamic world—I now realize that any effort by elected Muslim activist governments to forcibly retire all of the senior commanders in the Egyptian, Syrian, Libyan, or Yemeni armies would have been read by the West, Russia, and the Gulf monarchies as an intolerable threat to regional security, a threat serious enough to warrant outside intervention of one sort or another. Yet officer corps destruction is exactly what the Americans did in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. Whether the resulting chaos there contributed to how the United States appraised the responses of regional military forces to the Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011 is hard to say. It is possible that a mass forced retirement of Egyptian generals with whom the US military had long-standing dealings was literally unthinkable inasmuch as it would have resembled the revolutionary elimination of the Shah’s generals. To this day, I wonder whether the United States actively or tacitly endorsed beforehand the Saudi and Kuwaiti-supported coup that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and installed yet another incompetent and insensitive neo-Mamluk dictatorship under General Sisi.
It may be that American policy-makers, looking back at the Iranian Revolution as an unparalleled disaster—those poor hostages were held, unharmed, for over a year!—felt among themselves that military dictatorship of any stripe was more desirable than Muslim political activism. Their fairly consistent posture, since 1980, of seeing the Islamic Republic as an evil theocracy and a regional sponsor of terrorism suggests that they deeply regret not prodding the Iranian army in 1979, perhaps with American military help, to slaughter protesters in the streets in order to keep the Shah in power. If so, then perhaps the hope I had nourished of new ideological forces supplanting the Arab neo-Mamluk officer corps and introducing democratic government was never more than a fantasy.
Though Egypt is safely, from an American point of view, back under military control, the 1950s model of officers being the vanguard of modernization is in tatters. The generals precipitously cashiered by American occupying forces in Iraq collaborated in establishing ISIS. Most Syrian army officers have remained loyal to the Assad regime through a series of atrocity charges. And Ali Abdullah Saleh, the late dictator in Yemen, along with the current General Hifter in Libya, actively participated in fragmentation of their countries. Meanwhile the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE have switched from bribing other Arab states to support their regimes to aggressively intervening in Yemen’s civil war and rattling their (or America’s) sabers when talking about the future of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Gulf.
In the midst of all this chaos, General Soleimani was the one and only military figure to gain public distinction as someone who had the skill, resources, and political backing to achieve his mission . . . whatever that mission may have been. Three ways of thinking about Soleimani’s mission come to mind: the Shi’ite crescent, defense in depth of Iran’s borders, and strengthening within Iran a neo-Mamluk alternative to clerical rule.
Shi’ite Crescent. It is often argued that Soleimani’s mission was to build a coalition of pro-Iranian Shi’ite forces, both state-sponsored and quasi-military, for the purpose of furthering Iranian hegemony in the Middle East, threatening Israel and Saudi Arabia, and expelling the United States from the region. This interpretation dominates official US thinking about Iran and has been adopted/fostered by Israel and America’s allies in the Gulf. It has so far been a poor predictor of Iranian actions, however.
Defense in depth. It can alternatively be argued that the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as the out-of-the-country strike force of the Iranian military is less to cobble together an unwieldy coalition of militias and proxies, whose goals do not always align with those of the Islamic Republic, than to sustain a degree of ferment outside Iran’s borders sufficient to dissuade potential foes from waging war directly on Iran and thereby risk opening a Pandora’s box brimming with unimaginable perils. Throughout its forty years of existence, a conviction that imperialist powers and their regional friends are determined to eliminate the only regime that institutionally bases itself on Islam has been a given in Iranian governing circles. Defense of the revolution has always outweighed the dream of spreading it.
Neo-Mamluk aggrandizement. The third possibility pertains to the steady growth in power and entrenchment of the Revolutionary Guard elite in Iran. For years, I have wondered about what IRGC officers serving in Syria talk about with their senior counterparts in the less-than-formidable Syrian army. Luxury housing? Business opportunities? The IRGC earned its war fighting credentials in prolonged combat during the eight-year conflict with Iraq. The Syrians, on the other hand, prior to 2011, hadn’t fought a serious war since 1967. Yet the officer corps enjoyed extensive perquisites and was deeply entrenched in the country’s economy. Did the visiting Iranians envy their Syrian counterparts’ privileges? Did the thought arise in their minds that their fellow countrymen back in Iran should learn to esteem the IRGC leadership more highly?
To my mind, this question of what General Soleimani stood for should be at the center of an assessment of his targeted assassination. If you follow the Shi’ite crescent theory, you may argue that the general was the linchpin in a very broad, long-term strategy of Iranian regional hegemony, and hence a proper and important target. (Ignoring the addled presidential mind that proclaims that Soleimani also “said bad things” about the US, had the blood of hundreds of Americans on his hands by virtue of “inventing” IEDs, and was planning immediate, or maybe not so immediate, attacks on some US assets somewhere.) If you kill the spider at the center of his web, doesn’t that also rip apart the web? I don’t believe that any policy-make anywhere thinks this; or thinks that Soleimani cannot be replaced by an IRGC commander of parallel skills.
On the other hand, from a defense in depth standpoint, the assassination was a proof of concept. The U.S., for whatever reasons, wanted to do something warlike to Iran so it launched a drone strike assassination and almost simultaneously sent third party messages saying: “No further action is in the works, so please don’t raise the stakes with lethal counterstrike.” Result? The U.S. flexes its muscle at the cost of creating a popular Iranian martyr. No other damage done to Iran, but the U.S. has demonstrated, as it did following the rocket attacks on the Saudi oil fields, that it wants to steer clear of making an attack on Iran proper. Kim Jong Un must wish that he had a proxy war crumple zone of his own somewhere so the U.S. could vent its supreme leader’s yearning for headlines in a similarly harmless demonstration.
Whichever take one prefers between these two formulations of General Soleimani’s mission, the IRGC shoot-down of a Ukrainian jetliner taking off from Tehran airport threw a monkey wrench into the works. Should demonstrators weep for the martyred general? Or for the dead air passengers? Or for their country’s military ineptitude? America’s chest-beating at having blown up another evil mastermind and shown the world that it knows how to win the war on terror drops to page eight as everyone’s fear of an airliner crash takes over the front page. Iran’s eagerness to mourn its dead hero is dimmed by news that the organization he belonged can’t maintain trigger discipline. America’s supreme leader makes light of the injuries his troops sustained during the Iranian response strike on a base in Iraq. And Iran’s supreme leader, who has a long history of championing the IRGC going back to the Iran-Iraq War, implies that one dead general is more of a tragedy than 176 innocent travelers, and fails to charge the top command of the IRGC, which initially lied about its involvement, with incompetence. I cannot imagine that even a President Trump, in the event of, say, Secretary of Defense Esper’s plane being downed over Iraq by a SAM, would continue to lash the American citizenry into a revenge-seeking frenzy if the U.S. Air Force, on alert, shot down a fully loaded Emirates jetliner the very next day.
I think it is fair to speculate that Ayatollah Khamenei’s support for the IRGC goes beyond political expediency and betrays a growth in IRGC power that threatens the integrity of the clerical state. As it continues to expand its already massive footprint in Iran’s military and civilian economy, and as it continues to conduct successfully its in-depth defense of its homeland, the IRGC may be reaching the point of being invulnerable in the Iranian political arena, just waiting for a ripe opportunity to formally institute an Arab-style neo-Mamluk regime. The successor to 80-year-old Khamenei as Supreme Leader may tell the tale.
So back to Admiral Codrington’s “untoward event.” The phrase connotes something unexpected and irregular conceived on the spur of the moment to advance an as yet unformed policy. Queen Victoria was embarrassed by what happened, but once the Greeks won their independence, the British saw the Battle of Navarino as not such a bad thing. Similarly, if Soleimani’s martyrdom, followed by the IRGC air defense calamity, should be followed within the next couple of years by a coup in Tehran formalizing an IRGC neo-Mamluk regime, won’t that make the policy-makers in Washington happy? They “understand” generals and juntas. They’ve been dealing with them for decades, even when they are vociferously anti-American. Besides, Washington has never put much effort into understanding Muslim clerics, or their popular appeal.
So one shouldn’t be surprised if yesterday’s untoward event becomes tomorrow’s shrewd military intervention.