THE VIEW FROM ASIA

Soleimani’s death opens nuclear can of worms

Iranians burning American and Israeli flags during the funeral procession for Iran’s Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, who was killed by the US in an air strike in Baghdad on Jan 3. PHOTO: REUTERS
Iranians burning American and Israeli flags during the funeral procession for Iran’s Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, who was killed by the US in an air strike in Baghdad on Jan 3. PHOTO: REUTERSPHOTO: REUTERS

Asia News Network commentators share their concerns over the likely fallout of the US’ killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in an air strike. Here are excerpts.

World War III?

Richard Heydarian

Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippines

Last week, to the shock and consternation of even leading American politicians, United States President Donald Trump, citing “self-defence”, ordered the killing of one of the most powerful military commanders in recent memory, Iran’s Major-General Qassem Soleimani.

“Reckless” was a common refrain among critics, with leading presidential hopeful Joe Biden warning: “President Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox.”

In response, Teheran has promised “severe revenge”, raising the prospect of all-out war in the world’s most unstable region.

Maj-Gen Soleimani, who played a central role in mobilising Iraqi forces to drive out Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terrorists from much of Iraq, was no ordinary general.

Even his rivals, including famed American general Stanley McChrystal, could not help but highlight that “his brilliance, effectiveness and commitment to his country have been revered by his allies and denounced by his critics in equal measure”.

Maj-Gen Soleimani, said Gen McChrystal, “helped guide Iranian foreign policy for decades – and there is no denying his successes on the battlefield”.

In effect, Maj-Gen Soleimani was a statesman who combined the roles of vice-president, defence minister and head of overseas security operations in a major Asian country.

The American attack marked the apotheosis of a new phase of conflict unleashed by Mr Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal, a landmark multilateral agreement negotiated by the Obama administration and still approved by European powers, the United Nations and leading global experts.

Such misguided unilateralism has not only led to punishing sanctions against tens of millions of innocent individuals, including children in need of medicine, but has also beckoned war.

Surely, no one wants war, which will ultimately hurt the poor, innocent and defenceless. But as Ms Barbara Tuchman memorably wrote on the genesis of World War I, never underestimate the likelihood of supposedly rational powers sleepwalking into conflict.

All politics is local, it is said. Tellingly, Mr Trump, now facing a tough re-election bid under the shadow of impeachment and economic slowdown, had warned earlier this decade: “In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran.”

US military strikes stir regional hornet’s nest

James Dorsey

The Daily Star, Bangladesh

The United States stirred a hornet’s nest that stretches far beyond Iraq when it attacked an Iranian-backed militia on the weekend.

The fallout of the US strikes was immediate in Iraq, with pro-Iranian militiamen besieging the US Embassy in Baghdad.

The strikes threw into question the future of the US military presence in Iraq, 17 years after US-led forces toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein.

They came at a moment when mass anti-government demonstrations are demanding a radical overhaul of Iraq’s political system. If protesters focused their demand for a withdrawal of all foreign forces primarily on Iranian influence prior to the US strikes, they now focus equally on the presence of US forces.

Of equal if not more far-reaching consequence is the fact that the strikes potentially bolster efforts to counter moves by Saudi Arabia to position itself as an Islamic hegemon based on its financial muscle and appeal as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. The backing of the efforts by allies and states with which the US maintains sometimes increasingly complex relationships, including Malaysia, Turkey and Qatar, complicates issues for the Trump administration.

For its part, the Trump administration is likely counting on Saudi and United Arab Emirates financial muscle to prevent the Iraqi crisis from sparking a groundswell of anti-US sentiment elsewhere in the Muslim world.

A forced US withdrawal from Iraq, even if countries like Saudi Arabia are able to limit the fallout in the Muslim world, would significantly bolster anti-US forces and hand them a victory.

It would likely not spark the jihadist movement that emerged from Afghanistan, but it would put considerable wind in the sails of those seeking to counter US and Saudi influence in the region.

Iran shouldn’t overreact

Editorial

Dawn, Pakistan

One of the more ominous developments in the aftermath of Major-General Qassem Soleimani’s killing in Baghdad last week has been Iran’s announcement on Jan 5 that it will no longer abide by the restrictions placed on it by the 2015 nuclear deal.

President Donald Trump had all but sealed the fate of the deal after unilaterally withdrawing the US from the multilateral agreement in 2018. Now, with Teheran’s latest announcement, clearly in reaction to Maj-Gen Soleimani’s assassination, the deal is practically dead.

 
 

Iran was already not getting any major economic benefits from the historic accord, hailed as a triumph of international diplomacy when it was reached between Iran and the P5+1 – the five permanent United Nations Security Council members plus Germany.

The US’ exit led to a crippling regime of sanctions that has done major damage to Iran’s economy. Now, as the Washington-Teheran confrontation enters extremely dangerous territory, Iran’s decision to end its commitments may give the Trump administration an excuse to up the ante against the Islamic Republic even more.

In such dangerous times, Iran must act with prudence and foresight. Its reaction to the provocation must be mature and keep the interests of its people in mind. In case of a full-blown war, the Islamic Republic will have to face even greater hardships, something it cannot afford with an already enfeebled economy.

Iran may seek global support against US

Zhu Feng

China Daily, China

The United States’ killing of Major-General Qassem Soleimani, who was in Baghdad to discuss ways to “de-escalate tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran” and “mediate relations between Iraq and Iran”, is against international law.

Apart from putting Iran in a fix, the US also aims to shore up oil prices by causing turmoil in the Middle East, in order to make major economic gains.

Not only has the White House’s action aroused Iranians’ anti-US sentiments, but it will also increase the contradictions between the West and the Muslim world.

The situation may not spiral out of control in the short term, given that Teheran has never gone to extreme lengths despite obvious US provocations, yet Maj-Gen Soleimani’s assassination has given Iran a convenient excuse to abandon the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran will not seek traditional military revenge either because it is no match for the US in military power. Instead, Iran is trying to claim the moral high ground by soliciting support from countries, including Iraq, to turn international organisations and public opinion against the US for its irresponsible behaviour.

It may also appeal to the United Nations Security Council and the International Criminal Court seeking judicial arbitration. 

Trumping international law

Editorial

The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

Being a superpower comes with its own perks; one of those advantages is that rules don’t apply to you.

When some international laws and conventions are not to your liking, you can opt out and go your own way. For a superpower like the United States, it has always been “my way or the highway”.

This American “exceptionalism” has gone on for years and the administration of Republican President Donald Trump only took it to a brazenly new level. As if to match Mr Trump’s bluster, US military might has been used to bring forth brute force to hit US enemies. The assassination of Iran’s leader of the elite military Quds Force, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, is just the latest example.

Every sensible world leader must try to stop this madness and start ramping up diplomacy to solve the US-Iranian stand-off. There should also be a mass movement to dissuade Mr Trump and his foreign policy cabal from kicking off a new stage of “endless war” in the Middle East.

Trump’s bid to show he is a strong president

Editorial

The Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan

Tensions between the United States and Iran have become even more intense.

 
 

US President Donald Trump said he ordered the operation to kill Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, emphasising the legitimacy of his action by describing the commander as a “terrorist ringleader”.

The problem is how much Mr Trump perceived the risk of fanning anti-American sentiment in Iran and Iraq and exacerbating the situation. He has opened himself to criticism if, with the US presidential election set for November, he placed priority on attempting to show the people that he is a strong president.

The deterioration in the US-Iraq relationship and the US military’s withdrawal will only benefit Iran. Mr Trump has a responsibility to rebuild relations with Iraq and present a comprehensive strategy for stabilising the Middle East. In response to the killing of the commander, there is the possibility that Iran will use armed groups supported by the Revolutionary Guards, among others, and attack US troops deployed in the Middle East.

A chain of retaliation will escalate the situation, which could lead to contingent clashes. As a regional power, Iran should restrain itself from acting to destabilise the circumstances. There should never be a situation in which civilian ships are targeted and their safety threatened in the Strait of Hormuz.

A new form of Talebanism

Editorial

The Island, Sri Lanka

The new world order is such that whenever an American president gets into trouble at home, the countries perceived to be hostile to the United States fear hails of bombs. President Donald Trump, following his recent impeachment, wants to do a Captain America and shore up his crumbling image in view of the next presidential election. He is all out to provoke Iran into providing him with a casus belli, so that he can clear the US missile stocks nearing their use-by dates.

As part of his strategy, last week, he had Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani assassinated while the latter was in Iraq. The New York Times informs us that when Mr Trump’s top military advisers offered the option to kill Maj-Gen Soleimani, they assumed it would be rejected as too extreme. This is hard to believe. They know Mr Trump, and all of them are hawks.

Mr Trump wants Iran to take US aggression lying down. He tweeted that cultural sites were among the 52 Iranian targets the US had earmarked for attacks. He threatened that Iran would be “hit very fast and very hard”.

Is there any difference between a person who is ready to obliterate world heritage sites and the Taleban terrorists who destroyed the Bamiyan Buddha statues? Reflected in Mr Trump’s tweeted threat is a new form of Talebanism.

Meanwhile, Iran has pulled out all the stops for its nuclear programme. Teheran has announced that there will be no restrictions whatsoever on uranium enrichment, production, research and expansion.

A nuclear-capable Iran will only aggravate the situation, but it is not the only threat. Each and every nation with nuclear weapons is a danger.


• The View From Asia is a compilation of articles from The Straits Times’ media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 24 news media titles.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 12, 2020, with the headline 'Soleimani’s death opens nuclear can of worms'. Print Edition | Subscribe