The immediate fallout of the US killing of General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds force and popular orchestrator of Iranian fronts across West Asia and North Africa, is the clear and distinct possibility of escalation of both regional tensions and the price of oil. Neither is good news for India. Worse would be the likely long-term consequences: faster US withdrawal from Iraq, leaving Iraq as yet another failed state of the region, ready to host resurgence of the Islamic State, and opening the doors for China to entrench itself as a regional powerbroker, along with Russia – it has already conducted joint military exercises with Russia and Iran.

After the strike, President Trump tweeted that Iran has never won a war or lost a negotiation. He might be holding out, while warning Tehran against a war, an olive branch, an offer to negotiate a revised nuclear deal, an exercise, to undertake which, Trump believes he is well-placed, having acted tough on Gen Soleimani and thus insulated himself against any charge of going soft on Iran. However, it is not just President Trump who has to contend with domestic public opinion. Gen Soleimani was a popular hero of Iranian nationalism and the Iranian regime would be loath to be seen to be swallowing his killing while on an official visit to a neighbouring country in return for some crumbs of economic concessions.

It is not just Iran that will see the missile strike from an American drone as an act of war. So will Iraq. In fact, the US drone strike on some militias associated with the Iraqi government had already provoked the beleaguered government there, whose prime minister has had to quit following prolonged protests. The US sees the militias’ attack on US facilities in Iraq that resulted in the death of a US contractor and injuries to several others as an act of war, quite apart from the protesters’ breaching of the secured perimeter of the US embassy in Baghdad.

Trump’s America-First policy offers little justification for staying on in Iraq if the Iraqi government asks it to leave. America’s shale revolution has degraded West Asia’s strategic importance for the superpower: the US is now a net exporter of energy. From Barak Obama’s time onwards, the US has been reluctant to risk American lives fighting wars to sort out local rivalries in distant lands.

Israel and Saudi Arabia are America’s staunchest allies in the region. And because of this, these nations are at risk from Iranian retaliation. Israel is capable of looking after itself in conventional war and is vulnerable only to stray rocket launches by Iran-backed forces in its neighbourhood. But Saudi Arabia is more vulnerable as the recent drone attack on its oil facilities made clear. The attacks were attributed to the Houthis, whom Saudi Arabia is fighting in Yemen. The Houthis are backed by Iran.

Iran wields influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon and has sectional support among the Shias who chafe under Sunni rule in most Arab states, including Iraq. Iran can target US facilities and personnel anywhere in the region, and the logical thing for a risk-averse American president to do is to withdraw troops from the region, except for those deployed in traditional bases, and rely on satellite and other intelligence and drone strikes to exert its might. Of course, the US cannot be seen to be turning tail and running; so, an initial show of force can be expected, killing more Arabs and arousing even more anger. The tweeted test to destroy sites important to Iranian culture touches a new low, however. Iranian culture is valuable human heritage, and by threatening to destroy its sites, President Trump lowers himself and American forces to the level of the Taliban, who destroyed the Bamian Buddhas, and the Islamic State, which plundered and destroyed invaluable archaeological sites in Iraq.

The result would almost certainly be to reinforce the popular perception of the US as the Great Satan, as Ayatollah Khomeini had branded the superpower at the height of the Iranian revolution. Anti-Americanism will likely spread in the region, and morph into rejection of the West and, in reaction, greater reliance on puritanical Islam, which is amenable to interpretations that justify terror. Reinforcement of the culture and ideology of Jihad would nurture the Islamic State and its offshoots, as well as the tendency for self-radicalisation by Muslims whose knowledge of the scripture is weaker than their access to the Internet and its plentiful supply of sectarian hatred.

The premier spy agencies of the US and Pakistan, the CIA and the ISI, had collaborated to train the Taliban as a motivated, fanatical force to drive the Soviet Red Army out of Afghanistan. A flailing economy back home and weak leadership led Russia out of Afghanistan. The result was to leave Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban, who allowed Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda to use the country as their base. The Americans realised on September 11, 2001 that creating failed states under terrorist suzerainty is dangerous for them, too. But that realisation did not translate into policy. The destabilisation of Iraq after the second Iraq war led to the emergence of the Islamic State, which promised Sunnis Islamic rule in a Caliphate that would eventually spread over the globe, in place of anarchy under nominal rule by a Shia supported by the Americans.

The Islamic State wrought havoc in the Levant, forcing the US and its Nato allies to send troops to fight them in the region. Gen Soleimani was a staunch ally in that fight against the Islamic State. After the West’s defeat in Syria, Syria is no longer a haven for the Islamic State, the rule of the Assad regime slowly asserting its authority across the country except for Idlib.

However, Libya is another place where no one is in charge and offers itself up as a place where the Islamic State can regroup. Unilateral American withdrawal from the Kurdish regions bordering Turkey broke trust, alliances and the barrier to the Islamic State’s regrouping. Now, Iraq is being destabilised once again, with local militias up in arms against American bases and troops. When the US leaves, of course, after delivering some lethal blows to the militias to show that America is still top dog, Iraq will once again become the stomping ground of Jihad.

Iraq will serve as the launchpad for Jihad’s sustained spread to Asia. The Islamic State already has a foothold in Indonesia and the Philippines and is eagerly seeking occupy its most prized target, India. India, too, will pay a price for US unilateralism and myopia under President Trump.

India must support Iran at this moment, as it is the power that can play a decisive role in stabilising the region and routing the Islamic State. India values the US as a strategic partner, but cannot accept unilateral use of superior military might as a legitimate instrumentality of settling disputes among nations. Especially when such might is used in a manner that further strengthens China as a global power.

An of course, India must pursue policies that strengthen national cohesion, not divisive pursuit of majoritarian glory. It must strengthen its economy and, use that strength to build technological and military capability that can underpin strategic autonomy.

The urgent steps we take now must not be in a direction that takes us away from that goal.

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