On the brink: All stakeholders must prevent escalation of US-Iran conflict

The assassination of top Iranian commander, Major General Qassim Suleimani, by a US drone strike in Iraq’s capital Baghdad, is an immensely consequential act with severe repercussions. It underlines the immense wisdom of the nuclear accord that President Barack Obama reached with Tehran in 2015, overturned since by President Donald Trump. The assassination will cause Iran to feel threatened, with short- as well as long-term consequences. It is likely to remove all restraints to Iran seeking nuclear weapons. Second, it will still moderate and pro-democratic voices in Iran as it rallies behind its ayatollahs.

Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the nuclear accord led US and Iranian interests to brush up against each other in Iraq, where both countries have strong presence. As Iran smarted under sanctions there were devastating strikes on oilfields in Saudi Arabia, its mortal enemy that also happens to be under US security protection, even as shipping in the Gulf of Oman was targeted. However, the assassination of a seniormost leader of a sovereign nation now takes the confrontation up many notches and has caused severe misgivings within the US itself, with former Vice-President Joe Biden describing it, accurately, as “a hugely escalatory move in an already dangerous region”.

The ironies of Suleimani’s assassination abound, with one of Trump’s key electoral promises having been that he would extricate America from getting embroiled in senseless wars. Neither does the charge of backing terrorists who attacked US interests hold much water, as Pakistani generals have a more established record of doing so, yet are courted rather than acted against. Moreover, Suleimani played a key role in operations against Islamic State – which not only made him a revered figure among Shia masses everywhere but may also have saved many American lives in the bargain.

Suleimani may now be a bigger threat to the US dead than alive, with collateral damage across the world if war breaks out in the region. Among other things, the reckless American action was undertaken with scant regard to Indian interests – there are close to 8 million Indians living and working in the Middle East, and any Iranian shutdown of the Strait of Hormuz would severely impede oil flows and send crude prices soaring. That would be bad news for New Delhi which is already struggling with a slowing economy. New Delhi must plan for the fallout, even as it hopes that cool heads will prevail and prevent any escalation in the US-Iran tussle.

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.

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