There was a big temptation last week for me to abandon a story I already planned for  the week and comment on the assassination of Qasem Soleimani by remotely controlled US drones on January 3 2020.  Soleimani, a powerful and shadowy 62-year-old spymaster, was the head of Iran’s security machinery whose accomplishments shaped the creation of a Shiite axis of influence across the Middle East, with Iran as the facilitator and financier. It was obvious that his assassination, which Donald Trump admitted he ordered, would open a new chapter of geopolitical tension across the region. Trump was quoted as saying that he ordered the “precision strike” because the Iranian top commander was planning an “imminent and sinister attacks” on Americans, meaning that he regarded his killing as deterrence and not an act of aggression.  Iran’s ambassador to the UN Majid Takht Ravanchi said the killing was “tantamount to opening a war” and promised that Iran would revenge.

With the U.S not backing down, and threatening severe punishment for any attack, I felt that the events were still evolving and therefore decided to continue with the planned article on China’s increasing influence in Africa and the debt crisis of some of the countries in the continent, which China’s lending practices are often accused of exacerbating.

One of the issues raised by America’s killing of Soleimani  is the proper application of the doctrine of self-defence, which in international relations, is quite complicated.  For instance though Article 51 of the United Nations Charter demands that the Security Council should authorize the use of force  against a state, it also legitimises the use of force where a state is exercising its recognised right to individual or collective self-defence.  States often stretch the doctrine of self defence to include both actions targeted at preventing an enemy from acquiring the capacity to attack (‘preventive self-defence’) and those designed to foil a perceived imminent attack (‘pre-emptive self defence’). The danger is that hegemonic states could hide under the doctrine of self defence to justify acts of aggression. Donald Trump accused Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, who was until his killing the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, of “murdering thousands of U.S troops”, of killing an American contractor in December 2019, and of orchestrating subsequent attacks on the US Embassy. Iran obviously has its own side of the story. The point is that ‘self-defence’ is a nebulous concept that could be used to justify any action against an enemy state.

The other issue thrown up by the killing of Soleimani is the manner Iran would revenge. Iran has invested heavily in allies and proxies across the Middle East since the 1979 revolution that deposed the American-backed Shah and gave rise to the Islamic Republic of Iran. While religion and ideology drive Iran’s Middle East policy, the country is also keen to project power in the region to counter the U.S, Israeli and Saudi influence.  The latter is a major reason many feel Iran is bound to retaliate the killing of Soleimani: it needs to re-assure its allies and proxies that it has the muscle to counter these three countries in the region.  Not many expect Iran to retaliate by a conventional attack on the U.S which is far more superior militarily. The expectation rather is that it will harness its asymmetric capabilities to inflict some damages either on the US, its interests or its allies. But the problem here is that Iran knows that retaliation may invite massive response, even a military attack on the country from Donald Trump who is increasingly vulnerable at home and may need such an attack to galvanize Americans behind him. This may help him with his current problems at home and may even help him win  re-election.

More importantly is that some countries now feel that they need a nuclear bomb to feel safer in an increasingly anarchic world. However to develop such nuclear capability requires that the hegemonic powers do not consider you a threat – otherwise they will never allow you to get it. Iran knows too well that any misstep will provide the USA and Israel the opportunity they need to attack the country and destroy its nuclear programme. This means that despite its howling and threats of retaliation, Iran is also not unmindful of the consequences of an ‘unpalatable revenge’. It is therefore caught in a catch 22 situation: on the one hand it needs to demonstrate that it can revenge, on the other hand, it is not unmindful of the cost of any revenge – even from its asymmetric capabilities.

Iran’s first revenge was to launch 16 ballistic missile attacks on Iraqi bases housing US soldiers on January 8 2020 –five days after the killing of Soleimani. The revenge came earlier than expected but resulted in no death and caused only “minimal damages”. This prompted Donald Trump to declare that  “Iran appears to be standing down.”

Remarkably Iran’s admission of unintentionally shooting down an Ukranian jetliner on January 8 2020 killing all the 176 passengers on board seems to provide a soft landing for both Iran and the USA to de-escalate tensions in the region. Iran said it was an “unforgivable mistake”  from its military – after days of rejecting Western intelligence reports that pointed to Tehran being responsible. Iran’s President and Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also offered apologies and condolences to the affected families. Many Iranians still remember with emotion and anger the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by surface-to-air missile fired from USS Vincennes, a guided missile cruiser of the U.S Navy on July 3 1988, killing all the 290 passengers on board.  With the guilt resulting from the  tragic shooting down of the Ukrainian jet liner, the burden of expectation of revenge for the killing of Soleimani from Iran’s allies and proxies is largely removed. However in the very complicated politics of the Middle East, the ghost of Soleimani may still be hovering around.