“The surprise was not Soleimani’s death, but the unity it fostered”

My latest in Middle East Eye: On 3 January, the new year began not only with a violent bang, but also with a tectonic shift – and not the one that anybody expected.

The surprise was not the US air strike on Qassem Soleimani, who commanded Iran’s Quds Force, the foreign operations unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, but rather the reaction to it.

Soleimani’s death was not unexpected. He was a soldier who survived the devastating Iran-Iraq War. His military career continued well after the end of the war in 1988, and he eventually became the Quds Force commander in the late 90s.

A ‘living martyr’

Soleimani dutifully developed and implemented Iran’s regional security architecture, which evolved into the era of the Arab uprisings and the Syrian civil war. In the latter, he coordinated militias to fight alongside a depleted and exhausted Syrian army.

When the Islamic State (IS) began marching on Iraq’s cities in the summer of 2014 and eventually reached the gates of Baghdad, the world was slow to react – except for Soleimani. He was the first foreign leader on the scene to shore up resistance to IS. He commanded troops and militias not from a distant, fortified encampment, but by moving freely in the world’s most tumultuous region, where countless groups, least of all IS, vowed to kill him.

It is thus no surprise that he ultimately fell. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei often referred to him as a “living martyr” before his death.

As with any military commander who fought in wars, Soleimani had allies and enemies. As such, there were those who welcomed his assassination – a welcome that CNN played on loop when a sparsely populated, spontaneous march in Syria’s Idlib celebrated his demise.

But the real surprise was the groundswell of solidarity that his death generated. His body was not immediately returned to Iran to receive burial rites; rather, he was kept in Iraq so that regular Iraqis and the militiamen he backed could take his coffin to Iraq’s shrine cities, including Najaf and Karbala, the hallowed grounds of Shia Islam.

Throngs of Iraqis gathered to commemorate him and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the Kataib Hezbollah militia who was also killed in the US strike.

Hallowed grounds

The bodies of Soleimani, Muhandis and several others were then transported to Ahvaz, an Iranian city with a history of dissent, and Kerman, where Soleimani was born and where millions gathered to pay their respect. The massive domestic shows of support underscore how foreign aggression is a red line that can bring Iranians together even after the polarisation resulting in the state’s brutal crackdown on the November protests.

More to the point, he was also taken to the shrine city of Mashhad. For the first time in the modern period, a political figure received burial rites in hallowed grounds in both Iran and Iraq, a watershed moment that cannot be overstated.

In Tehran, the bodies were placed in front of mourners who gathered behind Khamenei as he led prayers for the departed, with their coffins wrapped in Iranian and Iraqi flags. Indeed, Iran’s leader prayed in front of the colours of a country with which Iran fought the longest conventional war of the 20th century.

Again, what is surprising is not their deaths, but the manner by which Iranians and Iraqis have come together in solidarity. Despite the war of the 1980s that was very much a byproduct of Cold War politics, Iranians and Iraqis share a long history in which culture, religion and even ethnicity overlap.

Muhandis, for example, was born in Basra to an Iraqi father and Iranian mother. He married an Iranian woman after going into exile not to a fellow Arab country, but to neighbouring Iran. He returned to Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003, and emerged as a commander during the bloodletting of the subsequent sectarian civil war.

Their killing at the hands of the US fosters a unity that speaks to a larger issue. Western media presents Iran’s role in the Middle East as an insidious foreign actor with “tentacles reaching far and wide”, as CNN’s Michael Holmes put it.

Sprawling US military infrastructure

Iran has long-standing ties with countries and communities throughout the region. The Shia communities in Iran and Lebanon have a centuries-long history, with roots in the 1500s, when the Safavid shahs imported Lebanese clerics to Iran to preach Shia Islam to their subjects.

In the 1980s, Syria was the only Arab country that sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, which explains why Iran mobilised to help stave off the collapse of the Syrian government.

In the US political lexicon, Iran has “tentacles” and “proxies”, while the US merely has regional “allies” and “security interests” that encompass a military presence encircling Iran from Afghanistan to the east, Iraq to the west, and the Persian Gulf to the south.

The US has long been flooding the region with arms, and US invasions and interventions – including the recent seizure of Syrian oil fields – are naturalised within the ideological framework of a self-affirming imperial discourse. That is, US “security interests” no longer simply mean safeguarding the homeland, but also expanding and protecting the sprawling US military infrastructure overseas.

The killing of Soleimani and Muhandis, the unprecedented mourning processions in their honour, and the recent parliamentary vote in Iraq calling for a total US withdrawal, underscore the emerging unity against this ever-expanding US military presence – one that US commentators have internalised when they use a discourse that fails to realise that Iran is native to the Middle East, and the US is not.

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“Iranian Americans on edge as tensions surge: ‘The fear is palpable'”

My quotes in The Guardian: “Pouya Alimagham, a lecturer and historian who was at home with his parents in Orange county when the news broke, noted that it was unnerving to watch US media programs feature rightwing thinktank heads and retired military personnel while largely excluding Iranian perspectives.

‘We’ve been on a rollercoaster ride for months,’ he added. ‘We’ve been talking about escalation for the past six months, and how this is going to lead to war … the war has already begun.'”

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“Trump has long promised to get out of endless wars – but his latest Syria move may not achieve that”

My quotes in The Independent: “Pouya Alimagham, a historian of the Middle East at MIT, says that Mr Trump’s framing of the troop withdrawal from Syria is far from reality. ‘Syria was never our war while Afghanistan was, and the Afghan war continues unabated. Furthermore, we have maintained our bases across the Middle East, and have increased our troop presence in Saudi Arabia’ he added.

Mr Alimagham believes that the US military presence across the Middle East has not helped stabilise the region but in fact added to its volatility in a dramatic way. ‘I am a critic of the US military presence in the Middle East based on the recent history of US interventions in the region, from the ill-fated invasion and occupation of Iraq, the reverberations of which continue until today, and the military support for human rights violating regimes such as in Egypt, to enabling the Saudi war in Yemen and our sabre-rattling with Iran,’ he told The Independent.

In his statement today, President Trump said that it was not possible to halt the Turkish incursion into northern Syria without deploying tens of thousands of US troops to that area. Critics however see the sudden US withdrawal as a ‘green light’ to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to move across the border and invade northern Syria. ‘In fact, it is a rare occasion for a US ally in the Middle East to commence a military operation without a US green light,’ Mr Alimagham said.”

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“Trump’s impeachment will embolden Iran to stand its ground over diplomatic crisis”

My quotes in The Independent: “Pouya Alimagham, historian of Middle Eastern at MIT, thinks Rouhani and his foreign minister Javad Zarif have risked their entire political careers on this nuclear agreement. He says the Iranian electorate voted for Rouhani in 2013 on the promise with engagement with the world, and again in 2017 on the promise that they will enjoy the economic relief promised under the 2015 nuclear agreement. Alimagham told The Independent: ‘All the while, Iranian conservatives had been saying that the nuclear agreement is a fool’s errand – that the US government’s signature is not worth the paper on which its written. With President Trump subverting the agreement, the conservatives feel vindicated, and Rouhani and Zarif have been undermined.’

He added that for Rouhani to now reward Trump by giving him what he wants, a photo-op, without the promise of anything tangible in return, is for them to further undermine themselves.

Trump wants a strong foreign policy victory ahead of the 2020 election. But the Iranians have every reason to distrust him and do not want to give him a victory without anything in return.

Alimagham says ‘confidence-building measures, especially with the power that holds almost all the leverage, is necessary. The US can reinstate the waivers so that Iran can sell some of its oil and not obstruct the French offer of $15 billion credit line.’ Since Trump was the one who scrapped the nuclear deal and imposed unilateral, crippling sanctions on Iran, the goodwill should also begin with him.”

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“U.S. Ally Japan Is Not Joining Donald Trump’s Fight with Iran, So Can It Bring Peace?”

My quotes in Newsweek: “Pouya Alimagham, a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also told Newsweek that ‘Japan can indeed play a constructive role in mediating between Iran and the U.S. It has longstanding ties with both Iran and the U.S. Iranians in general view Japan in a very favorable light,’ alluding to Japan’s 1905 victory over czarist Russia, which had long intervened in Persian affairs.

Like Azizi, Alimagham explained that ‘there’s more than just friendly relations or history that drives relations’ between the two.

‘Japan imports Iranian oil and does extensive business with Iran, and U.S. sanctions are hurting those endeavors,” he told Newsweek. “Consequently, Japanese businesses have been pressuring their government to resume oil imports and to put in place protections in support of companies wanting to return to Iran.’

Still, there were major challenges ahead, even with an ambitious diplomatic effort on Japan’s part. Alimagham said that ‘the departure of Bolton helps make de-escalation more likely, but many barriers exist,’ such as Pompeo, who readily blamed Iran for Saturday’s attacks and appeared enthusiastic to paint the Islamic Republic as a rogue actor, and regional U.S. partners such as Saudi Arabia, which was also building a case against Iran.

‘That said, and despite the bluster, neither Trump nor the Iranians want a conflict to break out between the two countries, so there’s room for hope,’ he added. ‘Japan, along with France and others, can use their ties with both countries to find common ground.’”

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