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In martyrdom moment for Iran, America’s own goal

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The U.S.’s hand in the Soleimani assassination may have only aided Iran by stirring up nationalist and religious passions

The death of Qassem Soleimani, one of the most important military leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, who designed and executed the spread of Iranian power across West Asia, is a blow to the regime. For over two decades, he commanded the Qods Force, the external security and intelligence operations unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. His assassination, by a U.S. drone outside Baghdad airport on January 3, did not only point to the Islamic regime’s inability to protect the life of a top General but also left a hole in Iran’s credible deterrence. But a bigger question is this: do these military setbacks weaken the regime? What appears to be happening is just the contrary.

Till a few weeks ago, the regime was fighting to quell widespread dissent and protests. Economic hardships, largely because of crippling American sanctions along with the oppressive policies of the government, had triggered mass rallies across the country in early December, which were put down brutally. Hundreds were feared killed by the security personnel and thousands arrested. The regime was in an embattled state. But a few weeks later, millions thronged the streets of Tehran, Mashhad, Ahvaz, Qom and Kerman to mourn the death of a military leader and a staunch defender of the Islamic revolution in one of the greatest displays of public support for the regime. Soleimani united the several political factions in Iran through his martyrdom, which he could not even have dreamt of when he was alive.

This unprecedented emotional display for a general who U.S. President Donald Trump called a “terrorist” has its roots in Iran’s history and faith. Iran is a civilisation state, not just a nation state. For centuries it has remained a political entity, even before the idea of a modern nation state emerged, defined by Persian civilisation. Since the Safavid dynasty adopted Shia Islam as the official religion of the empire, Iran (Persia) has been majority Shia. And since the 1979 Islamic revolution that overthrew the Pahlavi monarchy, the two key pillars that carried the revolutionary state were political Shiism and nationalism. In Iran, martyrdom is one of the central tenets of both. Shias revere their martyrs, starting from Imam Ali. By making Soleimani, an adherent of the Shia Islamic revolution, a martyr, Mr. Trump, knowingly or unknowingly, has stirred emotions of this collective victimhood of the Shias and the nationalist pride of millions of Iranians.

Politics of martyrdom

After Prophet Mohammed’s death, his followers were divided on who should be his successor as the rightful leader of the ummah (the Muslim community). One faction wanted the successor from Mohammed’s family. They supported Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, while the other faction supported Abu Bakr, a companion of the Prophet. Abu Bakr became the first Caliph. Ali eventually became the fourth Caliph. The supporters of Ali became Shias and the followers of the Rashidun Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali) became Sunnis. Ali’s reign was marked by conflicts within the Islamic community and he was killed amid the Sunni-Shia power struggle, becoming the first martyr of Shia Islam. His son, Hassan, the second Imam of the Shias, assumed the Caliphate but would soon abdicate in the face of growing challenges and threats from the Umayyads. Hussein, Ali’s second son, refused to pledge loyalty to the Umayyads ruler, Yazid. In 680, Hussein and 72 of his followers were killed in Karbala, in today’s Iraq, by the army of Yazid. Hussein, who is the third Shia Imam, was beheaded and his head was brought to Damascus for Caliph Yazid.

The Battle for Karbala holds enormous significance in both Shia faith and political Shiism. For the Shia believers, the Imam who refused to compromise on his beliefs even at the expense of his life, was the epitome of sacrifice. For political Shias, the Imam who challenged the corrupt Yazid caliphate was the epitome of courage. (Shias across the world take out Ashura processions on the 10th of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calender, to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein.) During the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini had invoked both sacrifice and courage to mobilise the public against the rule of the Shah, Reza Pahlavi. The monarch, according to Khomeini, was the new Yazid. He urged Hussein’s followers, the oppressed, to rise. And it worked. Millions, from different streams of politics, joined the uprising against the Shah, forcing him to flee. After the monarchy’s collapse, the Islamists captured the state in 1979, and turned it into an Islamic republic.

After the revolution, many experts and world leaders expected that the Mullahs would not be able to retain power in a country that was modern and secular. Within a year of the revolution, then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, launched an invasion to precipitate the expected fall of the Ayatollah. It was a time when the Mullahs were finding it difficult to stabilise the post-revolutionary country. Leftists, trade unionists, Islamists and liberals had all joined the protests against the Shah and the Mullahs’ capturing of the leadership of the revolution had created fissures within this coalition. But when Saddam attacked Iran, it became easy for Khomeini to mobilise people behind his leadership. Saddam was the new Yazid. The Islamic regime carried out a brutal purge against leftists and liberals at home without triggering any regime-threatening public response while the war was under way. In other words, the war Saddam launched with help from the Sunni kingdoms in the region as well as the U.S. helped the Mullahs tighten their grip on Iran. During the war, Iranians carried out several suicide attacks against Iraqi troops, because for them “martyrdom” is god’s approval of their path. For most Shia militias in the region, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Badr Brigade in Iraq, martyrdom is the bravest path to the “heavenly abode”.

A misreading

What is unfolding now in Iran and Iraq has echoes from the past. In March 2019, while awarding the Order of Zulfaqar to Soleimani, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, said, “I hope that Allah the Exalted will reward and bless him (Soleimani) with a blissful life and that He will make his end marked by martyrdom. Of course, not so soon.” In less than a year, Soleimani is a martyr. By making him one, the U.S. has actually played into the political Shia narrative. For a political ideology that thrives in the memory of victimhood, persecution, the martyrdom of Soleimani is as much a blessing as a setback. That is where Mr. Trump has erred.

What is the best outcome the U.S. could expect from this ongoing conflict with Iran? It is a change in the regime with minimum cost. An invasion would be catastrophic and there is no guarantee that the regime would still fall. The other risk-free option, which the U.S. appears to be pursuing, is to squeeze the Iranian economy, and create internal discord that could cumulatively weaken the regime. But then Mr. Trump decides to take out Qassem Soleimani, stirring up nationalist and religious passions, allowing Ayatollah Khamenei to seize the moment. Mr. Trump may not have realised that he has just scored an own goal.

stanly.johny@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 12:41:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/in-martyrdom-moment-for-iran-americas-own-goal/article30551697.ece

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