After the death of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami promised “crushing revenge.” While visiting the bereaved daughter of Gen. Soleimani, President Hassan Rouhani was asked, “Who is going to avenge my father’s blood?” Rouhani replied, “all of us will avenge his blood.”
Prior to the “martyrdom” of Soleimani, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif had just returned from Russia and China. Zarif was dizzy with success. The allies were drawing closer. Joint naval exercises were scheduled between Russian, Chinese and Iranian warships. American unilateralism was denounced in Moscow. China promised a deepening partnership. Then Zarif came home. The world turned black. Soleimani was killed by an American drone strike. Zarif decried the killing as a “cowardly assassination.” He also called it “a dangerous escalation.” In the heat of his emotion, he obliquely referred to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as “an arrogant clown.” And then, as Iranian missiles were fired at U.S. targets, he wrote, “[The] Iranian people respond today.”
No Americans were killed. There was half-baked speculation that the Iranians “missed on purpose.” Trump vowed not to retaliate if no American lives were lost. So Zarif tweeted: “Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter….” He then added, “We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves.”
Trump declared victory and offered an olive branch. The Iranians reacted by saying that Trump should “apologize.” America will have to leave the region, eventually. Right? Let us face facts. But Iran is facing grimmer facts. There is turmoil in the leadership. U.S. sanctions have made things difficult. The government’s budget is shrinking. There are strikes and riots. Nobody knows what to do. Soleimani was a special person, a real leader. It is widely thought Soleimani’s successor cannot fill his shoes.
The situation between Iran and the United States appears to have stabilized. Here is why: Iran lacks the means to defeat the United States. The United States, on its side, lacks the will to topple the clerical regime. This is a classic stalemate which will only be broken (a) when the United States acquires the will to defeat Iran or (b) when Iran acquires the means to defeat the United States.
What has come out of this crisis?
Increased security was placed on the President of the United States. Saudi royals fled the Middle East for Europe. The price of oil futures spiked. Japanese leaders were frightened by their own helplessness. Draft age Americans suffered a momentary panic. The leaders of the Democratic Party predictably blamed Trump — casting about to recover Congress’s lost constitutional prerogatives.
So it’s over, right? The crisis is past?
No. The Iranian leaders did not get blood for blood. They now look weak and foolish, especially to themselves. In fact, they are humiliated. Trump looks strong — with gloating from his supporters. The Iranian foreign minister publicly affirmed that Iran made its “measured response.” But Javad Zarif is a very smooth and polished liar. Even as he declares that revenge has been taken, the Red Flag of Martyrdom and War flies over the Jamkaram Mosque near the city of Qom. It was raised to mark the death of General Soleimani. It cannot be taken down until the general is avenged.
There is an iron logic to what follows. The Iranian leaders have no good options. To do nothing is fatal. To take revenge is fatal. They seem to be backing down. Perhaps they want to back down. But they really cannot — except as a deception. There is a clock on this. The Ayatollah must press ahead. Soleimani is now the brother of the Martyred Hussein. On the red flag of war we read the words: “O ye avengers of Hussein.”
The Ayatollah’s followers are growing impatient. Do you hear the ticking? Is it a clock? Is it a time-bomb? Throughout history leaders have made suicidal choices. Why? Because of psychology. Because the human mind — the religious mind — is unconsciously driven by symbols. The red flag of war is a symbol. Hussein is a symbol. Soleimani is a symbol. Great leaders are not merely human beings, they represent something larger.
The United States lacks the will to destroy the Iranian regime. The Iranian regime lacks the means to destroy the United States. A race has begun. Perhaps it has always been running. The question is now before us: Will Iran acquire the means before America acquires the will?
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