As the world holds its breath for a looming clash between the US and Iran following the assassination of Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, Mohammed Ayoob of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has moved to clarify the largely hysterical concerns about World War III.
Like scorned lovers, the tensions between the US and the Islamic Republic of Iran have long simmered since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
While periodically tensions boil over, the continuing pursuit of nuclear power and weapons by Iran has emboldened the nation to continue its support of terrorist organisations, including Hamas and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) among others throughout the Middle East.
Supported by oil and natural gas wealth and relationships with larger great powers, namely Russia and China, Iran is often cited as directly challenging the US-led post-World War Two order and a direct threat to the spread of economic and political freedoms.
Iran is also strategically located at the heart of the world's largest oil fields – the strategically critical Strait of Hormuz, a 65-kilometre-wide waterway linking the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, is responsible for a third of the world's liquefied natural gas and approximately 20 per cent of total global oil consumption.
These tensions recently took a major step towards conflict following the US retaliation against Iran for its role in organising the asymmetric attacks against the US embassy in Baghdad – truly displaying the asymmetric reach of the regional power and its long covert role in supporting radical extremists in the Middle East.
The utter annihilation rained down upon the head of the Iranian Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, in Baghdad has served as the latest flash point between the US, UK and Iran.
The targeted assassination of Soleimani has seen the sabre rattling intensify as his death was met with the extremes of jubilation throughout parts of the Middle East exposed to his barbarity, namely Syria and Iraq, and defiant reverence in Iran, with the Middle East power flying a red flag of war at culturally significant sites throughout the country.
Not to be outdone, the US President Donald Trump has ramped up the US military presence in the region, deploying a rapid response force of US Marines and the 82nd Airborne to the Baghdad Embassy, with following quick-reaction forces deployed to US bases throughout the Middle East.
This was also met with the recent vote by the Iraqi Parliament to have all foreign forces, including those of the US, UK, Australia and NATO allies withdraw from the country – effectively ending the Western engagement in the war, which began in 2003.
In response to the rising tensions, much of the online community and some aspects of the media have sought to portray the latest round of tensions as a prelude to World War III – with the US Selective Service website overloaded by Millennials seeking to leverage loopholes to avoid being called up for the draft.
Enter Mohammed Ayoob of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) who has sought to clarify and respond to the hysterical rhetoric, and the reasoning behind the US strike against Soleimani.
"As commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force since 1998, Soleimani was the mastermind behind Iran’s regional strategy and in charge of its foreign military operations as well as those of its allies and proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. One of his major achievements was to help the Assad regime regain control of much of Syria from opposing forces that were supported by several outside powers including the United States," Ayoob explained.
The power disparity between the US and Iran cannot be understated and will largely dictate the moves and counter moves between the two nations as both begin to circle one another.
"Most experts believe that the Iranian reaction will take the form of asymmetric warfare, as Tehran knows it will be devastated in a conventional war with the US. Iran has mastered this art of indirect confrontation, and created a network of proxies able to carry out attacks that cannot easily be traced to Iran itself," Ayoob articulates.
"It’s too early to predict with any certainty the exact nature of the Iranian response and that of its allies and proxies. That such a response will take place was clearly indicated by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s statement that Iran will exact ‘harsh revenge’ for Soleimani’s assassination," he adds.
Building on the asymmetric options, Iran also has a range of insurgent and guerilla organisations throughout the region that are well armed and funded thanks to the Iranian regime, not least of which is Hezbollah, which Ayoob expands upon:
"Iran has several retaliatory options. In theory, its most effective would be to unleash Hezbollah, which now possesses more than 100,000 rockets that it can launch against Israeli targets."
This capability is expanded upon by Iran's proxy organisations scattered throughout Iraq, largely Shia militia groups that could be used to attack soft American civilian and military targets in the country.
"There are still 5,000 American troops in Iraq and a large diplomatic mission that could become the focus of such attacks. The assault on the American embassy last week by supporters of the Shia militia, Kataib Hezbollah, foreshadows what could happen on a much larger scale once Tehran gives the signal for such attacks."
Saudi Arabia and surrounding oil producing Gulf states are also likely targets for Iranian retaliation, which Ayoob articulates: "Saudi and other Gulf oil installations are very vulnerable to Iranian-sponsored attacks, as was demonstrated by September’s assaults on major Saudi oil facilities. A repetition of such attacks on a larger scale that could not be directly attributed to Iran is likely to form part of the Iranian retaliatory strategy."
America and the UK respond
Both the US and UK have responded to the rising tensions, with a range of new deployments to ensure the stability of the region, ranging from ground troops through to additional naval escort assets.
All this despite the mercurial President Trump, who promised to withdraw the US from what he describes as "endless foreign wars", particularly in the Middle East, which have drained America's blood and treasure and, seemingly, resolve of the nation to provide the strategic umbrella for allies throughout Europe and the Indo-Pacific.
Something he seems to have inadvertently achieved with the Iraqi parliament calling for the removal of all US and allied forces from Iraqi territory in the aftermath of the assassination – one thing is certain, both the US and UK are extremely cautious about the potential conflagration and its impact on the region and broader global paradigm.
Questions remain for Australia
It is important to articulate that Ayoob is very clear in drawing similarities between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914, which preceded the First World War:
"While all-out war may not be imminent, asymmetric warfare and the cycle of action and reaction that it will entail could easily get out of hand and lead to a full-scale conflict that neither Washington nor Tehran desires. In assessing the possible consequences, it’s worth recalling that the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 in Sarajevo led to a devastating conflagration that no one had anticipated."
Despite Australia’s enduring commitment to the Australia-US alliance, serious questions remain for Australia in the new world order of President Trump’s America, as a number of allies have been targeted by the maverick President for relying on the US for their security against larger state-based actors, which has seen the President actively pressuring key allies, particularly NATO allies, to renegotiate the deals.
For Australia, a nation defined by its relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker, regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geo-political, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s "great game".