By Shashi Malla
* Snail’s Movement on India’s Kalapani Occupation
India has not budged from its stated position on the border question pertaining to the India-occupied territory of Kalapani in far-western Nepal. In fact, it is slavishly holding on to its previously unsubstantiated claims: “The new [Indian] map has in no manner revised our boundary with Nepal” [so the spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs].
The spokesperson goes on to claim blatantly: “The boundary delineation exercise with Nepal is ongoing under the existing mechanism” [!] This statement is not only misleading, it is illogical and full of deceit. No date for official bilateral talks have been agreed upon, let alone taken place at any official level.
And before any talks take place, the substance and contents of the talks must be agreed upon. How can the spokesman even speak of “delineation” of the boundary which means to exactly define, specify and identify the boundary line according to old records, agreements and treaties – and which would come at a very late stage of the negotiations. The Indian tactics of smoke and mirrors continues unabated.
Moreover, it sounds very hollow when the spokesman repeats ad infinitum the magic mantra: “We reiterate our commitment to resolve the outstanding boundary issue through dialogue in the spirit of close and friendly bilateral relations.” Why is it then taking so long to come to the negotiating table?
The starting point for any negotiation must be the Treaty of Sugauli, 1815 which expressly laid down the main River Kali [not a tributary or any other stream given that name later by Indian experts] as the international boundary between the lands of the Raja of Nepal and those of the East India Company. This was honored by British India and should also be honored by Bharat/India/Hindustan!
Article 5 of the peace treaty explicitly states:
“The Rajah of Nepal renounces for himself, his heirs, and successors, all claim to or connection with the countries lying to the west of the River Kali, and engages never to have any concern with these countries or the inhabitants thereof.”
Geographical experts will now have to research and establish on the ground whether the River Kali has changed its course after 1815, or – God forbid – even disappeared from the face of the earth like the River Saraswati in the near environs!
* China’s Magnanimous Policy on Development Aid
China has come out expressly welcoming any development aid to Nepal and from any quarter without any reservations. This includes the implementation of projects under the “Millennium Challenge Corporation” (MCC) grant of the United States.
This very clear statement was made by Chinese ambassador Hou Yanqi last Friday brushing aside all doubts and hesitation on the part of certain leaders of the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN), who have been steadfastly opposing the US aid.
Ambassador Hou categorically stated that it is Nepal’s sovereign and unconditional decision to accept [or reject] such development assistance. She elaborated that since Nepal is a ‘least developed country’ (LDC), she has need of international support and assistance, not only from China, but from willing countries of the international community: “We welcome any kind of assistance to Nepal if it is in the sense of economic cooperation.”
The Chinese envoy effectively debunked the cock-and-bull theory advanced by the group of diehard Communists – the ‘Gang of Four’ comprising Madhav Kumar Nepal, BhimRawal, Dev Gurung and YogeshBhattarai [Tourism minister] and their short-sighted followers – that since the MCC is part of the US ‘Indo-Pacific Strategy’ (IPS), it is aimed at countering China in the South Asian region and is, therefore, inimical to Chinese interests.
Fortunately, in this instance at least, the opposition Nepali Congress (NC) has demonstrated a united front and has stood firmly behind the US-Nepal MCC-agreement. It has called upon the ruling Communist party [which is continuously demonstrating its ‘arrogance of power’] to not create any hindrances for its ratification in parliament [which is currently stymied because of CPN factional rivalry]. The Nepali Congress has even gone so far as to insist that it would be ‘suicidal’ for Nepal to reject such an [attractive] development program.
REGION MIDDLE EAST
US ASSASSINATION of TOP IRANIAN GENERAL & ITS AFTERMATH
The United States’ killing/elimination/termination/political execution of top Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani last Friday near Baghdad International Airport will have wide and rippling repercussions not only in Iraq and Iran, but also in the wider Middle East, possibly in domestic American politics, but definitely in international relations.
It is very important to note that Major General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force was killed by US forces in Iraq. Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also among those killed. The fact that Soleimani was in Baghdad (reportedly he had flown in from Lebanon or Syria) underscores the enormous influence Iran wields in neighboring Iraq – akin to micro-managing Iraq’s domestic and foreign affairs. This was at the same time the source of violent local protests against Iraq’s feeble, corrupt and inept government in recent months.
General Soleimani was being driven by car at Baghdad airport, alongside local Iran-backed militias, when he was hit by a US air strike. The Pentagon confirmed he was killed “at the [express] direction of the president”. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said “severe revenge awaits the criminals” behind the attack” (BBC). Meanwhile, global oil prices soared more than 4 percent in the wake of the strike.
Soleimani’s Role in the Region
General Soleimani was a major figure in the authoritarian, clerical Iranian regime. His Quds force reported directly to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and he was hailed by many compatriots as a heroic national figure.
From 1998 onwards, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani led Iran’s Quds Force – an elite unit in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards [separate from the regular military forces], which handles clandestine operations abroad.
Iran has acknowledged the role of the Quds Force in the conflicts in Syria, where it has advised forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and has armed thousands of Shia Muslim militiamen fighting alongside them, and in Iraq, where it has backed a Shia-dominated paramilitary force that helped fight the Islamic State (IS). These conflicts turned the once-reclusive General Soleimani into a celebrity in Iran.
As head of Iran’s powerful elite Quds Force, Soleimani was seen as the mastermind behind Iran’s ambition in the Middle East to be the prime regional power [in opposition to Saudi Arabia and Turkey], and the country’s de facto foreign minister when it came to matters of war and peace. He was even considered Iran’s second most powerful man after Ayatollah Khamenei.
He was widely considered a principal architect of President Bashar al-Assad’s war in Syria, the ongoing domestic conflict in Iraq, the fight against the Sunni Islamic State, the northern Huthi militants struggle against the Saudi – and Emirates-backed government in Yemen, and many military engagements abroad. He wielded immense power, and the white-haired commander was revered by some, but loathed by others.
United States’ Standpoint
The Trump administration has alleged that the Quds Force is “Iran’s primary mechanism for cultivating and supporting” US-designated terrorist groups across the Middle East – including Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad [from Gaza] – by providing funding, training, weapons and equipment.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its Quds Force as foreign terrorist organizations in April 2019.
A Pentagon statement said: “At the direction of the President, the US military has taken decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad by killing Qasem Soleimani”. It added: “This strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans. The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world.”
The drone strike comes days after protesters attacked the US embassy in Baghdad, clashing with US forces at the scene. The Pentagon claimed Gen. Soleimani prompted and encouraged the attacks on the embassy.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, called the attack an “act of international terrorism, tweeting that the US “bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism.” Furthermore, it was extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation.
Mohsen Rezaei, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards, said Iran would take “vigorous revenge on America.” In the meantime, the country’s national security body has already met to discuss the “criminal act of attack” and appropriate counter measures.
Situation in Iraq
Thousands of people gathered last Saturday to mourn Soleimani’s death and martyrdom. Iraq’s caretaker prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, was in attendance, as well as Shiite cleric Ammar al-Hakim and other pro-Iran figures in a large crowd surrounding the coffins. The PM later declared three days of national mourning. Mourners were also grieving Abu Mahdi-Muhandis, a senior Iraqi militia commander who was one of nine others killed in the same drone strike (DW/Deutsche Welle).
The country itself is in the throes of political unrest following nearly three months of deadly anti-government protests, which have also been directed at dense Iranian meddling.
On Sunday, the Iraqi Parliament voted to evict the US military from the country, drawing the threat of sanctions from Trump. He also repeated his warning to target Iranian cultural sites [which would be a war crime] if Iran takes any military action against U.S. forces.
Regional Tinderbox & Expert Opinion
The audacious US attack is without doubt a seminal event that brings Washington and Tehran to the precipice of an unpredictable major conflict across the Middle East.
His killing creates further impetus for a vicious circle following a series of escalations since Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, imposed crushing sanctions and declared economic warfare under the US “maximum pressure” campaign without providing a diplomatic option to de-escalate.
From Tehran’s perspective, Soleimani’s heroic ‘martyrdom” is an act of war building on other “criminal” acts committed by the United States. Andrew Exum, former US deputy assistant secretary of defense conceded that it is pure and simple ‘war’.
It is still unclear and uncertain how, when and where Iran will retaliate, but it is now forced to respond directly or indirectly [otherwise it is bound to lose face both domestically and externally] at a time and place of its choosing. This raises questions as to whether that will pull the US deeper into a military conflict. In any case, Trump has now opened Pandora’s Box – the path of tit for tat, and a spiraling, escalating conflict.
Max Abrahms, professor at Northeastern University said succinctly: “The so-called ‘rules of engagement’ have been broken. This means that increasingly preemptive attacks will replace the condition of deterrence which offered a measure of stability.” He added: “The killing of Soleimani will definitely not deter the Revolutionary Guard. We should expect a variety of asymmetric responses from Iran.”
At the same time, the Islamic Republic is aware that a full-blown war with the US could threaten the theocratic regime’s survival. It has ample regional allies and proxies under its “axis of resistance” to wage asymmetric warfare and a ballistic missile capability to impose costs on the United States in Iraq, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. Iran could also strike further afield, attacking American embassies across the globe or activate operatives in the U.S. or elsewhere.
However, the easiest and least risky place for Iran to respond would be in Iraq itself. Soleimani, the ‘eminence grise’ and master architect of Iran’s regional security strategy had already developed a web of Iranian-backed proxy forces and political allies that has elevated the Revolutionary Guard to kingmaker in the country’s fragile, contentious, partisan and sectarian politics. In the meantime, US forces and diplomats remain vulnerable to attack from pro-Iranian militia that are officially part of the Iraqi security forces.
It is also in Iraq that the United States is particularly vulnerable and finds itself in an increasingly untenable position. Iran’s allies in the Iraqi parliament and government have received a stimulus by US ‘violations of Iraq’s sovereignty’ and emboldened to hasten calls for some 5,000 US troops to be evicted.
Iran has the option of multiple pressure points. It can choose to ratchet up escalation in a wider war scenario:
* It could directly or indirectly target US military assets in the Persian Gulf
* It could bring the world economy to a standstill by blocking oil being transported through the Strait of Hormuz to global markets
* Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates could also find themselves in the crosshairs in a proxy response or larger conflagration.
Israel is a close US ally and has carried out hundreds of attacks on Syrian government forces and pro-Iran groups in Syria in a shadow war against its Iranian nemesis. It is now bracing itself for fallout from Iran-backed militants in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran-linked forces in Syria.
Iran utilizes the fog of war to camouflage its tactics and strategy. Its irregular tactics across the region, known as “forward defence”, are designed to surprise and stretch antagonist resources in a devious endeavor to keep any ‘hot’ fighting away from its own borders.
US Democrats Viewpoint
House speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Sunday that the House of Representatives will vote this week on legislation to limit Trump’s military actions on Iran [war powers]. In a letter to Democratic members of the House, Pelosi said the “the provocative and disproportionate” airstrike on Soleimani “endangered our service members, diplomats and others by risking serious escalation of tensions with Iran” (USA Today).
The resolution will mandate that military hostilities with Iran cease within 30 days unless further Congressional authorization like a declaration of war is taken. Senator Tim Kaine [of Virginia, who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate in 2016], has introduced a similar resolution in the Senate.
The new Middle East crisis comes as Trump is embroiled in his own domestic political turmoil. There is a sense that he unleashed his incoherent action to divert attention from his ongoing impeachment process.
The writer can be reached at: [email protected]