No relationship in contemporary history has been marked by such mutual distrust, and even hatred, as that between the US and Iran. The world now watches with bated breath wondering what will happen next, after a US drone strike killed the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Qassem Soleimani, at the Baghdad International Airport.

The first question is what led to this deep, mutual animosity? The Iranian animosity to the US was generated by what was perceived as unstinted US support for the despotic Iranian monarchy, led by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Iranian revolutionaries also believed, not without justification, that the CIA and Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad had a leading role in establishing the Shah’s brutal secret service, the SAVAK, which sent hundreds of dissidents to their deaths.

Early relations

The turning point for the US, on the other hand, came during the Jimmy Carter administration, when Iranian students supporting Ayatollah Khomeini took over the US Embassy in Tehran on January 20, 1981. They took 52 American diplomats and citizens as hostage for 444 days. The Americans were further humiliated when their attempt to mount a helicopter-borne operation to rescue the hostages failed.

The Ronald Reagan administration then made it clear from day one of its takeover in January 1981, that unlike the bungling Carter administration, it would take a tough line on Iran. Subsequent evidence has established that both Reagan and his successor, George Bush (Senior), provided significant military assistance to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein government, to encourage him to wage war and inflict heavy damage on Iran.

Ironically, the two Bush administrations (led by father and son) separately invaded Iraq. The first invasion in 1990 was to end Saddam’s ill-advised occupation of Kuwait. The second invasion by President George Bush (Junior) in 2002, evidently arose from the Bush family’s vendetta towards Saddam Hussein. It came when the US already had a huge military commitment in Afghanistan, after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York by the Al-Qaeda. Bush Junior’s animosity towards Iran, however, continued even after the first American invasion of Iraq, though one expected some change after the 9/11 terrorist attacks as Iran too had an interest in eliminating the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

The Taliban was ruthless in dealing with Afghanistan’s Shias (or Hazaras) in the days leading to the 9/11 terrorist strikes. India and Iran were at the time cooperating extensively to provide military and economic assistance and support to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.

India’s Special Envoy to the Bonn Conference on Afghanistan, Satinder Lambah, played a key role in bridging the differences between the US and Iran during the UN-sponsored conference in December 2001. The Bonn Conference led to diplomatic dialogue in Geneva between the US and Iran to collaborate and destroy the Taliban. The Iranian delegation to these talks was led by a young rising star in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Qassem Soleimani.

Soleimani’s rise in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard was even more meteoric after Bush Junior surprisingly described Iran as being a part of an “Axis of Evil” in 2002, leading to an almost complete breakdown in ties. Iran, thereafter, spread its wings across West Asia, arming and training Shia militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and creating problems for Israel at its borders with Syria and Lebanon.

A key role

Soleimani played a major role in backing Shia militias in Syria and joining hands with Russia to ensure that American-led efforts to unseat the Assad regime were defeated. This substantially damaged American and Israeli aims in Syria and even in Lebanon. Iran has succeeded in building a virtual ‘Shia Crescent’, in partnership with Iraq, Syria and the Hezbollah in Lebanon. In the process, it has confronted and challenged a powerful US-Saudi alliance in the region.

While American air power did contribute to the defeat of the ISIS in Iraq, the real military muscle for ousting the ISIS in a virtual hand-to-hand battle was provided by Iraq , duly backed by Soleimani. The ousting of the ISIS had the support of the powerful Shia clergies in both Iraq and Iran. It was, however, Soleimani who played the key role in the land battle against the group.

Soleimani was killed on January 3 by missiles fired from American drones, while disembarking at the Baghdad airport from Tehran. The US has made a huge mistake in killing Soleimani, as he was at that time visiting Iraq to seek some form of understanding with Saudi Arabia in reducing tensions.

With over a million Iranians attending his funeral ceremonies in Tehran, Soleimani has etched his name in the annals of the history of the Shia-dominated region, where martyrdom is revered.

Not surprisingly, President Donald Trump, whose main focus of attention is on overcoming challenges posed by impeachment proceedings in the US Senate, responded crudely to the challenges he is facing. He has issued threats to destroy heritage sites in Iran, if the Iranians responded to the killings of Soleimani and others with violence.

While India has counselled restraint on all concerned, New Delhi has a delicate balance to maintain. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has skilfully transformed relations with the two major Gulf states — Saudi Arabia and the UAE — where India is looking forward to undertaking petrochemical projects, involving investments up to $100 billion.

The welfare of seven million Indian nationals living in the region is also an issue of primary interest. We are, however, witnessing a growing sectarian Shia-Sunni divide in the region.

Moreover, even as the US seems bent on exacerbating tensions with Iran, we recently witnessed joint exercises in the region, involving the navies of Russia, China and Iran.

Tensions in the Gulf could lead to spiralling oil prices. Our relations with Iran are at the correct point, despite Iran’s stand on Jammu and Kashmir and its role in the Malaysia-led Islamic grouping. Balancing our policies in the region is not going to be an easy task.

Unlike Trump’s warmongering, Russia has reportedly come up with constructive suggestions to promote peace and security in the region. The Russian initiative would involve major external powers, including China and India, without eroding American security imperatives. New Delhi should work closely with Russia and other global and regional powers to back the initiative for peace and stability in our strategic and oil-rich Indian Ocean neighbourhood.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan