Stepping Back From the Brink of WarNews Abroad
tags: Iran, military history
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.
Trump’s order to kill General Soleimani is one of the most reckless acts taken by a president, who once again has put his personal political interest above the nation’s security. Certainly, Soleimani deserved to meet his bitter fate. He was behind the killing of hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq while threatening and acting against American allies. However, killing him without considering the potentially dire regional repercussions and without a strategy, under the guise of national security concerns, is hard to fathom.
Republican members of Congress who praised the assassination of General Soleimani seem to be utterly blinded by their desire to see him eliminated. What will happen next, they seem to have no clue. Trump, who is fighting for his political life, appeared to have cared less about the horrifying consequences as long as he distracts public attention from his political woes. He made the decision to assassinate Soleimani seven months ago, but he gave the order now to serve his own self-interest, especially in this election year where he desperately needs a victory while awaiting an impeachment trial in the Senate.
During the Senate briefing on Iran led by Secretaries of State and Defense Pompeo and Esper, and CIA Director Haspel, they produced no evidence that there was an imminent danger of an attack on four American embassies orchestrated by Soleimani, as Trump has claimed. In fact, Esper said openly in a January 12 interview that he saw no evidence.
Republican Senator Mike Lee labeled it as “probably the worst briefing I have seen, at least on a military issue…What I found so distressing about the briefing is one of the messages we received from the briefers was, ‘Do not debate, do not discuss the issue of the appropriateness of further military intervention against Iran,’ and that if you do ‘You will be emboldening Iran.’” Now, having failed to produce evidence of imminent danger, the Trump administration claims that the killing of Soleimani was part of a long-term deterrence strategy.
The assassination itself has certainly emboldened Iran’s resolve to continue its nefarious activities throughout the region, but even then, the measure Trump has taken to presumably make the US more secure has in fact done the complete opposite.
It has created new mounting problems and multiple crises. Trump dangerously escalated the conflict with Iran; severely compromised the US’ geostrategic interest in the Middle East; intensified the Iranian threat against our allies, especially Israel; led Iran to double down in its support of terrorist and Jihadist groups; badly wounded the US’ relations with its European allies; deemed the US untrustworthy by friends and foes; and pushed Iran to annul much of the nuclear deal, all while impressively advancing its anti-ballistic missile technology.
And contrary to Trump’s claim that he made the right decision for the sake of American security, 55 percent of voters in a USA Today survey released on January 9th said he made the US less safe. And now we are still at the brink of war.
Although Iran has admitted to being behind the attack on the Asad air base in Iraq, it initiated the attack to save face in the eyes of its public and demonstrate its possession of precision missiles and willingness to stand up to the US. This retaliation was expected, but since Iran wants to avoid an all-out war, it was strategic and carefully calculated to inflict the fewest American casualties, if any, to prevent a vicious cycle of retaliatory attacks which could get out of control and lead to a war.
This, however, does not suggest that Iran will stop its clandestine proxy operations—employing its well-trained militia in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria to execute new attacks on American and allies’ targets in the region while maintaining deniability. Similarly, the clergy can also pressure hawks in and outside the government to avoid any provocative acts against the US. Iran is patient and will carefully weigh its gains and losses before it takes the next step.
Following Iran’s attack on the Asad base, Trump has also shown restraint because he too wants to prevent an all-out war, knowing that even though the US can win it handedly, it will be the costliest victory in blood and treasure and certainly in political capital.
The whole mess began when Trump withdrew from the Iran deal. What did Trump think he could accomplish? Withdrawing from the deal without having any substitute, without consultation with the European signatories, and with re-imposing sanctions, especially when Iran was in full compliance with all the deal’s provisions, is dangerously reckless—undermining our national security interests and jeopardizing the security of our allies in the region. The Iran deal was not perfect, but the idea was to build on it, gradually normalize relations with Iran, and prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons altogether as it works to become a constructive member of the community of nations.
To resolve the crisis with Iran, the US must demonstrate a clear understanding of the Iranian mindset. Iran is a proud nation with a long and continuing rich history; it has huge natural and human resources, is the leader of the Shiite world, occupies one of the most geostrategic locations in the world, and wants to be respected. The Iranians are not compulsive; they think strategically and are patient, consistent, and determined.
The revocation of the Iran deal simply reaffirms Iran’s distrust of the US, from the time the CIA toppled the Mosaddeq government in 1953 to the continuing sanctions, adversarial attitude, and the open call for regime change.
Both Khamenei and Trump have their own domestic pressure to contend with and want to avoid war. The Iranian public is becoming increasingly restive. They are back in streets demanding immediate economic relief. Conversely, Trump calculated that further escalation of violent conflict with Iran will erode rather than enhance his political prospects, and would make defeat in November all but certain.
West European countries are extremely sensitive to any major escalation of violence, as it would lead to mounting casualties and destruction on all sides. Iran can resort to a wide range of hostile measures, including disrupting oil supplies from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, by mining the Straits of Hormuz through which 21 million barrels per day (21% of global oil consumption) pass, resulting in a massive economic dislocation in the Middle East and Europe in particular.
The pause in hostilities offers a golden opportunity to begin a new process of mitigation. Germany, France, and Britain have already engaged the Iranians in an effort to ease the tension between Iran and the US and create conditions conducive to direct US-Iran negotiations. By now, Trump must realize that Iran cannot be bullied and the only way to prevent it from pursuing nuclear weapons is through dialogue.
Regardless of how flawed Trump views the Iran deal, it still provides the foundation for a new agreement, as many of its the original provisions remain valid and can be built on it. Other conflicting issues between the two sides, especially Iran’s subversive activities, should be negotiated on a separate track.
In some ways, both Iran and the US need to lick their wounds and begin a new chapter, however long and arduous it may be, because war is not and will never be an option.
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