The tensions that emanated from the US assassination of General Qassam Soleimani on January 3 led the world to believe, for a terrible week, that it was on the brink of a Third World War. The tensions may have abated. The news cycle may have quickly switched to the momentously tragic shooting down of Ukrainian International Airlines PS752 amid these high tensions and then to the Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.
However, the heightened US-Iran tensions have not gone away. They have settled in for the long haul. And they still contain the danger of war, whether limited or not. These dangers emerge neither from dastardly Iranian designs on the US or its allies, nor from US designs on Iran, but from the increasingly frustrated incoherence of US policy, in the Middle East, as elsewhere. This comes through when one digs even a little under the dominant understanding of the events that opened the decade.
Very little about why Trump ordered the assassination of General Soleimani is clear. The official story shifted from the initial claim that he had “US blood on his hands”–any legitimization of assassinations against such people would put every president of US and many present and past heads of Western nations, Canada included, at the top of too many national hit lists–to claiming that Soleimani was about to launch attacks against US targets. This too needed only luke-warm scrutiny from the US media and the Democrats to melt. It is reported that the General of the Quds force, instrumental in expanding Iranian influence in the Middle East at the expense of the US, had been on the ‘assassin-in-Chief’ hit list for some time and that the Israelis had already made an assassination attempt a couple of years previously. Even so, why now? We don’t know for sure. What we do know is that US presidents have a long-standing record of aggressive military action when facing domestic trouble and impeachment: Clinton, for example, bombed Sudan and Iraq without warrant at critical moments during his own impeachment hearings.
Some other pertinent things have also emerged recently. One is that the assassination of Soleimani was no intelligence triumph. In fact, Soleimani was in Baghdad on a mission: to deliver Iran’s response to a Saudi proposal for rapprochement, and that the US had been informed of this. We also know that these moves between two long-term arch enemies, were triggered by the demonstrated capacity of Iranian-supplied weaponry to hit and seriously impair Saudi oil facilities in August last year and the equally well-demonstrated inability or unwillingness of the US to do anything about it. That the Saudis issued a plea for de-escalation after the assassination signals that it has not derailed this regional dialogue in which the US is, at best, a bit player.
If Trump expected that Iran would take the assassination lying down, he was mistaken. In the early hours of January 8, Iran launched an attack on two US airbases in Iraq, the Ayn al-Asad airbase in Western Iraq and another in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. Iranian authorities reported that 22 Missiles were fired under Operation Martyr Soleimani. The US administration disputed the figure, claiming that only 15 were fired, and that four failed to reach their targets and there were no casualties. Such claims supported a casual ‘de-escalation’ on the Trump Administration’s part.
The Tragedy of PS752
The world did not have time to heave a sigh of relief. Barely four hours after the Iranian retaliation, a Ukrainian International Airlines flight, PS752, crashed a few minutes after takeoff from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport. This story now took over the news cycle, with Western governments alleging within 24 hours that it was shot down by an Iranian missile. After a tense couple of days, the Iranian government admitted on january 11 that this had indeed been so. This matter requires separate discussion and much will depend on what emerges from the investigation in which all parties with a stake have been invited to participate according to International Civil Aviation Organization rules.
However, the heart-breaking tragedy does deserve some attention here, for it already has some relevance to our story and may turn out to have more.
Though western governments, led by Canada, implied and continue to, that there was some nefarious intent on the part of the Iranians in downing the aircraft and then covering it up, no government has any stake in making its skies unsafe. Moreover, at no point did the Iranian government’s behaviour suggest it had anything to hide. Even during the first two days, while saying that it believed the cause to be mechanical or pilot failure, its actions complied with international rules, inviting all those with a stake in the matter, the Ukrainians, Canadians, Boeing and others, to take part in the investigation. Once the admission was made, the Western media kept up a shrill chorus about the Iranians taking three days to admit the truth. They did not mention that the US had taken years when it had shot down an Iranian passenger aircraft with even more lives lost in 1988. Nor did they consider that three days was not an unreasonable amount of time for any complex organization, like the government of a country home to 82 million people in a heightened state of military preparedness, to investigate the matter and, in the circumstances, arrange its institutional mien, before bringing the news to the world. When it did, it gave an unstinting and heartfelt apology, again a study in contrast to their 1988 treatment at the hands of the US.
In the circumstances, the hostility of Western governments, particularly that of Canada, towards Iran is hardly likely to fulfill its avowed goal of getting at the truth for the sake of the 63 Canadian victims of the disaster and their families. On the contrary, it appears designed to use their grief in pursuing wider geopolitical agendas, likely at the behest of the US.
Meanwhile, demonstrations appeared in Tehran at the government’s admission of guilt. Undoubtedly, they expressed the frustration of many at the Islamic regime, its dismal economic record, rising inequality and the biting effect of sanctions. Equally undoubtedly, however, they were also encouraged by the US. Even so, they formed a poor contrast to the millions who had poured out on the streets to express their grief after the Soleimani assassination the previous week.
Finally, given the sophistication of anti-missile technology in recognising civilian aircraft, a number of questions have emerged. How was it possible that the civilian aircraft was mistaken for an enemy missile? Could there have been sabotage? And how did those associated with an Instagram account called Rich Kids of Tehran, devoted to “showcasing Iran’s young and wealthy as they flaunt their wealth and jet around the world”, appear in a predominantly working class poor neighbourhood of Parand in the early hours of the morning to film the shooting down of the unfortunate aircraft and its 176 passengers and crew?
These and other such questions may never be fully answered. However, we do know that the terrible tragedy took place in what had effectively been converted into a warzone by the US’s actions a few days previously and that, with media attention turning to this tragedy, the further unfolding of events after the Soleimani assassination was hidden in the back pages, as it were.
This is where we must now go to continue the story at hand. It has since emerged that Iranian authorities had informed Iraqi authorities, and through them, the US, that the retaliatory attacks were imminent hours before, allowing the US to evacuate the bases. They were not equipped to defend themselves from missile attacks. Unlike Trump, who had meanwhile escalated tensions further by threatening to destroy 52 Iranian cultural sites if Iran retaliated (it would have been a war crime if carried out), Iran did not wish to escalate tensions. It wished to send the US a clear signal that further escalation on its part would be costly and this they did by demonstrating that they were capable of hitting US targets with a worrying level of accuracy. That was the real reason for Trump’s ‘de-escalation’ or, more accurately, retreat.
US influence in the region is now at a lower ebb than at any time since President Carter, in the wake of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet support for the Communist government in Afghanistan the previous year, enunciated his ‘Carter Doctrine’ in 1980.
It warned that “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Such outside forces, particularly Russia and China, are doing precisely that and there is little that the US can do effectively.
From Axis of Evil to the JCPOA and Beyond
Iran, a key US ally under the Shah and its principal adversary in the region after 1979, survived the bloody eight-year Iran-Iraq war, effectively an anti-revolutionary war motivated and aided by the US. Thereafter, the US had to accept the fact of Iranian power and did so. The 1990s saw considerable normalization of relations. However, George Bush Jr’s 2002 ‘Axis of Evil’ speech, naming Iran, North Korea and Iraq for developing nuclear weapons, now dubbed weapons of mass destruction, changed all that. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has always been an unequal treaty, focused more on preserving the existing unequal balance of nuclear arms and capabilities than on reducing or eliminating nuclear weapons. However, since 2002, it has functioned more as a legal pretext of US wars against various countries even as the dangers of unintended proliferation are not proven. In 2003, Iraq was attacked for possessing ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that, unfortunately for it, it did not have. Iran and North Korea drew the only logical conclusion, that nuclear weapons were their only security against destruction or abject subordination, a conclusion whose validity was confirmed by Muammar Gaddafi’s fate many years later.
Matters remained very unsettled between 2002 and 2015, when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the Iran Nuclear Deal was agreed between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the ‘legitimate’ possessors of nuclear weapons under the NPT) and the European Union. In this period, the US engaged in a number of provocations, including illegal airborne surveillance, support for anti-regime groups, sanctions and an array of covert actions as well as some pretty advanced planning for war against Iran.
Under the terms of the JCPOA, Iran agreed to stall its nuclear weapons development in return for a lifting of sanctions, particularly its ability to sell oil: for Iran, its lifeline and for the rest of the world, a massive chunk of the its oil supply. While there were many forces at play in bringing about this agreement, a key US motivation was undoubtedly to bring Iranian oil back on the international markets to bring oil prices down, and the US dollar, which usually moves in the other direction, up.
This arrangement lasted until Trump announced the US’s withdrawal from the JCPOA based on unsubstantiated claims about Iranian violations. This has left Iran free to return to its nuclear weapons development and, while US sanctions do hurt, it finds considerable relief from China, Russia and, so far at least, India. Recent European efforts to bring Iran to the UN Security Council for violations of the JCPOA have been justified as strengthening the US arm in negotiating a new deal. However, it is unlikely to do any such thing since the Trump administration has already put Iran under sanctions harsher than before the JCPOA and has little to offer.
Slipping US hold on Middle East
Iran is not the only piece of the complex Middle East puzzle that is once again slipping from US hands. Well before recent events, it was clear that the Russians, in their alliance with the Bashar al Assad government, have proven more adept at dealing with the problem of ISIS than anything the US had done. After all, their motivations were not, as in the US case, mixed up with a desire for regime-change and leavened with nonchalance about the consequences of its actions thousands of miles away. The only complicating factor in this is that Turkey remains something of a wild card, unable to further its neo-Ottomanist venture of securing wider regional influence on its own and receiving the blessing of neither the US nor Russia and so vacillating between them.
Meanwhile, relations between the US and Iraq, a country the former claims to have liberated, have sunk to a low few could have imagined even a few years ago. The US thought nothing of killing Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the Iraqi head of the Popular Mobilization Forces, as collateral damage in the assassination of General Soleimani. Nor did it hesitate in violating Iraqi sovereignty in the assassination (the Iraqis, like the Saudis, has received no intimation of the assassination). Worse, in the months leading up to the assassination, the US had been threatening the Prime Minister with not completing various infrastructure projects necessary to the rebuilding of Iraq unless he agreed to give them 50 percent of the state’s oil revenues. When Adil Abdul-Mahdi refused and turned to China to secure the necessary construction agreements instead, the Trump Administration pressured him to rescind them, threatening that if he refused, it would “unleash huge demonstrations against [him] that would end [his] premiership”. That is indeed what happened, though Abdul-Mahdi remains caretaker Prime Minister.
Following the killing of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, the Iraqi Parliament voted to ask the US to leave Iraq, effectively turning the US presence in the country into an occupation. And on January 24, responding to a call from Shia cleric and long-time opponent of the US presence there beginning in 2003, Muqtada al-Sadr, hundreds of thousands marched through Baghdad demanding an end to the US occupation. Again these massive demonstrations far outdid the ones the US has instigated and supported in the previous months to secure the ouster of Abdul-Mahdi.
The Danger of War
Nearly all the major countries of the region are now either ranged against or distancing themselves from the US. This, in itself, however, is not likely to lead to war. The danger of that arises from US internal politics. As the impeachment vaudeville show demonstrates, the US ruling class is deeply, possibly ruinously, divided, if not over goals, at least over means. Both Democrats and Republicans want to win elections and use state power to project US corporate interests abroad. However, these two goals have become increasingly incompatible, as Trump’s victory showed.
What the corporate class needs is electorally unpopular and what will work electorally will not serve corporate needs. Moreover, the military industrial complex already has most Democrats in its pockets and has demonstrated its hold on Trump too. However, tough since the ‘end’ of the Cold War, the military policy it has dictated has regularly failed.
The reasons lie in the mismatch between three things. First, there is the scale of its ambitions, which can only be defined as hubristic, particularly in a world where economic and with it military power is so much more widely dispersed than before. Secondly, the nature if not the extent of US military capabilities is inadequate. Not having learned the simplest lesson of Vietnam–that war is first and foremost a political matter, not easily settled by hardware, no matter how much is hurled into it–the US continues to wage what can only be called capital intensive warfare in an effort, inter alia, to undo the Vietnam verdict. The result is only the multiplication of horrifying destruction of societies, cultures and lives and the corresponding multiplication of US enemies.
Thirdly, there is the changing balance of power in the world. The shift in the world’s economic centre of gravity away from the West and the US has been accompanied by a shift in military power. Both Russia and China are acquiring formidable military capabilities, with the former currently judged by many as having surpassed the US in military technology. US military expenditure may exceed the sum total spent by the rest of the world but all it achieves is to satisfy the ravenous appetite of the US Military Industrial Complex for government contracts. Today, moreover, the number of countries in the world so militarily weak that the US can easily run them over–at least, without paying a ruinous domestic political price-is small and diminishing, as the unending conflict in Afghanistan amply demonstrates.
With practically any major power it would care to engage, the US must count the cost of their retaliation and those of their increasingly powerful allies. The danger of war lies in the very real possibility that, in the prosecution of their internal civil war, the US executive will be unable or unwilling to count it. It also lies in the pervasive tendency in of the media, the political leadership and the intelligentsia to subordinate themselves to the needs of the war machine. In the public torture of Assange, the arrest of Blumenthal and the worrying attempt of the Brazilian government, most likely coordinated with the Trump administration, to extradite and jail the highly respected journalist, Glenn Greenwald, and the politicized administration of social media this process has reached the point where the right to information in our so-called democracies is facing extinction.
Radhika Desai is a professor in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba and currently serves as the director of the Geopolitical Economy Research Group.