The year 2020 started with a vengeance. According to some pundits, the Middle East has been teetering towards World War III, with the Iranian-US conflict triggering this terrible prophecy.
But let’s go back a few decades and open Pandora’s Box to reveal something of the strife between Iran and the US. The two states have not seen eye to eye since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979 followed by the attack on the US Embassy in Tehran when US diplomats were held hostage for 444 days.
Many years later, former US president Barack Obama’s efforts to appease Iran were shunned by President Donald Trump when the US exited the Iran nuclear agreement and imposed crushing sanctions on Iran. However, Trump did not retaliate after Iran downed a US drone in June last year or after it attacked Saudi oil facilities in September.
More recently, the crisis became more acute. In Iraq, Iranian-backed militiamen killed an American contractor and wounded others in rocket attacks. This time, the US retaliated by ordering strikes in Iraq and Syria, killing 25 militia fighters. Iraqi protesters then rallied outside the US Embassy in Baghdad, got inside the compound and set sections of it ablaze.
Using a drone strike, the US killed Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Al- Quds Force who had played a pivotal role in attacks in many countries in the region, including Lebanon and Yemen. From the Iranian perspective, Suleimani was a heroic figure, and ironically his death united a disgruntled people and a government facing internal dissent against the US, that is until the gunning down of the Ukrainian passenger plane.
Those who have been against Trump in the US were quick to reject Suleimani’s assassination. On the US TV channel CNN, journalist Fareed Zakaria said that Suleimani was regarded “as a completely heroic figure, personally very brave,” while journalist Anderson Cooper, again on CNN, compared Suleimani to former French president Charles de Gaulle.
Those who have supported Trump hailed his actions. US journalist Thomas Friedman writing in the New York Times pointed to Suleimani’s work with Iranian proxies across several countries. “Hizbullah in Lebanon and Syria, the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen – these created pro-Iranian Shiite states-within-states in all of these countries. And it was precisely these states-within-states that helped to prevent any of these countries from cohering, fostered massive corruption and keeping these countries from developing infrastructure – schools, roads, electricity,” he said.
A tit-for-tat conflict between Iran and the US brewed. Trump warned in a tweet that “should Iran strike any US person or target, the United States will quickly & fully strike back & perhaps in a disproportionate manner.” He even threatened to attack Iranian cultural sites, an unheard-of approach that is totally unprecedented from a developed country.
Iran responded swiftly by firing a dozen missiles at two US military bases in Iraq. It threatened “more crushing responses,” but the attacks resulted in no casualties, which was a great relief. A day later, small rockets pelted the diplomatic area in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.
The Iraqi parliament voted to expel US forces from the country after Suleimani’s death, causing Trump to threaten to impose sanctions against Iraq. Speaking to reporters on the US president’s jet Air Force One, he said that “if they do ask us to leave, if we don’t do it in a very friendly basis, we will charge them with sanctions like they’ve never seen before ever. It’ll make Iranian sanctions look somewhat tame.”
That was not all, as at the same time, and minutes after take-off, a Kiev-bound Ukrainian 737 Boeing plane departing from Tehran Airport went down killing the 176 passengers onboard including 63 Canadians who were mostly of Iranian descent. After US and Canadian officials announced that investigations had proven that the plane was shot down by surface-to-air missiles, a statement on Iranian TV acknowledged that Iran had “unintentionally” shot down the Ukrainian passenger plane.
Until a few days ago, war seemed imminent as the rhetoric and aggression surged. Then things took a surprising turn. In a speech following the Iranian missile attacks on the US bases, Trump preferred to de-escalate hostilities rather than to escalate them.
He signalled that no new US strikes would follow, and in an astonishing change in tone he also said that he was “ready to embrace peace with all who seek it,” when just a day earlier he had said that “if Iran does anything that they shouldn’t be doing, they’re going to be suffering the consequences and very strongly.” He also called for negotiations towards a new agreement with Iran.
Iran took the same approach, seemingly uninterested in a wider confrontation and satisfied with the effects of its limited retaliatory measures. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that his country had “concluded proportionate measures in self-defence,” adding that “we do not seek escalation or war.”
Both the US and Iran may have realised that this is as far as things should go and that further military force would be more damaging than beneficial. A war would put pressure on Trump domestically who had earlier campaigned in the US presidential elections on a promise to remove the US from further “endless wars.”
Moreover, the consensus on Suleimani’s assassination was that it was illegal, and Trump may have deemed US allies unsupportive and reluctant to support another war.
According to US journalist Alex Ward writing on the US news website Vox, a war would have meant “a deadly opening attack. Nearly untraceable, ruthless proxies spreading chaos on multiple continents. Costly miscalculations. And thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – killed in a conflict that would dwarf the war in Iraq.”
“The ripple effect would likely have reached the far end of the world with skyrocketing oil prices, attacks against American and allied targets anywhere around the world, and no backing down on either side leading to disastrous consequences.”
Regardless of whether the Iranian and US approaches constitute appeasement, backing down or playing things right, the world is now breathing an overwhelming sigh of relief.
The writer is the author of Cairo Rewind on the First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution, 2011-2013.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly