The media as well as some scholars refer to “Iran-U.S. confrontation” giving the wrong impression that both sides are equally responsible for the genesis of the current crisis in their relations, a crisis that brought the world to the brink of disaster. President Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal in 2018 and caused the present crisis.
It is obvious that Trump has not so far given any good reason for his decision. The JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) does prevent Iran from embarking on a bomb-making project as it provides for intrusive inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. That the candidate Trump had promised to pull U.S. out of the deal is not a good enough reason. It is not obvious that what is good for Trump is ipso facto good for U.S. A president has to ask his advisors to study in depth the consequences and implications of taking such a decision, and apply his own mind before announcing it. It is doubtful whether Trump did it.
27th December 2019:
Rocket attacks on K- I A air base in Kirkuk used by the U.S. military, killing an Iraqi-American linguist and injuring a few others. Washington accuses Iran-supported Katai’b Hezbollah (KH -Brigades of Party of God)- active in Iraq and Syria without producing any supporting evidence. However, the KH is the most likely actor.
29th December 2019
The U.S. military, without telling Iraq, carries out air strikes on three KH bases in Iraq and two in Syria, killing 25 and injuring 50.
Iraq condemns the attack and protests to U.S. about the violation of its sovereignty. The U.S. military in Iraq is on a ‘non-combat’ mission.
31st December 2019
Some mourners from the funeral procession for those killed on the 29th go to the Green Zone access to which is strictly restricted. Iraqi security allows access. The U.S. Embassy’s reception building is torched, but the main embassy was not attacked.
The protesters leave after their leaders tell them that the needed message was given to U.S.
2nd January 2020
U.S. military on specific orders from Trump kills General Soleimani, head of the Quds Forces, responsible for action outside Iran, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, chief of KH.
8th January 2020
Iran retaliates by sending missiles to the Ayn al Asad air base in the Anbar province and to another base in Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital, where there are offices of many U.S. companies.
The Iranian media ‘reported’ the death of 80 Americans, not without exultation.
9th January 2019
Trump announces that he won’t strike at Iran as no American life was lost and Iran appears to want to ‘stand down’.
Let us look at exchange of messages between Washington and Tehran. After the killing of Soleimani, Washington through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, looking after U.S. interests there, conveyed that it would accept a ‘proportionate’ response from Iran. Tehran informed the Iraqi Prime Minister beforehand of the strike on the 8th January so that all possible precautions were taken at the targeted bases to avoid casualties. After the strike, the Swiss Embassy received another message from Iran that it was not intending to strike again; that message was passed on to Trump within five minutes and he decided not to strike again.
Trump’s Justification for Killing Soleimani
Trump has so far failed to adduce any cogent reason for killing Soleimani. His argument that Soleimani was planning attacks against four U.S. Embassies does not hold water, especially after Defense Secretary Esper denied any knowledge thereof. The classified note given to the Congress has not carried conviction with the Democrats and a few Republicans. Nor has Trump convinced a majority of the Americans that his action was right. An ABC poll published on 12th January shows 56% disapprove and 43% approve Trump’s policy towards Iran.
The killing of Soleimani was one of the many options presented and some in the Pentagon were rather surprised when the President chose this one. Let us pray and hope that the Pentagon will take better care in the future in listing out options and spelling out the consequences thereof.
Is Trump being reined in?
Trump tweeted on 4th January threatening to attack 52 sites in Iran, including cultural sires, the number 52 chosen being the number of Embassy hostages held for 444 days by Iran after the 1979 Revolution. Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense were compelled to clarify that there was no such plan after Iran’s Foreign Minister pointed out that such an attack would make Trump a war criminal under the 1954 Hague Convention on Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, signed and ratified by U.S. under President George Bush.
More importantly, on 9th January the House of Representatives passed, 224 to 194, a resolution to curtail President’s powers, asserting that he must seek approval from Congress before engaging in further military action against Iran. Trump may or may not abide by that resolution. However, it should be noted that he did not get the approbation from the public that he confidently expected.
The Reaction of the Rest of the World
UK, Germany, and Canada gave a measured support to U.S. by referring to actions by Iran. For example, Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said Soleimani’s “aggressive actions” had “a destabilizing effect in the region and beyond.” It is evident that the desire to keep themselves in the good books of U.S. influenced their public statements. Concerned over adverse reaction, Pompeio worked the phones seeking support. Israel is the only country that lent clear support. Even Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. did not specifically endorse the killing.
Russia’s reaction was clearly negative. The official version says that in his conversation with Pompeo, Lavrov stressed that targeted actions by a UN member state to eliminate officials of another UN member state, and on the territory of a third sovereign country without its knowledge grossly violate the principles of international law and deserve condemnation.
China’s reaction was severe. “The dangerous US military operation violates the basic norms of international relations,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said.
Why did Trump decide to kill Soleimani?
On 4th January, Trump said the US killed Iran’s top military commander Qasem Soleimani “to stop a war, not to start one.” He has not convinced anyone how the killing of Soleimani will prevent Iran from responding to U.S. acts of war. The fact is that it is Trump who has been waging an economic war against Iran. Iran has been responding all along.
The Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi stated in the Parliament that Soleimani was coming to see him carrying a message from Iran in the context of Iraq’s mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Did Trump know this from an American or Israeli spy? Any reconciliation between Riyadh and Tehran will significantly cut Trump’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In any case, it is evident that by killing Soleimani the U.S. Embassies and military posts in the region have not become more secure, to put it mildly.
The Ukrainian plane crash
The shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane on 8th January by the Iranian military killing 176 (82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians, 10 Swedes, 4 Afghans, 4 Germans, and 3 Britishers) shows the danger of flying into an area of tension. This was the worst possible collateral damage.
After initially trying to shift responsibility, Iran quickly came around to accepting responsibility and has agreed to cooperate with Canada and others in the investigation. The shooting down of a civilian aircraft should be condemned and those responsible should be brought to justice. We also need to look at the big picture. Those who ordered the shooting down did not know that it was a civilian plane. Facing the threat of attack on 52 targets as tweeted by Trump, the Iranian military was in a state high alert that can cause panic.
Recently, Iran witnessed huge demonstrations calling for the Ayatollah to resign. After the killing of Soleimani, the population united behind the government. But, following the air tragedy the protests against the government have been revived. We need to keep watching how the situation develops as the government resorts to violence to put down the protests. Election to the parliament is due in February 2020.The next year, there will be an election for the president.
Obviously, Iran being the weaker party wants a war much less than U.S., the bigger party. However, it is not pertinent to compare the firepower and conclude that Iran is helpless.
Above all, Trump cannot do a 2003 Iraq on Iran. After the ruinous 2003 misadventure that pushed the country into the uncoveted place of being the largest indebted state, the American public will not permit that and that too under a President who pledged to bring the soldiers back home.
U.S. has to confine itself to air and cyber-attacks. Iran might be able to do some cyber attacking and it can use its proxies in the region and its own Quds Force to do considerable damage to America’s Embassies and troops in the region, amounting to 60,000, not to speak of Saudi oil installations, particularly vulnerable to low grade missiles.
As of now, the American troops in Iraq have only one mission, namely, to protect themselves and other American assets. They have wisely suspended the training the Iraqi troops for fear that they might shoot at the trainers. The sending back of Saudi military officers under training in U.S. following a shooting attack by one of them is a clear indication of U.S. concern in the matter.
While Iran might from time to time send rockets to the Green Zone or elsewhere through its proxies, it has to take care that Americans are not killed. Should Americans be killed, Trump will resort to air strikes hoping his approval rating would go up. Above all, Iran will do its utmost to avoid any action that would help Trump’s re-election. However, Iran has to walk a fine line as with the economic situation deteriorating fast, the need to hit back at the ‘Satan’ will gain momentum.
The JCPOA is in ICU (Intensive Care Unit). The EU 3 (U.K., France, and Germany) have triggered the dispute clause that can lead to the re-imposition of UN sanctions by the Security Council. As of now, such re-imposition is unlikely as Russia has opposed the EU3 move. We have not seen any reaction from China, possibly because Beijing does not want to upset Trump who is planning a visit when an important trade deal is likely to be signed.
Over time, we might find Iran gravitating towards the Russia-China axis and joining it as a junior member. We might also see in due course the U.S. and its allies pulling out their troops from Iraq. There is some speculation that U.S. might ask Pakistan to station troops there. But it is difficult to believe that the troops will be safe in Pakistan.
Editor’s Note: The above article was initially published in invifindia.org. The article also appeared on January 25, 2020 on Ambassador Fabian: Reflections on International Policies, Books & Lives, a website featuring commentary by Ambassador KP Fabian. It was reproduced here with the consent of Ambassador Fabian.