Drone down. No one hurt. There ain’t gonna be no war.
Iran's revolutionary guards managed to shoot down a Yankee drone. Big deal. Embarrassing for the Americans, but they’ve had worse. At least it shows they’re keeping an eye on their troublesome foes. It was bound to happen, such is the state of relations between the two countries, and such is the sheer volume of unmanned aircraft activity in the region.
Downing stray aircrafts is the sort of thing that happens in cold wars, just as it did in the US-USSR Cold War in the 1960s. And America and Iran have long been engaged in a cold war that has lasted about as long as the one they fought with the Russians, and is laced with even more hatred.
For 40 years they have been spying and bugging each other, engaged in economic warfare and sanctions, fighting proxy wars in Iraq, Syria to Yemen, engaging in propaganda and counter-propaganda, exchanging insults, backing state-sponsored terrorism. The lot.
The (probable) Iranian mining of oil tankers in the Gulf – the oil coming from US allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – is just another shady, disputed incident between the two sides.
Since the fall of the Shah in 1979 and the seizing of the American hostages in the Tehran embassy, America and Iran have been at war.
Only the short-lived international nuclear proliferation treaty signed under the Obama administration in 2015 represented much of a truce in their incessant hostilities, and of course that has now been rescinded by Donald Trump. The Great Satan versus the axis of evil? It’s not such a new story.
What is novel is that the Iranians are now winning their cold war with Tehran – and it is the fault of President Trump and his predecessors.
Iran looks to Kim Jong-Un, fellow axis of evil/rogue state club member, and Iran’s secret nuclear collaborator, for help and inspiration. Despite the harshest of US and UN economic sanctions, and with a notorious disregard for the welfare of his own citizens, Kim has developed nuclear weaponry such that he is now immune from US military aggression.
He can easily hit Japan and South Korea with his missiles, and might be able accurately to reach US interests in Guam and Hawaii, maybe even the west coast, if the hermit king of Pyongyang got lucky.
Whatever. The Americans know that he has the ability to hit them and their allies very hard. He has acquired a nuclear deterrent. End of story. Now America, and Donald Trump of all people, wants to talk to him. A first strike attack on North Korea is today unthinkable and impractical, and a “hot” war between America and North Korea impossible.
Instead the US wants to hold summits with Kim, treat him as an equal, blessing him with the prestige granted to a nuclear power. His regime is unassailable. The dynasty is assured. The reckless programme to acquire nuclear weapons and the ability to project that power far out into the Pacific worked. Successive American presidents failed to restrain him diplomatically or militarily, and now Kim has to be appeased. Talk of regime change in North Korea is done, as it is not when the Americans discuss Iran.
Well, if you were a policy maker watching the world from Tehran what lesson would you take from such developments?
What Donald Trump should have done is leave the Iran nuclear deal (formally the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action also guaranteed by Germany, France and Britain) well alone, because it at least offered the possibility of slowing and containing the Iranians. Maybe they were insincere, maybe Iran cheated. Perfectly possible. But what is now 100 per cent certain is that they are accelerating their already advanced nuclear project. There is nothing the Americans can do about that, even with air strikes, given that a land invasion would make the long conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan combined look like a White House tea party for the Boy Scouts of America.
Then again, if Iran acquitted nuclear weapons it might, ironically, prevent America and Iran from ending up in a “hot” war. Of course they are an unstable, over excitable bunch (and I mean the characters in the White House as well), but the traditional and durable doctrine of the deterrent and the fear of “mutually assured destruction” might keep at least prevent a full-scale military/naval confrontation with the US.
America probably only has a matter of months left before Iran becomes a fully-fledged, albeit minor, nuclear power, securing its status as a regional superpower and player. No amount of oil sanctions or drones or aircraft carriers around the Strait of Hormuz will then alter that transcendent fact, with US military strikes provoking unthinkable retaliation. Iran and its government will be safe. Like Kim, Trump will have no option but to make peace, and treat them as an equal. A further humiliation for an American president at the hands of Iran, but in the long run, one that might lead to a more realistic settlement of the two sides’ differences.
Of course, it will still be appalling for the poor civilians in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere that have been the victims of the proxy wars between Iran and its allies (usually Russia and Turkey) and America’s (the Saudis, UAE, Israel and the rest of the West). During the frostiest years of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, their conflicts too were pitilessly played out with other people's lives, from Angola to Vietnam. Proxy wars were fought, spy planes and civilian airliners were periodically shot down by panicky air forces, spies arrested and exchanged, and the ultimatums and tensions sometimes escalated to terrifying heights (Cuba in 1962, Afghanistan in 1980).
Still, seeing as we are all still here, we never did perish in that global thermonuclear conflict that we all once feared Kennedy and Khrushchev, Reagan and Brezhnev would inflict on us.
So if nuclear deterrence is good enough for the Russians and Americans, why not the Iranians or the Saudis, and, for that matter, other undeclared nuclear states such as Israel, India, Pakistan and, of course, North Korea.
The irony is that an inter-state Middle East war is less likely once everyone realises that Iran, and Israel and possibly Saudi Arabia too have nuclear weapons and would, in certain circumstances, use them.
Much the same goes for why India and Pakistan never quite go to war, despite all the crises, and shot down planes and festering grievances. The back-channels open up, tempers calm, and they always end up drawing back from the brink. Nuclear weapons are an obscenity, but they have their uses.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies