As the world battles a deadly pandemic and the global community calls for worldwide cooperation and ceasefires, Donald Trump’s hawkish policy on Iran has not changed. The international consensus on Iran has been centred around diplomacy and the survival of the nuclear deal, which was confirmed again in an unprecedented defeat of the US at the UN Security Council last week. Even America’s closest European allies, the UK, Germany, and France, refused to vote for the US resolution to extend an arms embargo on Iran.
Iran hawks see this time of global crisis as an opportune moment to go after a country of over 80m people, in a region already beleaguered by decades of conflict and US militarism.
Rising tensions between Washington and Tehran since Trump unilaterally exited the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, and the belligerent rhetoric of this administration – especially from the Department of State led by Mike Pompeo – recalls the build-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. However, the pithy slogan, “Don’t Iraq Iran”, is not an accurate analogy to the situation of Iran today. In fact, a potential conflict with Iran will not be like the war in Iraq, instead, the more plausible comparison is Syria.
Even the most determined hawks in Washington realise that the war with Iraq was a mistake and that the American people have no appetite for war. Yet, not only has the US under the Trump administration become increasingly isolated from the international community, on the issue of Iran it is acting against the will of the global consensus and America’s closest allies. Despite running on a platform against the Iraq war and US militarism in the Middle East, and claiming that he wants a deal with Iran, reports reveal that President Trump greenlit the CIA in 2018 to carry out covert operations against Iran, with the objective to destabilise or collapse the country, according to former officials.
The most outspoken Iran hawk in the current administration, Mike Pompeo, has been integral in Trump’s Iran policy. Two weeks after Pompeo swore in as Secretary of State, Trump announced the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. Since then, none of the stated or supposed goals of the administration’s “maximum pressure” policy have come to pass. Instead, Iran took measured steps to reduce its compliance with the nuclear deal and we have seen a persistent increase in tensions, which almost led to war in January after the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.
The upcoming appointment of another long-time Iran hawk to the post of Iran envoy, Elliott Abrams, who was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal under the Reagan administration, signals diminishing hopes for any diplomacy with Iran. Currently serving as Trump’s special representative for Venezuela, Abrams has been pushing for regime-change there and will most likely incorporate a similar policy in his new role.
As we near elections in November, the Trump administration has failed to deliver few foreign policy victories. Protests against racism and police brutality continue unabated, the US is first in the world in Covid-19 cases and deaths, and the economy is inching towards recession. Seeing the likely scenario of a Biden victory, Iran hawks have doubled down on their failed approach in hopes of sparking a conflict before Trump may leave office.
A series of recent explosions and fires in Iran reflect apparent efforts to destabilise the country, the fact that some were at crucial infrastructure sites rises the idea that Iran is being provoked into escalating the situation. Israel also appears to have a hand in the alleged acts of sabotage, something it has carried out many times in the past.
As 1,000 Americans are dying per day from Covid-19, this open and reckless antagonism against Iran appears to be growing in scale – for instance, a recent egregious move by a US fighter jet, which flew dangerously close to an Iranian civilian plane, or a sitting US senator openly calling for the “collapse of the regime”. While we hear talking points that are familiar for anyone who lived through the invasion of Iraq, there is little accountability for the fallout of such a “collapse”.
It seems an intentional misreading of the situation when proponents of an aggressive Iran policy claim a swift and easy collapse and transition of the Iranian government. Beyond the fact that most Iranians would oppose foreign interference into their own political future, Iranian authorities, especially those who wield power at the upper echelons of its complex political structure, will cling to power under any circumstance, much like the case of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
In fact, a central reason for Assad’s ability to retain power, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Syrian lives, millions of refugees, horrible atrocities and immeasurable destruction, was the support of Iranian and Russian forces. If Tehran could help keep Assad in power in Damascus despite the level of opposition against him, they will most likely resist attempts to collapse the Islamic Republic. Additionally, as tensions climb between the US and China – and Iran and China establish closer economic ties – there will be another layer of complication in any intervention in Iran.
If Iran becomes a theatre of war, it will draw global geopolitical actors to play out their own clashes in yet another Middle Eastern country. The case of Iran today is nothing like the case of Iraq in 2003. It is not truly analogous to Syria either, and would likely have a much greater adverse impact.
What we do know for certain is that no one can afford another fruitless and devastating war. Millions of innocent Iranians will bear the brunt of the havoc, but as we well know, there will be reverberations throughout the world. A Syrian-style civil war in Iran would devastate the entire region and even beyond the Middle East.
In the case of Iran, a peaceful solution is not only possible, it already exists in the framework of the nuclear deal. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is not only a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, it is a door to more diplomacy between Tehran and the West and can pave the way for negotiations and potential agreements on many issues. Neither Iranians nor Americans want war. At a time when the global community is facing insurmountable challenges, it is crucial to move towards peace.
Assal Rad is a senior research fellow at the National Iranian American Council. Negar Mortazavi is a journalist
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