New York and Washington DC may be three hours apart geographically, but in global affairs, they are worlds apart.
With the wars in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere unabating, at the UN in New York, terms like ‘conflict prevention’ and ‘sustaining peace’ are back in vogue, with world leaders attending a major summit. Meanwhile in Washington while the talks with North Korea took center stage behind the scenes the drum roll of war against Iran is revving up.
The playbook of this potentially impending war is familiar. The groundwork in the media and political arena is being laid, to make war necessary thus inevitable, so that it ultimately becomes so. Future historians can look back to this month for the many early warning signs and the red herrings that set this stage. Below I address four of the most obvious.
The Israeli provocation
On Monday April 9th Israel attacked Syrian military bases where Iranian security personnel were stationed. Seven Iranians died in the attack and tensions in the region soared. As many Middle East watchers noted, Israel was trying to provoke a retaliation from Iran, so that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could unleash his pent-up anger across Iranian skies.
As the dead soldiers returned to Tehran, Iranian officials said the strikes “will not remain without a response.” Israel meanwhile reiterated it won’t tolerate Iranian military bases next door. It launched another attack on April 30th killing Iranians, Syrians and Iraqi military personnel.
Memories of Israeli-Iranian cooperation against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war are all but erased from history as the two countries have provoked and retaliated against each other through proxies for three decades. But the war of words is escalating to war on the ground.
Undercutting the JCPOA
Second, not surprising the rising tensions in the region come in parallel with the attacks on the Iran deal or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has always resented. The JCPOA has prevented Iran from pursuing even the possibility of nuclear weapons, and was meant to open a pathway for broader diplomacy between the US and Iran and to keep at least a cold peace between Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran.
While Iran has adhered to the terms of the JCPOA, the US has not. The financial sanctions and threats of billion dollar penalties against banks that dare to do business with Iranian companies or citizens are still in place.
Without the promised economic benefits, the Iranian government faces an angry public and an emboldened hardline and conservative faction within the regime. Despite joining the coalition fight against ISIS, Iran’s dogged support for Syria’s President Assad adds fuel to the fire of the anti-Iran coalition.
While Netanyahu’s theatrics on May 1 gained attention, other pro-war advocates in America have also been re-inserting themselves into mainstream politics. On April 11th, Michael Makovsky a former Pentagon official and now head of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) suggested that because President Trump threatened to withdraw from the JCPOA, he has put the US in a corner.
Makovsky acknowledged that Iran is adhering to the agreement but said if Iran withdraws the US should act. “A prepared president” he wrote, “should seize the historic opportunity to follow through on that threat.” In effect he argues that regardless of Iran’s adherence, if the US withdraws, it must attack Iran so as not to appear weak. President Trump has taken the bait.
Meeting with France’s President Macron on April 24th, Trump said the US could withdraw from the JCPOA, but if Iran does so and “starts its nuclear program they will have bigger problems than they have ever had before,” adding “If Iran threatens us, they will experience a retaliation few countries have ever experienced.” President Trump may hate the JCPOA, but he despises Iran’s adherence to it even more.
Bolton, the MEK and the Regime Changers
Third, the ascent of John Bolton as National Security Adviser means ‘regime change’ policy is firmly back on the table. For those needing a reminder, this was the policy of the Bush administration after 9/11. It signals a range of covert and overt actions by the US or its proxies to bring down a regime that is deemed unfriendly to the US, and install a friendly one.
That John Bolton is an enthusiast of such a policy, and that he is publicly affiliated with the cultish Mujahedin e Khalq (MEK was on the terrorist list until 2012) that self-identify as Iran’s exiled opposition group and have shaped shifted to appear more palatable to western states, but remain widely despised inside the country, is another warning sign of an Iraq war redux.
Other ‘regime changers’ such as Eli Lake have also come out of hibernation. Early in April, Eli Lake an unapologetic supporter of the Iraq war published an interview with Dr. Shirin Ebadi, Iran’s Nobel laureate. Dr. Ebadi has long criticized the Iranian regime for its human rights abuses, and called for a variety of legal measures to bring about systemic change.
In her interview, she repeats her assertion that “the regime change in Iran should take place inside Iran and by the people of Iran…But,” she says, the US “can help the people of Iran reach their own goal” by establishing a channel to the legitimate and independent Iranian opposition.
That she’s seeking US support is of concern to many. But in calling for regime change, she is also siding against the JCPOA. The article headline screamed “Nobel Laureate is done with Reform, she wants Regime Change’ and overnight the neo-cons had their own version of a celebrity advocate.
The Economic Factor
Finally, there is nothing quite like preparing the groundswell for chaos than meddling with a country’s finances. Here too the timing and evidence is not coincidental. In February 2018, the Iranian rial lurched downward and as Iranians rung in their new year in late March, the spiral continued with a 20% loss, causing many to question machinations behind the scenes.
While Iran’s own mismanagement of the economy is also to blame, the coalescing of external factors is notable. Iranians have relied on the United Arab Emirates (UAE) markets to obtain dollars and enable transactions and trade.
But with US and Saudi involvement, the UAE instigated a new 5% value added tax, visa restrictions and tighter banking restrictions that mostly affect Iranians. In Iran a public rush to sell the rial and invest in the ever more expensive dollar or gold, prompted the government to step in and announce a single official dollar rate. Whether this allays fears and stabilizes the economy is yet to be seen. But uncertainty is in the air.
Iran has done a poor job of public relations in the US. For an older generation, images of yellow ribbons tied around neighborhood trees counting the days of the 1979 hostage crisis are seared in memories.
For a younger generation, it is images of brave women throwing off their mandatory veils as they fend off security guards. It is a far away land of angry clerics with furrowed brows where environmentalists and dual citizens are arrested.
But as pressures loom, it is important to remember that Iranians – men and women, old and young, children and grand parents are trying to live normal lives of love and laughter, joy and heartache.
In 2002 when US think tanks and media joined the Bush administration’s drumbeat of war on Iraq, the public was skeptical, but the political establishment pushed to make war seemed inevitable.
Yet decisions made on a high of adrenlin and machismo didn’t result in a ‘cakewalk of a war’. They caused unimagined misery. Iraq, a country that was the cradle of civilization that had no illiteracy in its population by 1980, is now unrecognizable. One million people are dead according to the most conservative estimates.
Depleted uranium from US weapons runs in the waterways and into veins of Iraq children giving rise to unprecedented levels of cancer. US hubris and mismanagement of the occupation and its aftermath also gave rise to ISIS.
Now cheerleaders of that war have their eyes on Iran. A country that is significantly larger and is home to 80 million people, majority young, overwhelmingly educated, and mostly fed up with the aging theocracy that isolates them from the world and thwarts their aspirations.
But this population does not want missiles raining from the sky. It doesn’t want its economy ruined. It wants engagement with the world. It is also deeply patriotic. They may rail against the regime but they will likely rally as a nation if there is any foreign attack.
Even if attacks are purported to be tactical, aimed at the heart of the regime’s center to create a vacuum of power, the ascendance of on organized opposition that is tasteful to the west is unlikely. The more likely scenario is the rise of a militant force, backed by an indignant population fueled by renewed anger towards the US and its allies.
The world should also pause and anticipate what may unfold if chaos is invoked through economic collapse and a weakening of Iran’s borders: at a minimum refugees spilling into Europe and an open gateway from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Persian Gulf and beyond.
The JCPOA is a critical foundation for preventing conflagration on a scale we have not seen. For those who still claim military attacks, harsh sanctions or other forms of destabilization are the route to peace, democracy or human rights, the body count and chaos in Libya, Iraq and Yemen is evidence of their flawed logic.
Iran’s alliance with President Assad is unfathomable, but it does not warrant unleashing chaos against Iran’s 80 million people. Neither any regional Middle Eastern states, nor the global powers have morality on their side. All are implicated in wars that have led too many deaths already.
As the May 12 deadline looms for the US’s endorsement of the JCPOA, world leaders who claimed to support Mr.Guterres’ sustaining peace agenda, have a clear moral imperative: to stand by their words and sustain the peace for the millions of civilians in Iran and beyond who would pay the price if violence escalates.
That means they must prevent this impending conflict before the fog of inevitability sets in.
- 25 Groups to President Obama: Ensure US sanctions don’t block Iranians from access to food and medecine
- Iranian NGOs’ Network Issues Statement about US Government’s Measures against Iran
- Breaking Through The Iron Ceiling: Iran’s New Government And The Hopes Of The Iranian Women’s Movements
- Interview with Parisa Kakaee, Iranian Women and Children’s Rights Activist
- Iran After Protests: Change Does Come