One never knows what’s going to happen next in the tinderbox of the Middle East, except that there’s always a next time.
Iranian proxies attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. The U.S. responded by killing a top Iranian general. Iran responded by lobbing missiles at a U.S. military base in Iraq that caused no significant damage.
Nonetheless, Iran’s leader said his country had delivered a “slap in the face” to the U.S. President Donald Trump responded by tweeting “All is well!” and announcing that “Iran appears to be standing down.” While waving a big stick, Trump also extended an olive branch, suggesting that the time has come for Iran to live in peace with its neighbors and enjoy the prosperity generated by its natural resources.
That flurry of activity is definitely not business as usual in the Middle East. It’s just even more of the kind of tit-for-tat brinkmanship that represents nothing new to those who pay attention.
This time, however, U.S. public reaction was especially sharp and disappointingly partisan, prompting instant assertions that a full-scale war with Iran is just around the corner because Trump authorized a military strike on a prominent Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani.
About that military strike: Soleimani was a legitimate target for retaliation under what are laughably called the laws of war. He was not just a leading enemy combatant but a member of the top tier of Iran’s leadership.
About those predictions of war: The soothsayers have a 50 percent chance of being right. But the fact is that Iran, realizing all that it would entail, doesn’t want a real war any more than the U.S. does. Iran’s leaders may be ideological zealots who see Islam as the way, the truth and the light. But they are not bent on self-destruction.
In fact, there have been bigger confrontations than this one over the years.
In April 1988, U.S. military forces, tired of Iran disrupting shipping in international waters of the Persian Gulf, launched Operation Preying Mantis on Iranian oil platforms that hosted naval and intelligence facilities.
By the end of the operation, U.S. forces had destroyed the Iranian facilities and sunk at least three armed Iranian speedboats, one Iranian frigate and one fast attack gunboat.
The Iranians protested vociferously, but there was no declaration of war. Instead, that country chose to pick smaller-scale fights with the U.S. and seek military control of other countries, including Syria and Iraq, often under Soleimani’s leadership.
These things are impossible to predict. But Iran’s national interest suggests it is likely to do in the future exactly what it has done in the past.
The Middle East, almost certainly, will remain a dangerous place, but no more so than it was before Soleimani was killed.
Iran’s leaders certainly have more to think about now. They were confident that the U.S. would ignore Soleimani’s military actions. That’s why they baited Trump from afar by declaring there was nothing the U.S. could or would do about Iran’s military adventures. The Soleimani strike proves Iran’s expectations were incorrect.
Although Iran’s leadership professes outrage over Soleimani’s killing, it ironically came at a good time.
The country is falling apart economically, and there’s widespread domestic unhappiness with the government. Even as the ayatollahs and their military kill protesters by the hundreds, they are using Soleimani’s death to rouse nationalist fervor that will distract from citizen discontent.
What’s the most important issue, of course, is the strategy behind the U.S. tactics.
A series of independent reactions won’t get the job done. To achieve positive results, U.S. actions must be taken as part of a broader plan to bring a permanent peace — or at least a cessation of hostilities — to this deeply troubled region of the world.
Given the unhappy past and the intractable nature of the problem, it’s difficult to see much of substance coming out of this latest round of hostilities. But just as the facts have changed vis a vis U.S. and Iran, so have the rules of engagement, and if people pray hard enough, so may the diplomacy.