Us-iran cri­sis: De-es­ca­lat­ing ten­sion in Mid­dle East

The Punch - - EDITORIAL -

THE Mid­dle East has been on ten­ter­hooks since Fri­day when a United States drone killed an Ira­nian gen­eral, Qasem Soleimani, near the Bagh­dad air­port in Iraq. It was a wellorches­trated strike which Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump ap­plauded, given the no­to­ri­ety of the vic­tim in the prism of the US and some of its al­lies. The late gen­eral was not the only ca­su­alty; the leader of Kataib Hezbol­lah, Abu Mahdi al-muhan­dis, was also killed along with six oth­ers.

Since then, world lead­ers have re­sponded fre­net­i­cally to the devel­op­ment with rhetoric, vac­il­lat­ing be­tween con­dem­na­tion and ap­proval. Rus­sia said the at­tack was a “mur­der and reck­less step.” A Krem­lin state­ment said Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin had dis­cussed the at­tack with his French coun­ter­part, Em­manuel Macron, and they re­solved that “this ac­tion might se­ri­ously es­ca­late ten­sions in the re­gion.”

But the Prime Min­is­ter of the United Kingdom sup­ported the Trump of­fen­sive. The UK, he af­firmed, “will not lament” Soleimani’s death, but he called for calm and de-es­ca­la­tion of the cri­sis. His sup­port for Trump is shared by the Prime Min­is­ter of Is­rael, Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu. Both lead­ers had cut short their for­eign trips to re­turn to their re­spec­tive coun­tries for emer­gency se­cu­rity coun­cil meet­ings as ap­pre­hen­sion en­veloped the in­ter­na­tional sys­tem in the wake of the at­tack. The UK has is­sued a travel ad­vi­sory to its cit­i­zens against Iran and Iraq, re­quest­ing them to al­ways be abreast of de­vel­op­ments there, while the US has done so too for its nationals liv­ing in Nige­ria.

Ac­cord­ing to Trump, the US ac­tion was a pre-emp­tive one rather than an all-out war with Iran. He ac­cused Soleimani of be­ing di­rectly or in­di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for the death of mil­lions of peo­ple in the re­gion, many of them Amer­i­cans. Pen­tagon, in jus­ti­fy­ing the ghastly in­ci­dent, ac­cused Soleimani of “de­vel­op­ing plans to at­tack Amer­i­can diplo­mats and ser­vice mem­bers in Iraq and through­out the re­gion.” Soleimani com­manded Iran’s dreaded Quds Force and al­legedly co­or­di­nated a net­work of mili­tias in Syria, Le­banon, Iraq and Ye­men. Their stock in trade is ter­ror­ism. But his mur­der raises more prob­lems than it in­tended to solve. In the US, espe­cially among some Con­gres­sional lead­ers, doubt ex­ists about the in­tegrity of the in­tel­li­gence that Trump was pur­ported to have acted on. For this rea­son, Rep Adam Schiff, a Demo­crat from Cal­i­for­nia, says Amer­i­cans should see the ev­i­dence.

Iran and Hezbol­lah’s re­sponse to Amer­ica’s bel­liger­ent pos­ture is cap­tured in one word: re­venge. Soleimani was Iran’s Supreme Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei’s sec­ond in com­mand. The coun­try’s Pres­i­dent, Has­san Rouhani, said, “Iran and other free na­tions of the re­gion will take re­venge for this grue­some crime...” Amid this cli­mate of un­cer­tainty, NATO met on Mon­day, while the United Na­tions sued for peace across the Gulf re­gion.

The whole drama is por­ten­tous. Iraq, on whose soil the killing took place, is ag­grieved and as rat­tled as Iran. The ac­tion is a vi­o­la­tion of its sovereignt­y and a brazen breach of in­ter­na­tional law. No na­tion, no mat­ter how small, would tol­er­ate such in­dig­nity. Af­ter lead­ing a coali­tion force that routed ISIS, the US con­tin­ues to main­tain its mil­i­tary pres­ence there, which it now takes an un­due ad­van­tage of. As a re­sult, the Iraqi author­i­ties want all for­eign forces to with­draw from its land.

But Trump is adamant. He has threat­ened to im­pose a raft of harsh sanc­tions on Iraq, the type that it had not ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore, if it in­sists on hav­ing its way. How­ever, if the US troops should leave, Trump has de­manded the pay­ment of about $6 bil­lion that the US used to build its mil­i­tary fortress there.

It will be scary if this hap­pens: ISIS will re­group to re­claim its lost ter­ri­to­ries in no time; and an evicted US will sign­post an ir­re­versible es­ca­la­tion of the cri­sis. True to their sabre-rat­tling, rock­ets have been land­ing near the US mil­i­tary bases, where the coali­tion forces stay. More of such are un­der­way with Iran and Hezbol­lah promis­ing to tar­get the US mil­i­tary in­fra­struc­ture wher­ever they could be found. Un­doubt­edly, the lives of mem­bers of the coali­tion forces will be im­per­illed.

There­fore, the US is not tak­ing any chances at all. On Mon­day, its mil­i­tary an­nounced strate­gic move­ment of troops within Iraq. As of the end of 2019, the US alone had 5,200 troops in Iraq, in a se­cu­rity pact with its host to ad­vise and sup­port the Iraqi mil­i­tary against ISIS. Trump has vowed to tar­get 52 of Iran’s high level sites, if it dared to re­tal­i­ate Soleimani’s killing. To le­git­imise the ear­lier strike and pre­pare for any even­tu­al­ity, the White House has no­ti­fied the Congress of Soleimani’s killing un­der the War Pow­ers Act.

A time like this de­mands states­man­ship, not brinks­man­ship, from world lead­ers. The al­lies of the US, there­fore, should pre­vail on Trump to demon­strate ma­tu­rity and re­straint in throw­ing the coun­try’s weight around. Since his pres­i­dency be­gan, he has been ut­terly reck­less, thus rup­tur­ing the in­ter­na­tional or­der. Rus­sia, China and oth­ers close to Iran, too, should work on its tem­per­a­ment.

Truce is crit­i­cal now. It is not only the Mid­dle East that is in dan­ger with what is un­rav­el­ling, but the en­tire world. The re­gion’s pe­cu­liar geo-po­lit­i­cal and re­li­gious dy­nam­ics, as a haven for global ter­ror­ism and the largest pro­ducer of the crude oil that pow­ers the global econ­omy, make the un­fold­ing dis­quiet more pet­ri­fy­ing for all. Far away as Nige­ria is from the theatre of this dis­cord, the In­spec­tor-gen­eral of Po­lice, Mo­hammed Adamu, has put state po­lice com­mands on red alert. While ex­trem­ists should be dealt with pro­fes­sion­ally, ad­e­quate se­cu­rity mea­sures should also be put in place to keep the coun­try safe.

Ob­vi­ously, stability in the Mid­dle East is any­thing but guar­an­teed, with Iran’s de­ci­sion to end its com­mit­ment to the 2015 nu­clear deal that pro­vided cuts in its cen­trifuges by twothirds; lim­ited her ura­nium en­rich­ment at 3.7 per cent and stock­pil­ing to only 300 kilo­grammes for 15 years. In re­turn, its $150 bil­lion frozen as­sets will be re­turned and oil sanc­tions lifted. That was a pack­age widely ex­pected to tempt Iraq out of the loop of rogue regimes and join the league of re­spon­si­ble ac­tors in the in­ter­na­tional space.

Now, her re­turn to the sta­tus quo ante is cer­tainly good news to mili­tia groups like Hezbol­lah and Ha­mas that draw their fire­power from Iran’s mis­siles sup­ply. They act as Iran’s prox­ies in any con­flict it de­cides to play the card of in­su­lar­ity. Is­rael knows no peace as a re­sult of their un­guarded mis­siles at­tacks, lead­ing to her overkill, reprisals some­times.

But the new eerie at­mos­phere in the re­gion would not have arisen in the first place, had Trump not dis­cred­ited the Iran nu­clear deal. In 2018, he said the US would not hon­our it any­more, de­scrib­ing it as “worst, hor­ri­ble, (and) laugh­able.” It was his ra­bid ef­fort to wipe out all of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s lega­cies that has pushed the Mid­dle East to this precipice. Obama had ad­vised crit­ics of the deal to have faith in the ef­fi­cacy of di­plo­macy to re­solve all the grey is­sues; but warned that “pulling out now would risk an­other mil­i­tary con­flict in the Mid­dle East.” The ac­tors seem to be grav­i­tat­ing in­ex­orably to­wards that cross­roads. How­ever, the UN and all lovers of global peace should act con­cert­edly and swiftly too to avert this im­mi­nent tragedy at all costs.

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