Waiting. Waiting for what’s next. Perhaps some new thinking by political and military leaders that will avoid further military conflict, or perhaps a frightening omen of the tragedies yet to come.
Rabat – September 1939 to April 1940, following Germany’s blitzkrieg attack and its occupation of Poland, a surreal calm existed in Europe as the continent braced for what was coming next. A sitzkrieg (sitting war) or phoney war descended on the continent as leaders bided their time—the momentum toward total war seemingly unstoppable.
Europe in the spring of 1940 does not necessarily mirror the situation today in the aftermath of the Soleimani killing and Iran’s retaliatory missile attack against American military installations in Iraq. But the brutal power politics of the region seem particularly surreal following the deaths of 176 people aboard Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 outside Tehran on Jan. 8.
The decades-long conflict involving the U.S. and Iran reached a crescendo this week with a myriad of non-state players, leaderless protest movements and sponsored militias as important contributors.
Two contrasting worldviews emanate from the Trump administration concerning Iran. First, Donald Trump fundamentally believes that Middle East conflicts have led to so-called “forever wars” that have cost the United States billions (or perhaps trillions) of dollars and have not returned any investment gain for the American people.
Additionally, Trump believes Iran is a primary source of instability and terrorism in the region—directly and also through the coordination of several sponsored militias. And if Iran is left unchecked it will develop new and enhanced tools that will promote even greater instability in the future, i.e. long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.
So how will this end? “We want Iran to simply behave like a normal nation,” said U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo in a January 10 press briefing. Lots of room for negotiation and maneuverability. As always, Trump wants to make a deal. Before last fall, he was willing to wait and let sanctions take their toll on the Iranian economy but events in both Iraq and Iran the past few months have created a new urgency in Washington.
Mass demonstrations began in Baghdad and other southern Iraqi cities beginning in October. Young people protested the lack of opportunity, endemic corruption and a seemingly endless state of chaos that has been a hallmark of post-invasion Iraq.
“I’m here protesting against corruption and to demand a nation. These politicians haven’t given the people any solutions,” said one Baghdad protestor in an interview with Reuters in November.
Similarly in Iran, demonstrations broke out across the country as people protested a gas price hike, unemployment, and a general lack of individual freedom of expression. Hundreds of protestors have reportedly been killed since November.
In a recent Foreign Affairs piece, one Iran analyst described the demise of the underground music scene in Iran, historically a barometer for the vibrancy of youth-led social change movements. Many musicians and artists have simply fled the country. The beat has stopped.
Unlike the fatalism that informed the brief sitzkrieg of 1939-1940, sober realism seems to be encouraging restraint right now. An aggressive military American campaign against Iran would fly in the face of Trump’s proclaimed disdain for forever wars in the Middle East, add to that a rapidly approaching impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate and a tough general election in November.
Saudi Arabia dispatched Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman (the brother of the crown prince) to the White House this week purportedly urging restraint; the kingdom would “do everything in its power to spare Iraq from the danger of war and conflict between external parties…”, he later said in a tweet.
The Soleimani killing may have provided Iranian leadership with a brief respite from the growing discontent inside the Islamic Republic. Massive crowds mourned the death of a revolutionary icon this week; a compelling story but it’s also an emotional sugar high that won’t last. Add to this the belated admission by President Hassan Rouhani that human error led to the shooting down of the Ukraine International flight on Wednesday.
Iran may eventually return to its old habits of confronting the U.S. and other perceived adversaries through proxy confrontations but the high costs of low-intensity warfare may become too much for Tehran as domestic economic and social challenges continue to mount.
And in next-door Iraq, nearly 17 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, foreign forces fatigue among Iraqis will only grow as the nation’s civil society slowly reasserts itself. Even firebrand Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr cautioned local militias against any knee-jerk armed response against U.S. forces in the country or against the government in Baghdad. A tense status-quo in Iraq seems likely even after a new prime minister is selected.
As Baghdad, Tehran, and Washington move beyond the death of shadow commander Soleimani, the wisdom of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, the reluctant warrior, is as relevant in 2020 as it was in 2003: If you break it, you own it.