Middle East brinkmanship costing lives for too long

When it comes American power in the Middle East the old adage about history tending to repeat itself doesn’t seem to do justice to what we have seen unfold in Iran this month. It seems more like history is on a loop. 

The mysterious explosion of a passenger plane n Tehran this week - an event now attributed to an Iranian missile being accidentally launched within the country's own airspace - has claimed 176 innocent civilian lives.

This tragedy is just another reminder of the unexpected and terrible collateral damage that can emerge from the long history of tit-for-tat military strikes and provocations between America and Iran. 

If we take the long view of the past fortnight’s military and rhetorical attacks between the two we see a familiar story - one which always has the possibility of ending in catastrophe. 

One needn’t spend too long looking for parallels to the events of this week in the long history of Iranian-American confrontation. 

Even the shocking events of a plane full of civilians being mistakenly blown out of the sky is not without precedent. 

In 1988 it was an American surface-to-air missile that hit Iranian Air Flight 655 and mistakenly killied all 290 passengers on board. 

In one sense America’s relationship with Iran is complicated, if only because Tehran’s influence and aid stretches across Bahrain, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

But the constant hostility between the two has given their relationship an almost predictable pattern: periods of hot rhetoric and failed negotiations punctuated by military flashpoints. 

Beginning with the 1979 Iranian revolution and the taking of more than 50 American hostages, every decade since has been marked by a series of mini-crises and speculation of war. 

America’s targeted assassination of Iran’s second most powerful official, Qasem Soleimani, by drone strike on January 3 did take a simmering conflict to a new level but it reflects this ongoing dynamic.

Fortunately, these four-decades of provocations have always stopped short of full-blown war. 

And so it seems to be with this new year confrontation.

Even on the day of revenge missile attack aimed at American troops, President Trump significantly toned down his rhetoric.  

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“Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” the President said on Thursday. 

That is distinctly more conciliatory than his recent statements about America’s USD$2 trillion in military equipment and his claim that he had earmarked 52 sites in Iran for potential  bombing. 

The number 52 was not plucked from thin air. Trump noted each potential attack represented one of the hostages taken by the Iranian Government forty years ago; another reminder of how each of these crises builds upon the last. 

Iran’s rhetoric, too, has become reassuringly peaceful. Javad Zarif, the country’s Foreign Minister has said he considers the recent episode “concluded”.

But this is unlikely to signal the end of this kind of brinkmanship, the fallout from which reverberates around the world, not least of all because Iran holds just under 15 per cent of the world’s oil reserves. 

But every time the United States and Iran move towards the precipice of conflict there should be cause for concern. States of conflict create trigger-happy and tense environments at the cost of innocent lives, as we have seen this week. 

Theories about why the President chose to attack Iran’s top military official when he did have abounded this week. 

One factor is impossible to overlook: America is about to turn the corner on an election year and President Trump finds himself at the centre of innumerable domestic political scandals. 

Iran’s foreign policy, too, is also motivated mostly by domestic concerns. 

The reintroduction of economic sanctions by the European Union and America have had a severe impact on Iran’s economy. They have sparked a protest movement across dozens of Iranian cities over the past year, not to mention violent clashes with Police that left an estimated 1500 Iranians dead. 

Pressures like these can have funny effects on political leaders and the decisions they make, especially when they have a lot to lose from appearing to have backed down to an old enemy. 

President Trump famously campaigned for election by criticising Barack Obama for failing to negotiate with Iran and accused his predecessor of launching missile strikes on them to boost his re-election chances. 

The U.S. President most famously tied to the Middle East, George W. Bush, similarly promised on the campaign trail that he would not seek to depose Governments and rebuild them. He soon did so in Iraq 2003 and the long-term effects, in the form of the horrendous Islamic state which occupied a power vacuum America left behind. 

But in the aftermath of this turbulent fortnight we appear to be settling into a familiar diplomatic rut. America has said it is prepared to negotiate with Iran about its nuclear programme. Iran says it cannot negotiate while it is subject to severe economic sanctions. 

We would hope that negotiations could somehow emerge from these recent hostilities. But that seems like wishful thinking. 

Instead we might set our sights on a much more modest goal: that the on-again off-again conflict between these two powers, which does not seem to have a resolution in sight, at least moves into one of its uneventful periods and that innocent lives are spared. 

Have a good weekend, Samoa. And God bless. 

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