US and Iran in an Uneasy Calm
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF

President Trump has the uncanny habit of surprising the world by his unique and often contentious tweets on foreign policy issues. But this time it pleased many. “All is Well” tweeted President Trump after 20 odd Iranian missiles apparently targeted the major US bases in Al Asad and Erbil on Wednesday to take revenge for the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, whose popularity and absolute importance was witnessed in his death. Iranian leader called these a “Slap on their (US) face”. However, the tweet by Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was very clearly conciliatory where he said that Iran had taken the action in accordance with Article 51 of UN Charter in self-defence and that Iran “took and concluded proportionate measures” in response to cowardly armed attack . He further reiterated that Iran did not seek escalation or war, but will defend themselves against any aggression.

This left the door ajar for the Americans. This was further testified by the fact that the missile shower did not eke out any US or Iraqi casualties which seemed to convey the message that such angularity was well calculated. Even an Iranian General claimed that these “Missiles were not meant to kill” but to send a message. One can easily compare with the precision downing of an expensive US military drone by Iranians couple of months back when another standoff was averted. Even though the Iran supported militia groups and proxies would have wanted much harsher and exemplary bloody revenge as was subsequently announced by the IRGC Commanders. But the good sense prevailed among the seasoned leadership who also understood the dangerous implications of the all-out war which would have undoubtedly decimated them and the region and its resources.

They may scoff at the so called “US beautiful equipment” but there is no doubt about the reach and destruction capacity of American fire power should things go out of hand. Both sides claimed that the other was standing down. Not a bad deal for perception management if peace overtures could be initiated. Iranians gained a bit more as they maintained their verbosity in the war of words and reaction capacity against the hyper power while the Iranians got united in the grief relegating the demonstrations and discontent against the Iranian regime.

Then was the turn of Americans to respond more harshly as expected by hawks in the Administration. President Trump in his address to the nation next morning reciprocated by not indulging in further escalation or retaliation much to the chagrin or disappointment of his hawkish colleagues. It has often been surmised that there is some method in his madness. But this time Trump has risen to the occasion and in keeping with his stated policy and parameters opened the door for negotiations and even called Iran for “unconditional talks” yet again. He said that United States is ready to embrace peace with those who seek it. He even praised the Iranian people. Of course, to address his domestic constituency he made all the right jingoistic references including imposition of more severe economic sanctions on Iran and even vowed that he will not let Iran become nuclear.

He also asked the other five stakeholders of the JCPOA to opt out of it so that a new treaty could be signed. Iranians are loathe to discussions on the revision of JCPOA and want US to return to the table first to discuss and commit to nuclear deal and remove the back- breaking sanctions while urging the Europeans to complete their end of the bargain. However, Trump very adroitly navigated the narrow space for manoeuvrability without hurting his chances of re-election. His authorisation to kill General Soleimani “the monster” in Baghdad to avenge the killing of a US contractor had been widely criticised globally and more so in the US especially by the Congress as it wished to curtail President’s power to wage war that is vested in Congress. The briefing by the White House was said to be the “worst ever” by some Senators. Although no one shed a tear for Soleimani in the US the Administration failed to convince that there was an imminent threat to US interests.

The region and those dependent on West Asia for their energy supplies heaved a sigh of relief as the near war was averted that would have had the most devastating destruction in its wake. The global economy and growth is as such sliding downwards and major emerging economies like China and India are recording sluggish growth. Oil producing countries have been facing their own challenges due to low oil revenues, budget deficits, domestic disturbances and intra-Arab rivalries .The revived Arab Spring in its reengineered Avatar is taking its leadership toll. Hence, there were no takers for the military conflict between US and Iran for whatever reason. The key Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia, Oman UAE and Qatar acted to cool down the temperatures when they gave the real assessment of the ground reality to President Trump. As such there are enough hotspots in the region to keep them tied down and impacting their economies adversely. The calamitous situation with Iran could have further aggravated their plight.

Russia and China and even India have been working to calm down the situation while gearing up for the worst. Even Israel maintained a stoic silence waiting for the way things would unfold that helped the situation as despite its acerbic dislike for Iranians their hands are already full. Unfortunately, the beleaguered Iraq became the battlefield and obviously took the opportunity to pass a non-binding resolution for all foreign forces to leave the country. It was interpreted as a message for the Americans but implicitly it, by default, also included the Iranians although Iran-supported Shia militias are Iraqi owned and led.

Meanwhile, although several US and allies’ troops were relocated to Jordan and Kuwait realistically Iraqis as of now, can neither confront nor stop the Americans nor the Iranians from using their territory whether they like it or not. But the seeds of discontent against the west have been re-germinated and that’s not a good omen for Americans as unilateral sanctions can never win you friends. Iran looks at it as the opportunity for the eventual exit of the Americans from the region. Perhaps a wishful thinking at this stage! Although Trump wanted to withdraw his forces from the distant theatres of conflict including from the Middle East, his abrupt policies have produced an opposite outcome as more US forces and equipment had to be deployed in recent past to cope up with the deteriorating situation much of which was its own handiwork. And the danger to the ordinary Americans appears to have increased.

Although for the time being we might witness a hiatus in hostilities between US and Iran as both have stepped down from the hostile pedestal any miscalculation or acts by Iranian proxy groups and non-state actors, who are very sanguine about exacting harsh revenge and some of whom might be out of their control, will bring them to the brink of yet another catastrophe. Next time even the Trumpian charm and Iranian suave diplomacy may not save the situation spiralling downhill.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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Well elucidated article


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