Impassioned revolutions, as George Jacque Danton, the leading light in the early stages of the French Revolution (which had sent thousands to the guillotine), claimed mournfully at his trial in 1794, “devour their own children”. True, and senseless wars (the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war wiped out one million souls) reinforce our innate suspicion that soldiers killing each other on battlefields do not solve the world’s problems.
As of last week we could hear, in the near distance, the beat of war drums, reminding us of conflict between Tehran and Washington that since 1979 was meant not to end.
In the wake of the drone strike on Thursday that killed Qasim Soleimani, Iran’s top honcho in the Middle East, we are left wondering whether our region is poised for war — an asymmetrical one, to be sure — between the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran, a war that will inevitably impact the entirety of our region.
Indeed that war, should it erupt, will also impact the rest of the world, given the fact that, at this juncture in human history, we inhabit what is called “the global village”, where what happens in one corner of that village will trickle down elsewhere in it. And with the United States and Iran playing chicken, the stakes are exceedingly high.
Soleimani was no boy-scout. Since the late 1990s he made it his priority to regroup the geopolitics of the region in response to his country’s interests, ordering the tens of thousands of proxies he controlled in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen to kill any person, dispatch any group and squash any voice that impeded Iran’s ambition to carve out a sphere of influence in the Middle East where it and it alone would dominate
To be sure, Soleimani was no boy-scout. Since the late 1990s he made it his priority to regroup the geopolitics of the region in response to his country’s interests, ordering the tens of thousands of proxies he controlled in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen to kill any person, dispatch any group and squash any voice that impeded Iran’s ambition to carve out a sphere of influence in the Middle East where it and it alone would dominate.
And he succeeded — which made him the most powerful politico-military operative in a region that stretched from the Euphrates River to the Mediterranean Sea. No one was his equal in guile, perseverance and pluck.
Yet there were a lot of people out there — Lebanese protesters who opposed sectarianism in their society, Iraqi reformists who chafed at Iran’s intrusiveness in their national affairs, and Syrian rebels who struggled against the excesses of the regime in Damascus that oppressed them, a regime whose survival was underwritten partly by Soleimani’s 50,000 militias there — who were not altogether bereft at hearing the news heralding the death of Tehran’s peripatetic mastermind.
All well and good — with people’s visceral reactions. But what about the unintended consequences? Will we be dragged, willy-nilly, into a war, as Washington and Tehran exchange heavy-duty threats to hit each other where it hurts?
Iranian leaders have vowed to exact “severe vengeance” on the US, whose troops, diplomats and civilians in Iraq are vulnerable to attacks by Shiite militias allied with Iran. President Trump, for his part, promised ominously in a tweet that, should that happen, he would order strikes on sites “important to Iran & and the Iranian culture”. One hopes that the American president wrote all that in a fit of pique and not in all seriousness.
The intentional destruction by one nation of the cultural heritage of another is a war crime, outlawed under the 1954 Hague Convention, which ranks it, along with genocide, as an act beyond the pale — hideous, unconscionable, senseless and, at the end of the day, unpardonable. (To its credit, Downing Street was quick to declare, in an implicit rebuke to the White House, that targeting cultural sites in Iran “would breach international warfare conventions”, action it will have no truck with.)
Predicting the outcome of this dangerous spat between Iran and the United States, whose rhetoric is getting more escalatory as we speak, is a fool’s errand. But one thing is clear: Don’t look for a happy ending.
David Petraeus, who led US forces in Iraq and later served as director of the CIA, told Robin Wright, for an article that the well-known Mideast expert filed online for the New Yorker the day after Soleimani’s death, “Iran has to be in shock right now. Its version of the [White House] National Security Council will be in overdrive. But there’s a whole universe of possibilities now, everything from proxy wars, kidnappings of American citizens, actions against coalition partners, even an attempt to do something in the US … “
In her piece, Wright also quoted John Lambert, one of the 52 Americans held hostage in Tehran in 1979, as saying that, yes, like everybody and his uncle, he was “happy” Soleimani was killed, but he quickly added: “This is not going to end well”.
When you think about it, with Tehran not about to back down and Washington not about to back off, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
— Fawaz Turki is a writer and lecturer who lives in Washington and the author of several books, including the Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.