By Corri Zoli
Let’s begin with the obvious to self-aware observers of the region: “Iran’s so-called retaliation was not smart, to say the least. It was theater for its gullible constituents, and the US seems willing to let it slide.” So said Hassan Hassan about Iran’s ballistic missile attacks on Iraqi bases (Ain Assad and Erbil), which house US forces.
Hassan directs the Non-State Actors Program at the nonpartisan Center for Global Policy, focused on improving Mideast governance and US foreign policy. As if on cue, however, Iran’s state media is reporting “heavy US military casualties.”
Hassan is not the only one piercing the veil of alarmism (largely coming from US observers), confusion and ignorance, and disinformation (coming from Iran).
Ali Vaez, Director of the Iran Project at the CrisisGroup, explains Iran’s need for “face-saving measures” and symbolic revenge. Likewise, Illan Goldenberg at the Center for New American Security (CNAS), decodes Iran’s strategy: “This is our response, don’t hit us back. Regional players stay out or suffer the consequences. This may not be escalation just the response they felt they needed to make. Again, everyone CHILL.”
Pentagon officials, as Jake Tapper reported, explain that “Iran deliberately chose targets that would not result in the loss of US life,” emphasizing “[d]eliberate targets, minimum damage, maximum warning/effect.” Even Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif is eager to announce the attacks as “concluded,” even while he justifies this newest round of missile attacks once again on Iraq (after the Dec. 27, 2019, Kirkuk airbase and December 31 embassy attack) as “self-defense.”
To state this point as clearly as possible: we are not on the verge of World War III with Iran, despite social media trends.
Quite the opposite, the US government has set limits—first economically, now militarily with the Soleimani strike—on Iranian regional escalation dynamics at least since 2017, which caused a bipartisan Congress to reissue sanctions. Historically and in recent years, Iranian asymmetric warfare—with Soleimani at the helm—has hurt stability in the region. It has also become increasingly brazen—targeting Saudi refineries, downing US and Israeli drones, attacking vessels in the Gulf of Oman, and going after civilians in Syria.
Reasonable people can disagree over whether the best US-Iranian foreign policy approach today is limit setting to reestablish deterrence, as per the Trump Administration, or appeasement, engagement, and integration into the geopolitical community, for the previous Obama Administration.
Every public policy—particularly in the demanding domains of international security and foreign affairs—has strengths and weaknesses. What is not fair or good faith analysis, however, is to ratchet up global public fears about impending war as a way to win support for one’s “side.” That confuses policy with politics, without doing the hard, nonpartisan analytical work of contextual analyses, producing facts and evidence, and trying to include multiple—often contradictory—perspectives.
Such an approach reveals a lack of genuine concern about the people facing conflict dynamics first-hand in the Middle East, those who already face extensive human rights violations and are currently protesting such conditions, caused most often by their own leadership and unaccountable forms of governance.
Just last month Iran faced what The New York Times called its “worst unrest in 40 Years,” with anti-government protests across 21 cities—not to mention across the region—followed by the typical “brutal crackdown,” with Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps help, resulting in more than 1,500 protesters killed.
For deeper analysis of how Iran and Soleimani’s approach to covert asymmetric warfare destabilized and stalled progress in governance across the Middle East, there are plenty sources for thoughtful, contextual analysis. Hassan’s Guardian essay explains the blow in the defeat of Soleimani to Iranian regional hegemony, domination, and military imperialism. Such an ambitious project was already facing grassroots challenge in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria from cross-community protests. Moreover, Kim Ghattas notes that Soleimani was not only a problem for the US, but “haunted the Arab world,” so that his death has been greeted with often quiet “elation.”
Facing complex conflict dynamics also means we must be open to unexpected or countervailing developments.
Some analysts see the post-Soleimani moment as a win for the region, whether for a stronger Iraq, or a weakened Quds Force. Even non-Trump supporters—such as political risk analyst, Ian Bremmer—note that while there is no “end” to the US-Iran conflict, no “mission accomplished” yet, “for everyone who thought killing Soleimani was going to lead to war, no; it established red-lines and deterrence,” and, more importantly, potentially opened “ a real window” for diplomacy. Ultimately, Bremmer sees the Iran choice as a big “win” and a “big opportunity going forward.”
While it is a bit early to tell, scholars at their best have a public duty to pursue the truth wherever it leads—which may result in inconvenient facts and discoveries—but that ultimately helps to advance society in some way. As a cross-culturally focused law and security scholar, I believe that truth-seeking must include multiple and diverse perspectives, particularly needed to get a complete picture of “wicked problems” or complex social phenomenon, like conflicts.
Yet, the public should also ask hard questions about information accountability today, particularly as information technologies disrupt traditional news reporting standards and methods: why ratchet up ordinary Americans’ fears? Who is responsible and what is their motive for spreading such fear? Is it just to get “clicks” or are we purposely misunderstanding a situation that involves the most serious issues as war, peace, life, and death?
I won’t answer those questions in this analysis, but we all need to insist that public—especially expert commentary and journalism—elevates the discussion and that analysts base their claims in facts, evidence, and informed inquiry, particularly when understanding is such a priority in cases of active conflict.