By Trevor Busch
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” – W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming
When the Irish poet penned those words in 1919 in the aftermath of WWI, he was referencing a world that had changed profoundly from the generations that had come before his own, and not all for the better. Far from a microcosm of his own time, the message Yeats imparted still resonates today as we reflect on recent events in the Middle East and a world that may be inexorably drifting towards confrontation.
As Canadians come to grips with the tragic fallout of a plane crash which killed 57 of our citizens — apparently downed by an Iranian missile, either intentionally or unintentionally — which occurred over Tehran as more Iranian missiles were sailing through the heavens toward American military targets in Iraq, many questions remain unresolved. Chief among them are where we should direct our anger over the incident, and there is currently no consensus on that front. While Iran remains a perennial bad actor in the region who cannot be considered blameless in the potential escalation of a wider conflict, many Canadians are already targeting U.S. President Donald Trump whose ill-considered decision to assassinate a top Iranian military official touched off a series of events that nearly spiraled out of control. While the world collectively holds its breath — especially since Trump has shifted to slightly more conciliatory words in the aftermath — tensions in the region still remain extremely high, a veritable tinder-box of dark and violent implications.
The U.S. has repeatedly stated their target in the assassination was planning imminent attacks on American citizens, and a mountain of evidence suggests Qassem Soleimani was far from an innocent victim. While all of that might be true, it is hard not to conclude that Trump may have also seen an opportunity to deflect attention from his upcoming impeachment trial in the Senate while we enter the 2020 election year in the U.S. Some people are still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on that one, but if true, it seems to have profoundly backfired on Trump as the enraged Iranians chose to call his military bluff. At the same time, it has raised only more questions about the president’s fitness for the office and various calls to limit his decision-making authority in these areas in the future. Trump’s administration — which actually campaigned on preventing America from getting bogged down in more endless military confrontations in the Middle East — seems to have no clear policy on the region, and critics are pointing to the assassination as more evidence of a knee-jerk regime that makes myriad decisions without fully weighing the global consequences.
While the U.S. can’t remain blameless in helping to precipitate the events that led up to the downing of a passenger jet over Tehran, the Iranians are now far from blameless themselves. Finally admitting the plane had been destroyed by their own surface-to-air missile strike, this only capped off this past week’s events. Serious questions must still be asked about why, for instance, the Iranians allowed the jet to take off at virtually the same time the nation was launching a military strike against her neighbour. Similarly, the Ukrainian airline’s decision to take off also seems highly suspect. But these are only questions which can be asked if an observer is willing to take the Iranians at their word. It’s clear that many are not, and many others remain unconvinced the downing of the aircraft wasn’t intentional.
If indeed it was, we are left to consider how diabolical a regime would have to be to accept the deaths of many of its own citizens in an attempt to strike back by killing the citizens of American allies, like Canada. The buzz-term ‘asymmetrical warfare’ has been gaining popularity in recent days as pundits struggle to describe a style of war that is completely undeclared, uses terroristic tactics, and is often denied by the offending nation after a strike or incident. If we look at the recent history in the region — drone attacks on oil facilities, seizing tankers, utilizing allied proxy and paramilitary groups in surrounding nations and regions — there seems to be some evidence to suggest that Iran may have decided on a rather horrifying course of action. And there’s a certain sociopathic brilliance to the tactic of placing American allies — or their citizens — in the crosshairs as collateral fallout for American actions. It certainly puts pressure on Trump and the Americans to think twice before the next random drone strike.
We should all be dimly aware, however, that no matter what the truth or the Iranians’ true intentions, the world bore witness to a terrible tragedy last week. As Canadians, being caught in the crossfire of an international incident isn’t where we usually like to position ourselves. Trying to bring the world back from the brink usually is, so we’re now in unfamiliar territory. While developments suggest Iran may now be willing to cooperate with Canada on the investigation of the incident, it’s unclear just how forthcoming the Iranians will be, so some questions may never be answered. Chocking it up to the age-old ‘fog of war’ adage may satisfy some, but it will be unlikely to mollify the majority. Only time will tell.
And while there now seems to be a growing condemnation of Iran among the international community, American actions toward Tehran following the end of WWII have been miles away from what anyone might describe as benevolent. In 1953, democratically-elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was deposed in a coup organized as part of an Anglo-American covert operation. The crime that apparently sealed Mosaddegh’s fate in the eyes of the CIA was the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry. Reinstalling the brutal regime of the Shah, this would all come apart in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and most know the broad strokes of history since that point. But to suggest the Americans don’t bear significant culpability in the creation of the monster they now confront is wishful thinking. That doesn’t excuse the actions of Iran, but in parsing through the rhetoric that serves as policy these days, it is helpful to remember that America’s one-sided narrative of its long confrontation with Tehran isn’t always the gospel truth.
With a population of 82 million in Iran — more than double that of Iraq — boots on the ground would take on a whole new meaning in any conventional conflict. In 2003, the U.S. bit off vastly more than it could chew in Iraq, so taking on the troubled Middle Eastern giant is probably off the table. The U.S. has come to learn what many empires down through history have always had to learn time and again: conquest can often seem easy, but control is not.
It’s a lesson the less powerful take to heart well on this globe in the 21st century. Attempting to conventionally bomb another nation back to the stone age doesn’t work; just ask the Vietnamese. The Iranians are probably well aware that a traditional conflict — occupation forces, boots on the ground — is the last thing the Americans would want. And that knowledge gives them an advantage.
As for the nuclear question, the West can protest until we’re blue in the face but it doesn’t discount the fact that for nations like Iran, they’re the ultimate insurance policy. Countries that possess nuclear weapons are rarely the target of random drone strikes and sustained unofficial bombing campaigns, and they’re dealt with differently by us no matter how much we might dislike their politics or their human rights records.
After all of our sanctions, the cancellation of the nuclear deal, and a multitude of other unfriendly measures, what does the Iranian leadership really have left to lose?