Three weeks after the United States’ January 3 assassination of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, how likely is the eruption of a US-Iran shooting war, what paths might lead to it, and what factors might brake or reverse the trend towards war?
Two weeks ago, I wrote about how, despite the extremely sharp escalation in tensions that immediately followed Soleimani’s killing, five days afterwards it became clear that Washington and Tehran had stepped back -- for now -- from the brink of cataclysmic outright war. Principally, that outcome was the result of Tehran’s carefully calibrated crisis management. Iran’s response to Soleimani’s killing was an almost (though not wholly) symbolic attack on the US base at Ain al-Asad in Western Iraq… and Tehran gave Washington enough advance warning to allow US personnel on the base to get to their bunkers, thus avoiding any serious US casualties.
At that point, the threat of an outright shooting war receded considerably. But on January 10, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced sharp new economic sanctions on an Iran already reeling under under the effects of existing US sanctions, and Washington has continued to employ other elements of what Max Blumenthal has dubbed “hybrid warfare” -- incitement of opposition movements, repeated provocations, information operations, etc -- against Iran. For example, in 2018, the DC-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) budgeted $872,400 for various, mainly opposition-boosting projects within Iran, and those funds likely became disbursed throughout 2019.
And the military situation inside (and alongside) the Persian/Arabian Gulf and neighboring waterways remains tense. 2019 saw a number of localized attacks and flare-ups in that region in which the US and allied navies have a large on-sea presence and sizeable bases, and in which air-defense systems are often poised on a hair trigger. The most significant of those attacks was September’s “swarming” attack by around two dozen attack drones that put Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil field offline for several weeks. (The effectiveness of that attack powerfully demonstrated to the super-vulnerable Saudis and their GCC neighbors that any shooting war against Iran could bring massive, possibly catastrophic, blowback against themselves. It powerfully buttressed the deterrence Iran was able to project toward the GCC states and thus greatly reduced the incentive those states had to provoke -- far less to join -- any US attack against Iran. The widely noted accuracy of Iran’s January 8 attack against the Ain al-Asad base in Iraq underlined that message.)
Meanwhile, in Iraq -- a key locus of chronic political and paramilitary competition between pro-Iranian and (often US-backed) anti-Iranian factions -- that competition has definitely heated up over the past ten days. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatolloah Ali Khamene’i, has insisted that he wants the 5,000-plus US troops who deployed back to Iraq in 2014 to meet and help destroy the ISIS threat there, to leave as soon as possible.
Two days after the Soleimani killing, the Iraqi parliament voted to ask the US troops to leave. US officials insisted that the troops are not leaving; and an intense struggle has erupted in many parts of Iraq over this issue. The largely anti-Iranian protest movement in southern Iraq, that had muted its actions immediately after the Soleimani killing, has now resumed its mobilization. (In 2018, NED budgeted $2.570 million for activities inside Iraq that included many linked to just such a mobilization.)
US-Iranian “shadow wars” for influence also continue in Syria and Lebanon. Iran has powerful local allies in both those countries who are well embedded in the national governments and whose sway the United States (and Israel) have been working hard to reduce for many years now. A rapid escalation of tensions in either Syria or Lebanon, or in Iraq, could easily spur a rapid eruption of new tensions between the US and Iran itself.
Robert Hunter’s Scenarios
So, taking the above into account, what are the current prospects for war or de-escalation between Iran and Washington?
One person who has attempted to answer that question is Amb. Robert E. Hunter, someone who combines the experience he gained when he was director of Middle East and North Africa affairs in Pres. Carter’s White House with the experience he later gained as Pres. Clinton’s Ambassador to NATO. In this recent article, Hunter laid out four possible scenarios for how the dynamic might evolve. (Though later in the piece, he expands one of them into a fifth.)
1. Iran’s clerical leadership might be overthrown, a scenario he describes as “possible but not yet likely.”
2. Iran’s leadership might respond to American pressure “by agreeing to negotiate a new nuclear agreement” that would include other Western objectives beyond what was agreed in the derogated-by-Washington JCPOA. (“This is a tall order… But Iran’s leadership, facing a rising internal, regime-threatening crisis, might be open to at least some” of Washington’s additional demands.)
3. Washington might, essentially, back down significantly by offering to remove “major elements of sanctions, as well as the goal of outside-provoked regime change.”
4. “Iran might now move rapidly toward getting its first nuclear weapon.”
He describes this fourth scenario as carrying the greatest risk, namely that, “Iran’s renewed nuclear work could progress to the point that the U.S. would need to redeem Trump’s pledge that ‘Iran Will Never Have A Nuclear Weapon!’ That means war.” Then, he immediately introduces his fifth scenario: “Another Afghanistan or Iraq.” He writes that,
War would lead to a fifth scenario: “now what?” Nearly 19 years of experience in Afghanistan and 17 years in Iraq should breed caution in Washington and a fundamental calculation of all U.S. regional interests that has so far been lacking. This experience should mandate all efforts possible to get out of the accelerating move toward the fourth scenario.
Deterrence Theory from the Perspective of the Deterree
Hunter’s article brings to mind a field of study that hasn’t been pursued much in the United States until recently, namely “deterrence theory from the perspective of the deterree.” Because of course, in all the interactions the Iranian government and its close allies have had with their regional (and international) rivals it is not only the GCC countries that have, as noted above, been deterred by the prospects of the Iranian alliance being able to inflict unacceptable damage on them. Israel has also been similarly deterred -- especially by Hizbullah, in Lebanon, since 2006. And for at least 17 years now it has been clear that, despite all the swagger and bravado with which US naval vessels roam the Gulf, their leaders have also understood that it is impossible to “win” in an outright shooting war against Iran. That was the lesson brought home by the extensive (though ultimately, rigged) “Millennium Challenge” war-games the U.S. military ran in the Gulf in 2002. Both sides have doubtless worked hard to improve their planning and performance in the years since then. But the capabilities, especially in targeting and in command-and-control of complex operations, that Iran and its allies demonstrated at Abqaiq and Ain al-Asad certainly gave any strategists planning a future large-scale attack against Iran whole new layers of extremely tough scenarios to worry about.
“A game-changer,” was how MIT’s Prof. Ted Postol summed up the lessons from Abqaiq. And that was before Ain al-Asad.
War Risk Not Gone
Most people around the world breathed a sigh of relief as the intense war-worries that assailed us on January 3 started dissipating rapidly after January 8. But Iran’s 83 million people are still hurting very badly, as a result of the “maximum pressure” sanctions that Pres. Trump has imposed on them. So are Iraq’s 39 million people -- from a multiplicity of causes, not least Washington’s policy of deliberating breaking up their country’s capabilities after its invasion in 2003… And Syria’s 17 million people have suffered extremely grave damage from Washington’s feckless, years-long waging of hybrid war against their government. So we cannot yet say that the war between the United States and the Iranian-led alliance has ended. We can say that the US campaign against Iran and its allies has for now has been pushed into forms that are less immediately lethal and disruptive of international peace and security than an outright war would have been.
But sanctions kill! As we should all remember from the tragic history of the sanctions that the US persuaded the UN to maintain against Iraq, 1991-2003. The UN estimated those sanctions killed more than 500,000 Iraqis. Now, Washington wants to enforce an equally tight set of sanctions against Iran and against Syria -- and Trump has even threatened to impose tight sanctions against Iraq if the Iraqi government insists on expelling the US military forces and contractors who have been there since 2014.
(We would be remiss if we failed to note that the Israeli government which, along with its many acolytes inside the United States, has been a big driver of many American anti-Iran campaigns over the course of many years, has also pioneered the use of “maximum pressure” sanctions against the two-million population of Gaza throughout the past 13 years, to quite devastating effect.)
What Can Break the Stand-Off?
So what can break the current standoff between American and Iranian power? It is highly unlikely that any European powers will play this role. As I see it, the best hope for the kind of leadership in international diplomacy that is needed to break the current logjam is the hope that some combination of Russia, China, and the smaller “BRICS” powers can broker a peace between the parties that will allow all foreign fighting forces to return home and allow the peoples of the region to start to heal their wounds and rebuild countries devastated by war, sanctions, and harsh internal divisions.
Obviously, this will not be easy. The international community has a lot of other issues to worry about, including the various trade wars launched by Pres. Trump, the challenges of negotiating a viable peace (at last!) in Afghanistan, and the continuing threats -- including in Iraq and Syria -- from ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other takfiri forces.
But there are some modest reasons to think that some form of an internationally brokered deal between Washington and Iran might be possible:
1. The United States is not nearly as commanding force inside the UN now as it was in the 1990s. Back then, it could often bend the UN to its will, including over the issues of sanctions against Iraq. Now, in contrast, many (though not all) of the current rounds sanctions against Iran and Syria are unilateral US sanctions, that are enforced by Washington through its command of the SWIFT system for international payments. Russia and China have talked about setting up an alternative to SWIFT, and have also been exploring various barter arrangements with Iran.
2. Russia has demonstrated a sure grasp of the complex diplomatic skill and breadth of understanding of the region’s dynamics that can enable its diplomats to contribute creatively to the required diplomacy. Russia has good working relations with all the relevant actors (except, perhaps, today, with Washington; a situation that needs to change.)
3. China brings its considerable economic heft to the table, as well as a non-trivial diplomatic presence in this region, which lies at the western end of its own home continent. Beijing has been careful not to over-extend itself in the region. But it has considerable interests in the countries both north and south of the Gulf. In 2016, Pres. Xi Jinping made prestigious visits to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Last year, Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi visited Beijing.
4. The GCC states, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia, were until recently seen as major forces critical of the JCPOA and urging greater US pressure against Iran. After the attack on Abqaiq, and even more after the tensions stoked by the killing of Qasem Soleimani, that stance seemed to change. Given the power that Saudi Arabia’s and the UAE’s de-facto leaders exert on decisionmaking in Washington, including through the personal relationships they enjoy with members of the Trump-Kushner clan, it is possible that they might both help persuade the President to back down some from his policy of suffocating “maximum pressure” on Iran and help him find a face-saving way to achieve this…
Thus, as I said above, it is possible that a serious de-escalation between Washington and Tehran might be achieved through smart, engaged international diplomacy. (Note that I don’t even mention any European role in the above list… ) If this does happen, regarding the oft-hyped Iranian nuclear issue, we might see something like a reinstatement of JCPOA. But numerous other issues of contention would need to be resolved as well. Any such negotiated stand-down would involve some pain for all parties. But such is the nature of negotiation.
And the alternative to that would be… ? A continuing, quite horrendous risk of a cataclysmic regional or global war.
Helena Cobban is an analyst of global affairs, with special interests in the Middle East and the international system. She is the author of seven books on world issues, four of which focus on the Middle East. She contributed a regular column on global issues to The Christian Science Monitor, 1990-2007.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the United Nations Security Council in August 2019 (lev radin / Shutterstock.com)
There’s no question that war leaves behind its lingering destruction. This includes both harm to people and to the environment. As the world marks the second year of Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, we must reflect on the impact of war on Ukraine, the resiliency of its people and global response to resolving the issues of bomb contamination.
Roughly one-third of Ukraine's territory is contaminated. This is the size of an average country in Europe. Ukraine is currently experiencing the worst environmental disaster in terms of soil pollution per unit of time.
Toxic elements such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury leach from ammunition and weapons into the soil. If potential areas of contamination are not identified and recorded in time, harmful substances can enter the food chain and become carcinogenic. This threatens global food security and export opportunities. Failure to act now could result in the deterioration of human health.
Prior to the war, about 400 million people worldwide relied on Ukraine for their food supply making this a large-scale problem. Spent ammunition and chemical weapons can contaminate soil for decades or longer. Land is not a renewable resource. Soils and their fertile layer are formed over thousands of years. Just 1 cm of soil is formed in 200-400 years, and 20 cm in 5,000-6,000 years. Military operations that take place for 2 years like in the case of Ukraine can destroy what has been formed over thousands of years.
Contaminations left behind from war are nothing new. We know this from wars in SE Asia, conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and the list goes on. It’s no surprise then that at least 50 countries are impacted by landmines and other explosives. The good news is there are solutions to the long lasting impacts of conflicts like unexploded ordnance on humans, all living things and our planet.
One example is a project called “Assessing farmland and ecosystems damage in north-eastern Ukraine from the Russian invasion” (UA-UK-CH) led by this article's co-author Dr. Olena Melnyk. This project is a joint initiative with researchers from Ukraine, England and Switzerland aimed at enhancing the capacity for mapping, environmental monitoring, and managing the effects of war-induced damage on Ukraine's agricultural land, utilizing existing networks of scientists and field-based analysis to safeguard food security. The first component of the project involves gathering ground truth data on the damage inflicted on Ukrainian farmland, which is then utilized to analyze the extent of soil pollution and calibrate remote sensing data.
The second component focuses on developing an application for mapping farmland to document hazards and contamination and prioritize land for production and remediation.
The third aspect involves building up “citizen science” by training non-combatant experts to inspect and analyze contaminated farmlands and contribute to land mapping efforts.
The fourth component aims to facilitate the decontamination and remediation of Ukrainian lands to restore agricultural productivity while promoting post-war environmentally friendly agricultural practices to ensure sustainability and climate neutrality. This project will enable Ukrainian farmers to avoid dangerous areas and prioritize the land for targeted decontamination. The data collected from this research project will help inform government agencies, civil societies and other stakeholders.
The United States is the largest funder of global humanitarian demining. Since 1993, the U.S. has provided at least $4.2 billion to over 100 countries from Laos to Ukraine. Funding is invested in activities such as bomb clearance, victims’ assistance and explosive risk education.
Environmental research like the UA-UK-CH in Ukraine has proven to be necessary and important to the future of soil rehabilitation post conflict. This should be a norm and donor countries, funders, academic institutions can leverage the future findings from Ukraine and leverage it as a model that can inspire research in other war impacted countries — especially 50-year-old legacy contaminations in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam—where no study has been done.
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Judge Nawaf Salam, president of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), speaks during a public hearing held by ICJ to allow parties to give their views on the legal consequences of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories before eventually issuing a non-binding legal opinion in The Hague, Netherlands, February 19, 2024. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw
The gulf between the United States and the rest of the world — in particular the Global South — on the Israel-Palestine conflict remains sharp and wide.
This was demonstrated yet again at The Hague last week, where the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is hearing a case triggered by a U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) resolution in December 2022 seeking an advisory opinion on the “legal consequences” of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
The case has taken on even greater significance in the current context of Israel’s military action in Gaza and the West Bank. The Israeli assault (in response to Hamas’s October 7 attack) has led to around 30,000 Palestinian deaths and widespread destruction of homes, mosques, churches, hospitals, and community centers with seemingly no end in sight. A BBC investigation at the end of January found that between 50% and 61% of the Gaza Strip’s buildings had been destroyed or damaged in the war, while over 80% of the population had been displaced.
This case also comes on the heels of last month’s ICJ hearing in a separate case brought by South Africa alleging serious violations of the 1948 Genocide Convention by Israel in its current assault on Gaza. In that case, the ICJ issued a provisional order that Israel’s actions in the current war against the Palestinians could plausibly be considered genocide. Other Global South states have initiated measures at the International Criminal Court. Overall, states representing close to 60% of the Global South’s population have either directly or indirectly backed international legal action on Palestine, as our previous analysis showed.
Last week’s proceedings were the early stage of the UNGA-triggered case, in which the oral arguments focused on whether the court has jurisdiction over the matter. Of the 49 countries and three international organizations (the League of Arab States, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and the African Union) that argued before the court’s judges — the most of any case in the ICJ’s history — only four argued that the court lacked jurisdiction and should therefore not render an opinion: the United States, the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Fiji.
Although this round of argumentation centered around the question of the court’s jurisdiction, the representatives who spoke on behalf of their respective countries presented their view of Israel’s occupation as well as current and past military activity in Palestine. Cuba went as far as to explicitly argue that Israel’s military aggression in the current war amounts to a “genocide.” Several others, including Bolivia and Chile, argued that the occupation violates international law, and should therefore end.
The extent to which this issue resonates across the Global South is evident in the fact that Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous country and a U.S. partner, so strongly supports the Palestinian cause that the country’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, left the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Brazil to personally present Indonesia’s argument before the court. She argued that Israel’s “unlawful occupation and its atrocities must stop and should not be normalized or recognized.” Indonesia sees Palestine as the last unresolved issue of decolonization, which it is mandated to oppose according to its constitution.
Bangladesh spoke of violations of three basic tenets of international law: the right to self-determination; the prohibition to acquire territory by force; and the prohibition of racial discrimination and apartheid. Namibia also cited apartheid in its arguments, while The Maldives spoke of appropriation of water resources for Palestine, among other things. The African Union, collectively representing 54 African states, described “an asymmetrical situation in which an oppressed people is confronted with an occupying power.”
Other Global South states arguing in favor of the ICJ’s jurisdiction in this case even called out the United States by name. Guyana, for example, said that the U.S.’s argument fails because the U.S. wrongly claims that there is an ongoing peace negotiation between Israel and Palestine, therefore leaving no legal authority for the ICJ to deliver an opinion on this issue.
Algeria also explicitly said that this case not only stains Israel’s image, but also hurts that of the United States, as the U.S. government continues to support Israel despite its continued violation of international law.
Fiji was the only Global South state in the hearings to broadly align with Israel and the United States in its arguments. It argued that a two-state solution could only come about when (Palestinian) terrorism ended. It also stated that Israel had not agreed to the case, the ICJ approach circumvents the Oslo process, and the information available to the court was one-sided. Additionally, Zambia struck a cautious tone, supporting a two-state solution but also saying that a solution should not “squarely blame one party.”
The deep opposition to U.S. and Israeli positions was not just confined to the Global South. Most core U.S. allies in the Global North were also opposed. For example, France argued that Israel’s settlements in Palestine are illegal. France also asked the court to render an opinion on the extent to which the Palestinians have suffered damages, and asked that the court consider how much restitution or compensation is appropriate for the damages suffered by Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
Even the United Kingdom — the lone core U.S. ally aligned with American and Israeli positions in the case — called out Israel’s occupation. The country’s representative stated that although the UK opposes ICJ jurisdiction in this case, in part because the scope of a fact-finding mission would be too broad in the context of an ongoing conflict, Israel’s continued and expanding occupation of Palestine is illegal under international law.
China and Russia, the two great power rivals of the United States, both supported the majority opinion, arguing in favor of the ICJ’s jurisdiction in the case and against Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
This comes as growing security, economic, and political ties are being formed by the Chinese and Russians with states across the Global South. The Russian mercenary group known as the Wagner Group — recently rebranded as Africa Corps — has tapped into strong anti-Western sentiment to form military and security ties with states across central and west Africa, largely replacing unpopular and outdated U.S. and French security projects in the area.
Both China and Russia are also leading members of BRICS, in which they are in a de facto coalition with leading middle powers of the Global South looking to plug existing and major gaps in the current international system as well as prominently project their voice on the global stage.
Washington’s isolation on Palestine may not have mattered much if we were still in a unipolar world. But with relative power slowly diffusing away from Washington, the United States may benefit from shifting its policies and bridging its position with the rest of the world on the highly emotive issue of Palestine that is causing enormous human suffering and already beginning to destabilize the wider region.
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any a peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.