Upon winning the June election stacked in his favor, Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s new president-elect, has minced few words and left little wiggle room for an easing of animosity between Tehran and Washington.
While Raisi pledged to resurrect the 2015 nuclear deal in exchange for relief from “all oppressive [U.S.] sanctions,” he called the proposed curtailment of Iran’s missile program and its support for regional militias “not negotiable.”
Although Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will continue pulling the strings in the theocracy, as he has since 1989, Raisi’s low-turnout victory and the election of like-minded hardliners to top government positions signals the political demise of Iranian moderates (a faction led by current president Hassan Rouhani) after former American president Donald Trump abandoned the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions.
This tension and deep mistrust, however, is not novel, but historic. Thirty-four years ago this month, on July 3, a critical moment amid decades of U.S.-Iranian enmity unfolded. The distrust generated from the event rivals even that of the 1953 CIA and MI6 coup that overthrew a democratically elected premier in order to reimpose the despotic shah.
On September 22, 1980, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in an attempt to win back territory and prevent the exporting of Shi’a revolutions from a post-revolutionary Iran that Saddam perceived as chaotic and weak. Seven years after the Iraqi invasion, with the conflict stalemated more than ever, both countries began attacking oil tankers (neutral or not) that transited the Persian Gulf in an attempt to disrupt their respective adversary’s lifeline. To safeguard the transit of oil — a vital American interest at the time — U.S. President Ronald Reagan authorized the American reflagging of Kuwaiti-owned tankers to deter future Iranian attacks and end the war via a negotiated settlement.
American involvement deepened in late September 1987, when U.S. pilots spotted the ship, Iran Ajr, laying mines in the Gulf. Although SEAL teams boarded and destroyed the ship, they could not prevent the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts from hitting one of the Iran Ajr mines seven months later during a convoy escort, injuring the ship and its crew. In retaliation, the U.S. Navy attacked high-profile Iranian targets throughout the Gulf during Operation Praying Mantis. Additionally, Reagan reformed the U.S. military’s rules of engagement to authorize force against Iranian warships that were actively attacking or trying to harm neutral shipping.
Nearly a month after Praying Mantis, in May 1988, the three-year-old USS Vincennes, a Ticonderoga-class cruiser, was deployed to the Gulf. The $1 billion warship was affectionately termed “Robocruiser” because of its technological sophistication that enabled itto track air and surface threats while seamlessly engaging them.
One day before the 1988 Fourth of July holiday, the Vincennes deployed a helicopter to investigate reports of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps speedboats harassing neutral merchant ships. When commanding officer Capt. Will Chapel Rogers received word that one of the Iranian boats had fired ten rounds at the probing helicopter, he swung his ship around and steamed toward the speedboats. In doing so, he violated Reagan's rules of engagement by crossing into Iranian waters.
At 9:43 am, the Vincennes opened fire on the Iranian boats just as Iran Air Flight 655 departed from Bandar Abbas, Iran, headed for Dubai. The plane embarked on a routine normal ascent, except the pilot didn’t know he was flying his Airbus A300 over a military engagement. Radar operators on the Vincennes mistook the commercial flight for an Iranian F-14 fighter jet.
After dispatching multiple radio warnings, and receiving no response, Rogers believed the incoming aircraft and the engagement with IRGC speedboats signaled an incoming hydra-headed Iranian attack on American naval forces. Not wanting to risk the lives of his crew by letting the aircraft get too close and strike his ship, Rogers authorized permission for the Vincennes crew to fire two surface-to-air missiles at the aircraft at 9:45 am. Seconds later, the plane exploded. Its remnants — and the remains of 290 passengers — crashed into the Gulf.
At Camp David celebrating the Fourth of July, Reagan called the incident “a terrible human tragedy” but escaped offering a full apology by saying that the Vincennes took “proper defensive action” and the incident could have been avoided if Iran had accepted a ceasefire years before. From the Pentagon’s press room, spokesman Dan Howard signaled the Navy’s ultimate decision to rally behind the Vincennes’ captain and crew. “The commander had…very few minutes in which to make a very crucial decision that was certainly life-or-death for [him] and for his ship and for his crew,” Howard explained. “And he had to make that decision based upon the information available to him at the time.”
Howard’s statement became the Navy’s official response. The official investigation attributed the tragedy to the fog of war, absolving “any U.S. Naval personnel” of negligence or “culpable conduct.” Rogers correctly prioritized the defense of his crew and ship above all other considerations, the report rationalized, which is why he later received the Legion of Merit award for his actions and remained the ship’s commander following the incident.
More than 30 years later, the incident has receded from American memory. The same cannot be said in Iran. At the time, Iranian authorities considered it a deliberate “barbaric massacre” and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini urged Iranians to “go to the war fronts and fight against America.” But the incident gave senior Iranian leadership pause for reflection. They believed the attack was proof that America had entered the war on Iraq’s side and would kill as many Iranians as necessary to defeat the Islamic Republic. Days after the attack, Tehran saw no choice but to drink the “cup of poison,” as Khomeini put it, and accept a ceasefire. The Iran-Iraq War was over.
But the incident’s influence is far from over. Iranian state media broadcasts mourners on a ship near the crash site throwing flowers into the water and weeping in memory of those killed. When Trump threatened to destroy “52 Iranian sites” if Iran retaliated for the Soleimani assassination, because it equated the number of Americans held hostage in Iran from 1979 to 1981, Rouhani replied: “Those who refer to the number 52 should also remember the number 290. #IR655.”
As new administrations in both countries try erecting guidelines for future interactions, the Biden administration must remember that both countries are not fully absolved of building mistrust and acrimony. Going forward, the administration should plainly announce its intentions and acknowledge that the United States wants a stable, predictable relationship with Iran but only if it moderates its destabilizing, inter-state behavior. Official Washington should avoid any preconceptions that a relationship with Tehran can be “reset” overnight. It will take decades — and fundamental reorientations within each nation’s geopolitical psyche — to create a relationship grounded in non-belligerence and confidence, just as it has taken years to build a relationship grounded in the converse.
On a more tactical level, the scale and intensity of “unsafe and unprofessional interactions” with Iranian naval vessels in recent months underscore the need for U.S. Navy captains and crews to continue acting responsively and vigilantly to avoid unnecessary collisions, clashes, and deaths from the “fog of war” that would only exacerbate the decades of mistrust.
Trigger fingers — both in the Situation Room and at sea — need not apply.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Nick Danby is an active duty intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy currently assigned to the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group in Japan. He graduated magna cum laude with an A.B. in History from Harvard University. During his time there, he also worked for global consultancies and think tanks. His work has been published in The National Interest, Naval History, The Washington Examiner, Real Clear Defense, The Fletcher Forum on World Affairs, and The Harvard Crimson. Follow him on Twitter @nickdanby
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.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.
The Russian conquest of Avdiivka is unlikely to alter the war’s basic realities. Although delays in the delivery of aid to Ukraine have raised Russian hopes, no meaningful changes on the battlefield are near. The Russians cannot drive to Kyiv; the Ukrainians cannot eject the invaders.
The first phase of the war in Ukraine is drawing to a close. Both sides are coming closer to acknowledging what has been clear to the rest of the world for quite some time: the current stalemate is unlikely to be broken in any significant way. This round of the war is going to end more-or-less along the current front lines.
The actions taken in the next few years will determine whether or not there will be a round two.
The war’s end state is now clear, even if it may take a bit more time for the combatants to accept it. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion has failed, but Ukraine cannot return to the status quo ante. The only questions that remain concern the shape of the peace to come, and how best to avoid a second act in this pointless tragedy.
Loud voices in the West are already suggestingthatthe best way to avoid round two is for NATO to expand again, and bring Ukraine into the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on Kyiv's membership to the alliance, said over the weekend, "Ukraine is now closer to NATO than ever before...it is not a question of if, but of when."
He said Nato was helping Kyiv to make its forces “more and more interoperable” with the defence alliance and would open a joint training and analysis centre in Poland. “Ukraine will join Nato. It is not a question of if, but of when,” he insisted.
If this is the path the alliance follows, future fighting is almost assured. One side’s deterrent is often the other’s provocation.
NATO expansion was a necessary condition for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It was not sufficient, since Putin has agency and made a catastrophically bad choice, but it was necessary. Those in the West who blame the United States for the war are as myopic as those who claim that Western policies had nothing to do with it. Putin remains a cold warrior at heart, and talked about NATO obsessively in the years leading up to the invasion.
Expanding NATO further would again provide the necessary conditions for tension and conflict. Russia will not stand by while Ukraine joins the enemy camp. A second invasion – perhaps before Ukraine formally joined the alliance, or perhaps afterwards – would be extremely likely. Those who suggest that deterrence would keep the Russians in check should listen to the rambling interview Putin just gave to Tucker Carlson. Ukraine simply matters more to the Russians than it does to us. Putin would calculate that no American president would be willing to sacrifice New York for Kyiv.
Another solution exists, one that might well assure Kyiv’s security without exacerbating Russian paranoia. Ukraine should be “Finlandized.”
During the Cold War, Finland was essentially a neutral country. It took no official positions on the pressing issues of the day, and was careful not to criticize the Soviet Union. Leaders in Helsinki made it clear to those in Moscow that they had no desire to join the West. They resisted pressure to join both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and discouraged their citizens from openly criticizing either side. Finland avoided the Soviet embrace by making it clear that it would avoid the West as well.
“Finlandization” was a forced neutrality. The term was often used in a pejorative sense during the Cold War, as a warning about what could happen to the rest of Europe if the United States was not careful. What was often overlooked at the time was just how well Finlandization worked out for the people of Finland, who managed to stay free and outside of the various Cold War crises. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that today Finns consistently rank among the world’s happiest people.
Finlandization was a recognition of geopolitical reality, and it was the best choice for a small nation with the misfortune to lie next to a superpower. Switzerland followed a similar path during the 1930s. Like the Finns, the Swiss realized that their independence and very survival depended on avoiding any perception of flirtation with the enemies of their neighbor.
Ukraine will soon find itself in a similar situation, beside an aggressive and unpredictable great power. It should make the same choice, and the United States should help it do so.
A Finlandized Ukraine would not be allowed to join the West, but neither would it come under Russia’s thumb. It would be neutral, a buffer zone between NATO and Russia, an independent state that would allow hawkish Russians to imagine that it is still part of their country. The Ukrainian people would be neutral, and therefore safe.
If Washington were to lead an effort to emphasize the enduring neutrality of Ukraine, to Finlandize it, Russia’s paranoia could be reassured rather than provoked. Finlandizing Ukraine would be the best outcome for all involved, including for the Ukrainian people. The disappointment in being excluded from NATO would be tempered by the knowledge that it puts them on their best path to peace and stability. And it would be the best way to avoid Ukrainian War Two.