Tensions have boiled over again between Iran and the United States with the assassination of a top Iranian general by the US prompting a missile strike from Iran in retaliation. The crash of a Ukrainian passenger jet on take-off from Tehran on January 8 – which Ukraine’s embassy in Iran, citing preliminary information, says was from engine failure and not “terrorism” – comes at an extremely tense time.
The tit-for-tat attacks between Iran and the US – the assassination and the missile strikes – come after months of escalating rancour between the two long-standing enemies. Some have likened the atmosphere over the past year or so to the feeling leading up to George Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.
So why is the world confronting the prospect of yet another war in the Middle East, and should Australia brace to be invited into another Coalition of the Willing?
How did this start?
The current deterioration in relations began in May 2018 when President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of 2015, which limited Iran’s nuclear development in return for easing sanctions. Trump said it was not tough enough and imposed more severe sanctions, under a policy he called “maximum pressure”.
On April 8 last year, Trump moved again and, over the objections of Pentagon officials, designated a powerful arm of the Iranian military, its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as a foreign terrorist organisation.
Then, on May 5 last year, Trump’s then national security adviser, John Bolton, referred to “troubling and escalatory indications” from Iran and sent an aircraft carrier strike group to the Gulf of Oman. A week later, four oil tankers – two belonging to Saudi Arabia and one each to the United Arab Emirates and Norway – were attacked. Bolton blamed Iran.
Three days later, on May 8, Trump slapped sanctions on Iran’s metals industry, its largest source of revenue outside oil. This prompted Iran to ramp up production of nuclear fuel to produce 20 per cent-enriched uranium. This moves it closer to the ability to build a nuclear weapon, even though it has always insisted its nuclear program is peaceful. On May 24, Trump ordered another 1500 troops to the region and declared an emergency over Iran, moving ahead with arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, which had been blocked in Congress.
The troubles didn’t end there. On June 13, two more oil tankers were holed in the Gulf of Oman. Again, the United States blamed Iran. When a US drone was shot down by Iran, Trump described the act as “a big mistake”. Then he initially approved attacks on a handful of Iranian targets, such as radar and missile batteries, before abruptly calling them off, saying later it would have cost 150 lives, so was not “proportional”.
On June 20, US Cyber Command conducted online attacks against an Iranian intelligence group that US officials believed helped plan the attacks against the oil tankers, according to people briefed on the operation.
These attacks came after hackers believed to be working for the Iranian government had targeted US government agencies, as well as sectors of the economy, including finance, oil and gas – a campaign that appeared to have started shortly after the Trump administration imposed sanctions on the Iranian petrochemical sector earlier in June.
In July, British marines seized an Iranian oil tanker at the request of the US, and Iran responded by seizing a British-owned tanker three weeks later. It also arrested 17 US citizens in Iran, claiming they were CIA spies. The acrimony bubbled along for the second half of last year.
What about the past two weeks?
On Christmas Eve, protesters supporting Iran attacked and surrounded the US embassy in Baghdad, effectively imprisoning US diplomats for 24 hours. The US responded with a dramatic escalation: the assassination of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani. The general died in a drone strike ordered by President Trump that killed five officials as a two-car convoy left Baghdad airport at 1am on January 3.
The Pentagon claimed the strike was “defensive action” to prevent attacks it claimed Soleimani was planning on US personnel.
According to a report in The New York Times, the option of killing Soleimani was one of a broad range of retaliatory options to the embassy attack put to Trump by Pentagon officials, who were stunned by the president’s decision to take their most extreme option.
Who was Qassem Soleimani?
It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of Major General Qassem Soleimani. Since the late 1990s he had been commander of the Quds Force, a unit in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that specialises in unconventional warfare and intelligence operations.
In that role he effectively ran Iran’s network of powerful militias throughout the Middle East, including Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as well as militias in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. In some of these theatres, the militias have come to be more powerful than state defence forces.
Soleimani is credited with diplomatic efforts to secure Russia’s intervention in Syria, effectively protecting the regime of Syrian dictator and Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad, and with leading the Iranian efforts to defeat Islamic State. Americans viewed him as a threat to regional stability and as responsible for the deaths of countless US troops in Iraq.
As far back as 2012, there was speculation he might leave the army to run in the presidential election.
He is known to have had a particularly close relationship with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, whose authority sits above the military, the clergy and the president, and who wept openly at his funeral. Soleimani considered Khamenei to be a venerated spiritual leader. In 2015, he was quoted as saying, “I ask God to sacrifice my life to you.”
Why do Iran and the US hate each other?
The animosity goes back to 1953 when the US deposed a democratically elected Iranian prime minister, Mohammed Mosaddegh, who had resisted foreign interference, returning power to the Iranian monarch, or Shah. The country remained a client state of the US under the Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, until the Islamic revolution in 1979.
Then there was the Iranian hostage crisis. US support for the Shah led to a group of Iranian students from the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line, who supported the revolution, storming the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979.
Ultimately, 52 US diplomats and staff were held hostage for 444 days, and a failed rescue mission launched by the Carter administration resulted in the deaths of eight American servicemen. It was also fatal to Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
After the hostage crisis, the US broke off diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980 and has never restored them. Washington and the Arab monarchies supported Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq during its war against Iran in the 1980s. Iranian leaders have used “Death to America” as a uniting, nationalistic phrase through good times and bad.
What happens next?
The stakes are high. Iran has already declared it will no longer observe limitations imposed upon its nuclear program by the deal that Trump unilaterally abandoned in 2018. Iran may now seek to race for a nuclear weapon. Trump responded on January 6 by tweeting, “IRAN WILL NEVER HAVE A NUCLEAR WEAPON!” and has threatened to attack Iranian cultural sites, later appearing to recant by saying in a TV appearance, “We are, according to various laws, supposed to be very careful with their cultural heritage … If that is what the law is, I like to obey the law.”
On January 8, Iran fired a volley of missiles at two bases in Iraq hosting US troops, though no casualties have been reported. The Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, said via Twitter, “Iran took & concluded proportionate measures in self-defence under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens & senior officials were launched.
“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”
Trump tweeted “All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well equipped military anywhere in the world, by far!”
The hawkish Trump ally in the US senate, Lindsey Graham, has speculated that if the conflict further escalates the US could either strike Iranian nuclear facilities or oil facilities. “If they try to rapidly expand their nuclear program, they might lose their oil program,” he said. “The best way to stop their nuclear program is to crush the Iranian economy.”
Picking Trump’s next move is difficult because the Trump White House has been contradictory in both its public statements and in its actions. Trump was elected on a promise to extricate the US from foreign wars but both his former national security adviser John Bolton and his current Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, have at times advocated for confrontation with Iran.
Israel has most cause to fear a nuclear-armed Iran, which has a policy position that the Israeli state is illegitimate and should be replaced with a Palestinian state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Trump to pull out of the anti-nuclear agreement and would encourage firm action, even war, against the Iranian regime. Iran has threatened to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow passage through which a fifth of the world’s oil is shipped, particularly to Asia, making any conflict in this area high stakes for the world.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says Australian diplomatic and defence personnel in Iraq are safe following Iran’s missile attacks against military bases. Morrison warned the situation was “fluid” and the Australian government was closely monitoring the escalating tensions. “The [Chief of the Defence Force] has been able to confirm to me at this point that all Australian diplomatic personnel and all [Australian Defence Force] personnel are safe but it is obviously a very fluid situation,” he said.
It appears that reports about the possible targeting of Taji base, where 300 Australian troops are based were false.
Australia has a policy of “constructive engagement” with Iran. However, in the case of war, Prime Minister Morrison would no doubt face pressure from President Trump to do what John Howard did in 2003 and become part of a pro-US coalition. A war, or a blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, would drive global oil prices sky-high.
How would a war affect Trump?
Facing trial in the Senate over his impeachment, Trump might see political advantage in conflict with Iran, despite his goal of avoiding conflict in the Middle East. Wartime presidents can look stronger than peacetime ones and have powerful grounds on which to stoke nationalist sentiment.
George W. Bush easily won the 2004 election after the invasion of Iraq, and even after the “weapons of mass destruction” claims that were seen to justify that decision were found to be false.
The next presidential election is in November and so far is looking like a tight race.
Nick O’Malley is a senior writer and a former US correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Michael Bachelard is The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald’s investigations editor. He has worked in Canberra, Melbourne and Jakarta as Indonesia correspondent. He has written two books and won multiple awards for journalism, including the Gold Walkley in 2017.