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Grief and anger: mourners attend a funeral ceremony for Iranian Major-General Qassem Suleimani, who was killed in a US drone strike. Photo/Getty Images

A New Zealand perspective on the US-Iran crisis

The US has assassinated Iran’s top general and the Islamic Republic has retaliated. Can the two countries de-escalate tensions and avoid open conflict? Sir Don McKinnon reports.

As the world starts a new decade with extreme tensions between the US and Iran, the long post-World War II period of global peace looks to be under serious threat in a way almost comparable to the Bay of Pigs crisis. Some commentators are talking of open warfare between the two. Others say it is a continuation of the ongoing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, each fighting for supremacy in the Muslim world. Former US President Barack Obama took an even-handed approach to the two nations, but Donald Trump has clearly sided with Saudi Arabia.

Iran, whose international supporters include Russia and China, has long been designated by the US, the European Union and the United Nations as a state sponsor of terrorism for its activities in Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere in the world. It is subject to international sanctions for its terrorist activities and for the suspected military dimensions of its nuclear programme.

The assassination by the US of Iran’s powerful commander and terrorist mastermind, Major-General Qassem Suleimani, on Iraqi soil was always destined to result in outrage and reprisals.

As this magazine goes to print, Iran has responded by firing missiles at two Iraqi air bases hosting US troops but no casualties have been reported.  It is unlikely to be the end of Iran’s pushback but this relatively restrained action indicates Tehran is not immediately seeking to escalate the tensions.

Donald Trump. Photo/Getty Images

Some observers believe that Trump has deliberately provoked Iran so the US can try to justify hitting the Middle East nation with strong military force – hence the President’s threat to go after 52 targets (the number of Americans held hostage by Iran from 1979-81), including special cultural sites. That idea was quickly ruled out by wiser heads in the Pentagon who noted that attacking cultural sites would violate the laws of armed conflict.

There is some hope that the American system can mitigate some of the potential consequences and fallout from the President’s undisciplined and irrational Twitter outbursts.

In Iraq, where Suleimani was assassinated, the Iraqi Parliament, the majority of whose members are sympathetic to Iran, has voted in favour of all foreign troops leaving Iraq. In reality, the Iraqi leadership, as opposed to its Parliament, is probably keen on keeping US troops there if only to prevent the re-emergence of Isis.

Suleimani’s killing is a ratcheting-up of a long-running sequence of lower-level tit-for-tat attacks in the Persian Gulf region. Until now, these have primarily been a case of each side asserting itself rather than escalating the conflict.

Trouble has been brewing for some time, with Iran, for example, behind the recent attack on the US embassy in Baghdad. And Trump’s rejection of the nuclear deal with Iran, negotiated by Obama and other allies, has heaped fuel on the fire. For Trump to suggest it was the worst deal in the world is plainly wrong. It was the best deal that could be done and, by all accounts, was containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The European signatories to that deal, and others, have, despite the rhetoric, worked on the basis that it is still viable, albeit on life support. Iran has now made it clear, in the wake of Suleimani’s death, that it is a dead letter. This is one of the most worrying outcomes as nuclear proliferation is a real threat in a number of countries, not just Iran.

Qassem Suleiman. Photo/Getty Images

Where is this leading?

It is useful to remember that in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Iraq was led by Saddam Hussein, who was from the Sunni branch of Islam, whereas nearly 65% of Iraqis are members of the Shia sect. Iran is more than 90% Shia and so, post Hussein, the linkages between Iran and Iraq have strengthened. The division between Sunni and Shia is exemplified by the proxy wars being fought in places such as Yemen and Syria between Russia- and China-backed Iran and US-backed Saudi Arabia. Iran, with a population of more than 82 million, is fighting to show itself as a power to be reckoned with and as a major centre of the Muslim faith.

Compounding this immediate crisis is the weakness of the United Nations, due in large part to the refusal by the Permanent Five nations – the US, UK, France, Russia and China – to reform and so play any relevant role in resolving international problems. In refusing to reform, this outdated grouping has added significantly to scepticism by other countries about the UN’s worth.

The only option, as I see it, is to de-escalate, and the ball is undoubtedly in the US court after Iran’s inevitable response.

 It’s hard to think of the usual UN players influencing Trump. The greatest hopes lie with a few players within the US system and possibly some of Nato’s heavyweight leaders – but the latter, especially, face an uphill battle. Trump left the London Nato summit in December early having taken offence at some of his fellow leaders mocking him in a video that went viral. Such cocktail-party jesting is not unheard of and, with a bit of humour, Trump could have brushed it off. Now is the time for him to get over his grievances and reach out to his Nato allies and discuss with them the next steps, on a “no surprises” joint basis, to develop a collective approach to lowering tensions in the Middle East.

New Zealand is a player in this international drama. We have troops in Iraq who are due to be withdrawn in  June. Pressure may well increase for that withdrawal to be brought forward given the outcome of the Iraqi Parliament’s vote, albeit non-binding, for foreign forces to leave. New Zealand, like every other nation with a presence in Iraq, is there by agreement with the Iraqi Government. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Foreign Minister Winston Peters and Defence Minister Ron Mark will have to discuss the issue with their allies and collectively work out what to do in terms of withdrawal.

On the broader matter of how the US -Iran stoush plays out, much hangs on Trump showing he has matured in office. To date, there is no evidence of that.

Sir Don McKinnon is a former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister of New Zealand and Secretary-General of the Commonwealth.

This article was first published in the January 18, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.