Middle Powers and the US-Iran Conflict

Middle Powers and the US-Iran Conflict

The Trump Administration’s decision to use a drone to carry out a targeted assassination of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Al-Quds Commander General Qassem Soleimani – along with his Iraqi confederates that belong to the Popular Mobilization Forces – raises many questions about the prospect of peace and peacekeeping in the region.

Iran’s military response to the US attack at the Baghdad International Airport was to launch missiles and rockets at Ain Al-Assad Air Base and Erbil Base that house American and coalition troops. The downing of a Boeing plane, due an accidental or deliberate hit by an Iranian missile, is even more unsettling.

The risk now is that Iran or Iraq directly attacks a NATO ally’s territory raising the spectre of a third world war. Iran is too weak militarily to take on the United States so it may use other methods like cyber or asymmetrical warfare including suicide terrorism.

Since General Soleimani was considered a hero – as attested to by the thousands of people who marched in Tehran’s streets during his funeral – it won’t be difficult to recruit revolutionaries bent on revenge.

Middle powers, like Canada, Germany, Ireland and Nigeria do not have many options because they are not strategic players in the Middle East, although as a NATO ally Canada has deployed approximately 500 Canadian Forces to help train Iraqi soldiers to take on ISIS. If the United States and its NATO allies were to withdraw their forces or put them on indefinite suspension in Iraq (where they are a soft target of high-ransom value) there could be the possibility of a power vacuum in Iraq that could be overtaken by Iran, backed by Russia.

Diplomats from all the middle powers need not be bystanders but should work the phones and counsel restraint, negotiation and not encourage tit-for-tat cycles.  Unquestionably, the storming of the US embassy in Baghdad by an Iranian armed and financed Shiite militia was a provocation. But it would be a war crime if the US were to bomb UNESCO sites in Iran, if Tehran takes stronger military action against America.

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The United States and Canada’s training mission in Iraq is threatened and is temporarily suspended but more importantly, NATO’s unity could be undermined. According to NATO’s 1949 Washington Treaty, ‘an attack against one or more in Europe or North America is an attack against us all.’ Article 5 has not been promulgated since September 11, 2001, when the European allies came to the United States’ defence.

NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is refusing to speculate if Iran retaliates in a way that makes the United States trigger Article 5. Canada’s new Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne is urging restraint upon all parties. A common resolve to avoid war in the Middle East should assuredly emerge at NATO Headquarters in Brussels.

The UN Security Council will also call for urgent Security Council meetings in the days ahead. After all, the Strait of Hormuz is very important to the transportation of oil and Western stability.

Officers in the Armed Forces will assuredly consider contingency options. And in the duly elected democratic states, like Australia, Canada, France and Germany, Parliaments and Cabinet ministers will decide what to do. Meanwhile, President Trump can do what he wants because Congress has much less power over a capricious and malevolent president.

Since ordering the strike on Iran’s top military commander, Trump has tweeted a series of over-the-top threats that if manifested would violate international law. He has threatened more economic sanctions if the Iraq government expels American forces. He has tweeted about 52 imminent Iranian targets because there were 52 hostages during the 1979 Iranian hostage taking. And he has proclaimed that he has no need to consult with Congress before he orders any future military action against Iran because his tweets serve as sufficient notification to Congress.

“War powers reside in the Congress under the United States Constitution,” the House foreign affairs committee tweeted back: “You should read the War Powers Act.” The Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif) announced a vote to limit Trump’s ability to take military action against Iran on Jan. 6. Now questions continue swirl about whether Trump is acting like another undemocratic dictator.

In the US-Iran stand-off, the US President will need to justify whether an imminent threat from Iran forced him to order the neutralization of two highly-placed officials – not his worries about distracting world attention from his Senate impeachment proceedings. He should have to explain how the assassination by a drone helped, not hindered the defeat of ISIS.

Iran supports a variety of terrorist groups including Hezbollah so the United States’ chief ally in the Middle East is also threatened. Prime Minister Benjamin Netananyu is staying quiet and saying this is an American-Iranian crisis, but his country has placed its embassies and troops on high alert whilst Israel’s March 5 election comes up.

What remains unclear is that to what extent possible international mediators, like Canada, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom will resort to a policy of deliberate isolationism and avoid the role of peace mediators. Since the end of the 1990s, too many middle powers have lacked direction, political will and the fortuity to engage as neutral interlocutors in any significant peace mediation attempts between warring sides. While countries such as Russia and Turkey had offered to mediate peace talks with Iran and Syria to de-escalate existing tensions in the region, more neutral bystanders, like Canada, Israel and Japan have been visibly quiet on the side-lines.

All this won’t be decided soon because Tehran’s retaliation might not be immediate. Iranians may hesitate to restart the nuclear centrifuges, and kick the inspectors out, before rebuilding their bomb-making program. But with millions of people marching in the street, it will be difficult not to fire back somehow. In the long run, the world is suddenly much more insecure because of the US President’s insecurity and impulsiveness.

The word peacekeeping in global affairs is often synonymous with Canadian traditions of neutrality and Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, who successfully spearheaded the de-escalation campaign during the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis that earned him the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize.

Subsequent UN peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia, where tens of thousands of personnel served, brought to the fore complex challenges associated with keeping the peace in fragile states divided along ethnic and religious fault lines.

In the face of the current developments in the Middle East between Iran and the US, there is an urgent need to adopt liberal internationalism to de-escalate tensions and allow for sound judgement and cooler heads to prevail. The perturbing spectre of war and insecurity looms in the region of over 400 million people, however, liberal internationalist concepts like multilateralism, internationalism, peacekeeping and peace-making, as well as democracy, transparency and openness can help avert another crisis in the Middle East.