The United States was all set to carry out military strikes against Iran this week. American President Donald Trump himself tweeted to say that his military was “cocked & loaded”, prepared to hit three sites in the Islamic Republic, a move that would have potentially killed 150 people. Just 10 minutes before the strike was supposed to happen, Trump said, he decided to call off the operation.
With tensions between the US and Iran running so high, many wondering whether the US is going to repeat a tragic historical mistake a decade and a half after it bombed its way into a disastrous war against Iraq on false premises.
Is there going to be a war?
It’s impossible to say for certain, but the events of the past few days certainly increased the chances of some sort of conflict.
First, the United States blamed attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman on June 13 on Iran, though Tehran denied these claims.
Then on Thursday, Iran shot down an unmanned American spy drone. Tehran claimed that the drone was flying in Iranian airspace, and was spying, which would give its military cause for shooting down the aircraft. The US, however, claims that it was flying over international waters and not in Iranian airspace.
US military preparations to retaliate for the shooting down of the drone followed, through the three strikes that Trump claims to have called off at the last minute. With Trump having tweeted about stepping back from a conflict, war does not seem imminent. But it is also clear that the situation in the region is a tinder-box waiting for a spark.
Who wants a war?
A significant portion of the American political establishment, primarily Trump’s party, the Republicans. And, as per media reports, Trump’s entire national security team. Indeed, the US President’s National Security Adviser John Bolton and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are extremely hawkish advocates of “regime change”, the term Americans use for invading a foreign country and installing someone favourable to the US at its head.
Bolton was responsible for much of the wrangling that led to fake evidence being peddled as the reason America went to war with Iraq in 2003. Back then, the US had claimed that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” that posed a danger to the world. Following the US invasion, however, no such weapons were found.
“While some Iraq War supporters have been repentant, Bolton represents the wing of the conservative movement that continues to believe that wars of regime change can solve America’s problems,” writers Zack Beauchamp in Vox.
The others who want an (American) war to cut Iran down to size, simply out of their own hopes of dominating the region, sit on the other size of the Arabian Peninsula: Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Who doesn’t want a war?
Practically everyone else.
When America began preparing to go to war with Iraq in 2003, its diplomatic corps worked to bring more than 40 countries into a “coalition of the willing”. The disastrous outcome of that war and Trump’s erratic Presidency has meant that almost no other country has the appetite for another military invasion in the Middle East.
Trump himself is believed to be opposed to the idea of war. His election campaign emphasised the disaster that was Iraq, and his policies as President have sought to drive home the idea that America will not play policeman to the world. That said, advisers around him have said that though he may not want to go to war, he is also susceptible to ego battles and public situations that make it seem as if he was the “weak one”.
Are the tensions Iran’s fault?
The simple answer is no.
Just a few years ago, before the rise of anti-immigration populism that appears to be destabilising liberal democracies throughout Western Europe, the United States and five other countries (China, France, the UK, Germany and Russia) signed a deal with Iran. This deal, the centrepiece of former US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy, saw Tehran promise to eliminate or reduce the amount of nuclear material it holds on to, making it much less likely to develop nuclear weapons.
The deal was painstakingly struck after years of negotiation and sanctions, and would have brought Iran back into the global economy. However, Trump campaigned against it. After coming to power, he pulled the US out of the deal and re-imposed sanctions. The other nations, European ones in particular, have done little to help Iran get around the US sanctions – leaving the country in a precarious place. And so, Tehran has been threatening to start enriching uranium again.
Some in the Republican Party argue that Obama’s deal, while forcing Iran to stop its nuclear weapons programme, did not chasten Tehran for its regional approach, including its support for a number of organisations like Hezbollah, that are antithetical to American allies. But that was a presumed outcome. Almost no one claims that Iran itself violated the deal and in fact, to this day, it is reported to have stuck to the terms, though it is now threatening to breach them if it does not receive economic support.
What would the war achieve?
Not much, other than violence and casualties. Aside from assuaging American egos, temporarily, it is hard to see what the US could realistically hope to get out of a conflict.
Bolton and Pompeo are believers in regime change. But Iran is a much stronger nation, both politically and militarily, than Iraq was when the US invaded. An Iran war would be much bloodier.
Plus, a significant portion of the populace does indeed support the current Iranian leadership. Any alternative regime that has the support of the people, rather than just being a Western puppet, is more likely to be much more unstable and even more anti-American than the current one.
And Iran has the capability of hitting back with many proxies around the region, a situation that could be even more destabilising than the chaos after the Iraq war, which, if you’ve forgotten, led to the rise of the Islamic State.
What does it mean for India?
Right now, the primary effect of US-Iran tensions on India is in terms of energy. India has cultural and trade ties with Iran and was once one of the biggest customers of Iranian oil, but has cut down significantly in the face of American sanctions.
Though India has moved to sourcing its oil from elsewhere for the moment, in the long run, a war in the region is likely to affect India’s energy supply, since it is likely that the Strait of Hormuz would be in danger and much of the oil that India receives moves through this area.
The destablising of the entire region as a result of an invasion would also have major effects on India, which has other business and trade interests in the area and is already deeply susceptible to terrorism.
What does it mean for Indians?
Aside from the impact it may have on India’s energy supplies, there are also 7 million Indian citizens living in the Arabian Peninsula, which might end up being drawn into any conflict that the US starts up with Iran. America has bases or some military presence in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE and Oman – all nations where there are significant numbers of Indian citizens.
Though none of these countries, maybe barring Kuwait, were directly affected during the Iraq war, Iran’s ability to retaliate in the region will be much more powerful, and potentially destabilising for the entire peninsula.