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Lessons from the US-Iran 'lucky escape'



According to Donald Trump, the world had a lucky escape last week. 'On Monday they [Iran] shot down an unmanned drone flying in International Waters,' he tweeted. 'We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die. 150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike, I stopped it.' There is good reason to question virtually every aspect of this statement. Even the US military is unclear whether the drone was in Iranian airspace and the number of people affected is apparently drawn from thin air.

US President Donald Trump (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)That said, Trump is clearly correct to highlight the precarious state of US-Iranian relations — a situation not helped by the fact that the Commander in Chief imposed a fresh wave of sanctions on Iranians on Monday (including 'Ayatollah Khomeini', Iran's previous Supreme Leader, who died 30 years ago).

As is widely known, but goes generally unmentioned in coverage of the unfolding crisis, the present escalation began when the US unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed with Iran and four other states to limit Iran's capacity to develop a military nuclear program. Under the JCPOA, with which Iran has complied, sanctions were to be progressively lifted. Instead, not only have US sanctions been reimposed, but two subsequent waves of sanctions have been added by Congress or the President.

These sanctions — imposed in breach of international law — have also been the basis for questionable actions against third parties. Meng Wanzhou, Huawei's Chief Financial Officer and daughter of its founder, currently languishes in Canadian custody awaiting extradition to the US for allegedly breaching them. The European Union, itself a party to the JCPOA along with three of its members and others have also been threatened with sanctions by recent US legislation if they comply with the UN-endorsed treaty.

Against this background, as I previously argued in the case of Kim Jong-un, the first lesson would seem to be that Iran would be foolish if it did return to talks with the US. There seems precious little to talk about — and absolutely no assurance that the US would keep its side of the deal even if talks did result in the new and better deal the US has claimed it always wanted.

The other key takeaway from this sorry saga is the questionable utility of sanctions as the catch-all replacement of foreign policy which they have undoubtedly become. This conclusion does not require an endorsement of Iran's theocratic government. I have personal experience of work with refugees from Iran (who, by the way, are also persecuted by the US and its Australian allies — consider, for example, the case of award-winning Iranian-Kurdish refugee, journalist and author Behrouz Boochani, who has languished on Manus for years).

Nevertheless, there is nothing guaranteed to rally a people around its leaders (however unjust they are known to be) than war with a foreign power — especially when there is no obvious cause for it.


"Make no mistake, sanctions are indeed a form of war. They kill as effectively as missiles — and a good deal less discriminately."


And, make no mistake, sanctions are indeed a form of war. As Caitlin Johnstone notes, they kill as effectively as missiles — and a good deal less discriminately. It is certainly true that sanctions can make a difference in ending an unjust policy, but for this they have to be carefully targeted and calibrated to results. The apartheid era foreign minister of South Africa, Roelof ('Pik') Botha, noted after he took office as minerals minister under a democratic interim government that it was the sports boycott which played a major role in the ending of that evil regime.

There, however, it must be remembered that the sanctions were keyed to particular outcomes and were withdrawn when the government did what was demanded. South Africa, even during the worst excesses of the State of Emergency in the 1980s, never faced the sustained campaign of mass starvation and deprivation of medical supplies which faced Iraq for its non-existent 'weapons of mass destruction' and which provoked the following exchange on 60 Minutes on 5 December 1996 between reporter Lesley Stahl and Madeleine Albright:

Stahl: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.

It is true, of course, that some people see precisely this form of devastation as something to be desired, rather than avoided. Rudy Giuliani, Trump's lawyer, has boasted that sanctions would see Iranians selling their own organs for food. It is to be hoped that this brand of cruelty for its own sake — which leaves the US and its allies who support it in no moral position to preach democracy to the mullahs — is not one generally shared.



Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Main image: US President Donald Trump (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Iran, Iraq, Donald Trump



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Australia and Iran are currently enjoying a friendly international relationship.

Claude Rigney | 26 June 2019  

Thanks, Justin, for your scholarship and insights - a welcome antidote to so much of the shallow reporting that abounds. I query, though, the idea that there is no value in meetings between Iran and the US. Even if the parties can’t be relied on to abide by agreements, both surely have much to learn about each other, and there are many misunderstandings that can surely be avoided by discussion. Surely, too, a deeper appreciation of their shared humanity would impact in the attitudes and judgements of Americans and Iranians at all levels in their military and Governmental systems. I’d urge meetings between the two governments in every part of the world where they are both represented.

Denis Fitzgerald | 27 June 2019  

One wonders how a Secretary of State of the most powerful nation on earth could provide such an answer to a question. I would guess that staying powerful is more alluring than staying alive to the possibility of relinquishing control. I liked Nancy Pelosi's advice to the President (Mr Donald): de-escalate, de-escalate, de-escalate.

Pam | 27 June 2019  

A look at history should serve as a warning to Trump's administration. Prior to Japan entering into WW 11 with its bombing of Pearl Harbour, the U.S. imposed crippling sanctions on Oil imports by Japan in retaliation for the Japanese invasion of China. The Japanese military leaders realised that they had to react or face disaster( and massive "loss of face". I fear that Trump's aggressive posture and tightening of sanctions towards the Iranian leadership may led to a blockade of the Persian Gulf . The big losers in all of this are the ordinary people of Iran. The whole exercise may well backfire on the U.S. as the Iranian leadership gets increasing support from its people. Last point , given the disastrous results of U.S. interventions in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq when will America learn?

Gavin O'Brien | 27 June 2019  

Mr Bolton, Trump's "adviser" and all-round ideologue of US hegemony, has been spoiling for a war with Iran for years. Mr Netanyahu, precariously hanging on to his sinecure awaiting September (and an indictment for corruption) needs it even more. I do not favour conspiracy theories, but why would it sit beyond credibility that the tanker "incidents" of late haven't had the Shin'Bet's signature on them - somewhere? Entebbe was one thing; provoking a regional war would be quite another Time for Australia to state clearly to Washington (as with the EU): guys, on this one you go alone. And don't presume you can play hardball over Pine Gap, either. We can shut you down any time and argue later. Last, I have no sympathy for theocracies, would-be Christian or actual Islamic, but my sentiments are with the Iranian people.

Fred Green | 27 June 2019  

Yes Justin why should we now believe Trump, an established serial liar, that compassion for Iranian lives stayed his hand? I think we also have to seriously ask if Trump is not preparing for a war to save his threatened presidency.

Pat Walsh | 27 June 2019  

what has to be taken into account is the influence that Israel has through the Jewish lobby in USA Israel pushing Trump to do the dirty work while Europe can see the merit in negotiating

BERNARD TRESTON | 30 June 2019  

I hope that Trump is playing a game of brinkmanship with Iran, but, given his 'peace initiative' authored by his son-in-law for the Israeli/Palestine situation, I wouldn't bet on it. Israel and Saudi Arabia are now de facto allies against Iran. Strange bedfellows? Indeed, but they both feel threatened. If there is trouble between America and Iran in the form of economic sanctions I imagine China and Russia will help Iran. America has got it wrong on Iran since it assisted in the overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh government in 1953. It is highly probable that, if Mossadegh had remained in power, Iran would not now be under the rule of the ayatollahs, but be much more like the countries of continental Western Europe, such as France or Germany, where so many Iranians studied. Iranians are a highly intelligent, educated and civilised people. The fact that they are Shi'ite and Aryan, as against Arab and Sunni, makes them acutely aware of their vulnerability in a volatile region. They are a particular target of virulent hatred from the Wahhabi Saudis. The West needs to be very careful not to heedlessly follow the Trump line on Iran as it did the Bush line on Iraq and its non-existent 'weapons of mass destruction'.

Edward Fido | 01 July 2019  

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