Those of us who have lived most of our lives against the backdrop of disastrous US wars in the Middle East and Central Asia maybe harboured some hope that the defeat of Islamic State in October would lead to a bit of a break on that front.
Experience has taught us not to hold too tightly to that kind of hope. And so it is mostly with resigned disappointment that we see updates every few days on the escalating threats of war from Iranian and US leaders.
Donald Trump’s weapon of choice is twitter. Last month he tweeted “if Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran”. This week he followed it up with “Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration.” Iranian president Hassan Rouhani responded by calling Trump “mentally retarded”. The tweet was in response though to a more traditional firing of shots – the downing of a US drone worth $176 million which Iran said had invaded their airspace.
The buildup has been going on for some time though; with the last few months seeing the US deploying new troops to the middle east, designating Iran’s elite armed forces as a terrorist group and toughening trade sanctions. Iran meanwhile has been blamed for rocket attacks on oil tankers, and has announced its plan to violate a previously made international pact by increasing uranium enrichment.
The US and Iran have a history that goes back longer than that, with no shortage of trash talk. Decades before George W. Bush named Iran (along with Iraq and North Korea) as part of the “axis of evil” in 2002; Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini called the US “the Great Satan”, an epithet that has stuck in Iran ever since.
That was shortly after Khomeini had claimed his position as the theocratic ruler of Iran. This was the result of the 1979 revolution overthrowing the US-backed monarchy of Shah Mohammed Reza Pavlavi. As part of the revolution, the US embassy in Tehran was taken siege and 52 American diplomats were held hostage for over a year.
This led to long-lasting trade sanctions being placed on Iran by the US, and American support for Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government in the Iran-Iraq war that began in the wake of the revolution.
US foreign policy of course doesn’t always follow simple narratives, and the US broke its own embargo to covertly sell weapons to Iran through the 1980’s, sending the profits to right-wing Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua (thus circumventing another government policy). There’s a lot to be learned about both the US’ vision of the “free world” in those cold war times and the religious rule of the Ayatollah by observing the public rhetoric of both (US lobbying Western governments to boycott the “terrorist supporting” Iran, and Khomeini railing against the evils of the West) while they were in secret doing weapons deals.
The Iran-Iraq war ended in stalemate, and Khomeini died in 1989 to be replaced by Ali Khameini. The hardline Islamist stance of Iran’s government softened somewhat over the years (the rise to power of another Islamist regime in neighbouring Afghanistan in the 90’s even made the Ayatollah seem liberal). Still religious and political dissenters have been suppressed by force; and elections are only contested by candidates approved by the Ayatollah and his council of religious leaders. Relations between Iran and the US have remained frosty (hence Bush’s famous “axis of evil” quote), and trade sanctions remained in place.
It was an extraordinary feat of diplomacy by Barack Obama’s government that led to those sanctions being lifted in 2015 on the condition of Iran discontinuing its nuclear research program. This was also presumably partly due to the fact that the revolution was a long time ago and the Ayatollah no longer holds the public support he once did. No amount of anti-Western raging can now deflect the attention of a nation demanding liberalisation. The military might of the US has also proven unable to successfully engineer politics in the region. Compromise was the tactic that made sense all round, and the momentary result was an end to sanctions-enforced poverty and development of nuclear weapons.
Compromise is not an ideal Donald Trump aspires to though. Speaking to the UN, Trump called the deal an “embarrassment” and “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” He overturned it last May, and the result has been a steady escalation leading to our current state of teetering on the edge of another war.
Of course things are never quite that simple. Iran and the US have been on opposing sides of proxy civil wars in Syria and Yemen, while the standoff between Iran and US ally Saudi Arabia plays out in all kinds of ways.
The conflict between these two Muslim theocracies fits into that ancient schism of Shia vs Sunni. Can it all really be about the relative leadership credentials of Ali and Abu Bakr a millennium and a half ago? Religion can certainly make people blow things out of proportion at times, but to get to the roots of this we need to look past Allah to those other great gods of power and crude oil.
So far, the targets of attacks (blamed on Iran but for which they have not taken responsibility) have been oil infrastructure – international oil tankers and a Saudi pipeline. Much of the concern internationally surrounds the potential for Iran to block the Strait of Hormuz – a narrow body of water through which 30% of the world’s oil is transported.
The centrality of oil to the conflict was reinforced by former Australian army general and Liberal senator Jim Molan this week using the tensions as a reminder of his personal political hobby-horse – Australia’s fuel security. At least he’s honest. They may not like to admit it, but fuel security will almost certainly be the reason international governments will act on Iran. Oil is a constant subtext of conflicts from South America to South-East Asia and most famously the Middle East. Australia is currently fighting an oil war of our own – waged against one man, Witness K, who revealed how the Australian government spied on our war-ravaged neighbours Timor-Leste in order to take more of the oil from the Timor Sea.
If conflict begins in earnest in Iran, Australia will be involved too. This week the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued a statement saying “Australia has made clear that it shares the international community’s concerns over Iran’s destabilising behaviours.” Scott Morrison has said he will discuss the issue at the G20. But whether Australian troops are involved or not, we will play a part – US troops are currently in Australia for massive training exercises, and permanent bases in the Northern Territory would likely have some role. As academic Richard Tanter has observed, Australia is “hard-wired” into the US drone program through the Pine Gap intelligence facility near Alice Springs – that drone shot down last week was almost certainly using Pine Gap satellites for whatever its true mission was.
A war in Iran can not foreseeably have anything other than disastrous consequences. Already a country that had gone some way towards giving up its nuclear ambitions is ratcheting up its enrichment program seemingly out of spite. Open conflict will undeniably lead to the displacement of millions of people into a world already claiming a refugee “crisis”; it will probably lead to the development of new Islamic militia in a region still reeling from Islamic State. It will exacerbate cracks between world powers with at least Russia and Saudi Arabia certainly drawn in. It will mean environmental destruction and carbon emissions on a scale no amount of solar panels could ever dream of offsetting.
That’s all regardless of who “wins” the war. Recent history would suggest no one will win anyway, it will just be an endless conflict that drags on interminably (it’s already been simmering for four decades). And yet we seem to be drifting into this war like leaves in the current, resigned to accept that governments fight wars regardless of what people want or what is logical. Can there be a movement for peace capable of stopping the next war? Can there be a movement to reshape our world so that conflicts over oil supply don’t drag in the entire planet? What about a world where chest-thumping egos can’t start wars over twitter? Difficult as they seem, the answers to those questions remain up to us.