The Iranian regime is proving to be totally incompetent: incapable of managing the funeral of the so-called “martyr” Qassem Soleimani, which resulted in the deaths of more than 50 people, but capable of shooting down “as a result of human error” a commercial flight with 82 of its own nationals on board and killing a total of 176 passengers and crew members. Pictured: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. (Photo by Atta Kernare/AFP via Getty Images)
Iran has emerged completely discredited from the recent phase of conflict with the United States and US President Donald J. Trump appears, for the time being, to be the big winner.
The Iranian regime is proving to be totally incompetent: incapable of managing the funeral of the so-called “martyr” Qassem Soleimani, which resulted in the deaths of more than 50 people, but capable of shooting down “as a result of human error” a commercial flight with 82 of its own nationals on board and killing a total of 176 passengers and crew members. This is the same regime that now announces the resumption of its nuclear weapons program. The bomb could be launched “by mistake,” of course, at Israel – or dropped on a neighboring country, such as Sunni states in the Gulf, or even on Iran itself.
The Iranian people know that the plane was shot down by their own government. There are anti-regime protests across Iran. There is anger over the incompetence and the lies of the last few days. The regime will come out of it weakened. After the death of Soleimani, images of mass rallies may have given the impression of a popular rally against the United States, but it has long been known that such impressions can be misleading.
Think, for example, of the images of Parisian crowds applauding Marshal Pétain in 1940, used by Vichy propaganda. In the absence of free elections and polls, it is difficult to know the real feelings of the majority of the Iranian population. As of this writing, many are protesting against “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and calling for his resignation.
The countries of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the lead, will be convinced more than ever that their security — in the face of an aggressive regime that does not hesitate to export its “revolution” to Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, etc. — depends on America’s protection. No longer dependent on the region for its energy supply, the United States will be able to ask those countries to pay for it, as President Trump keeps asking.
Iraq will have to think twice before demanding the withdrawal of the last American troops. It has not escaped anyone’s notice that the majority of Kurdish and Sunni MPs did not take part in the parliamentary vote demanding it. Many do not want their country to become a vassal state of Iran. Iraq is an artificial entity, still deeply fractured along ethnic and religious lines. The Kurds, who failed in their attempt to gain independence after the American refusal to grant it, are biding their time. The Sunnis, many of whom supported the Islamic State, remain marginalized and disappointed. Moreover, the 5,200 American soldiers still present have only two functions — Iraqi army training and intelligence — which Iraq is probably not sure it wants to do without.
Europe, too, will have to draw a few conclusions. The European attempt, initiated by France, Germany and the United Kingdom, to circumvent American sanctions on Iran should cease. The former nuclear deal is dead and buried. Europe must now rally to the American position and impose the same sanctions on Iran.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official name of the Iranian nuclear deal signed — but not by Iran — in July 2015, was extremely flawed. It provided Iran with unlimited nuclear capability after the 15 years’ sunset clause expired, and lacked a mechanism for adequate inspections of known or suspected Iranian nuclear sites. These stipulations were coupled, among the deal’s main weaknesses, with the ability to develop of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (capable of carrying a nuclear warhead) — not part of the agreement. Iran has always claimed that the agreement only concerned its nuclear program, not its ballistic missiles, which also pose a concrete and immediate threat to Iran’s neighbors and Israel.
China is also going to have to be careful. In the midst of trade negotiations with the United States, it will not be able to give the image of support to such an incompetent Iranian regime, especially as it has much to lose from a conflagration in the Middle East. About 40% of China’s crude oil imports come from the region. Paradoxically, it is the US Navy that ensures the security of China’s energy supply from the Gulf. The prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran should, logically, worry China at least as much as the United States and Europe. However, the effectiveness of an embargo on materials and technologies for making a nuclear bomb will depend largely on China’s willingness to enforce it.
Finally, in the United States, some conservative editorialists fear that the Iran crisis could derail the campaign for the re-election of President Trump, who was elected with the ambition of reducing his country’s external commitments. Indeed, even if media attention is — temporarily — diverted from the “impeachment” process, from an electoral point of view, Trump took a great risk by killing Soleimani. For the moment, the president is scoring points. Iran has been multiplying provocations for months without the United States reacting. Unless they accepted that Iran should go further and further, the US had to stop Iran, which it did in a thoughtful, proportional and limited way, if one considers the other possible options (such as bombing oil installations with the inevitable collateral human damage).
The reaction of some Democrats has doubtless offended the patriotic feelings of Americans. Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, accused the Trump Administration of “unnecessary provocations“. By sending Trump and the mullahs’ regime back-to-back messages on Twitter (“Innocent civilians are now dead because they were caught in the middle of an unnecessary and unwanted military tit for tat”), an aspiring US Democrat presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg, has probably just mortgaged his chances of winning the party’s nomination. As for Joe Biden’s prediction – “Trump just tossed a stick of dynamite into a tinderbox” — it has so far not come true. Of course, the climate of hysterical hostility to President Trump will lead to further absurd statements blaming the US President for the downed plane tragedy. In reality, the Iranian regime has just lost a round in its long conflict with the United States. Such air disasters have a lasting effect on people’s minds. The Iranian regime is emerging from this crisis weaker and more isolated than ever before. Trump wins for now.
Alain Destexhe, a columnist and political analyst, is an honorary Senator in Belgium, former secretary general of Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders, and former President of International Crisis Group.