Why Iran would be wise to step back from brink, says Tim Newark

Iran has brought war and misery to the region for much of the 21st century. General Qasem Soleimani has been the head of the Quds Force directly backing terrorists throughout the Middle East from Palestinian Jihadis and Hezbollah in Lebanon to armed forces in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Its sworn enemies are Israel and Saudi Arabia and it has done everything it can to provoke conflicts against these two powers allied to America.

When Britain fought side by side with America in Iraq in 2003, Soleimani directed Shia terror attacks against our troops. The SAS could have taken him out but Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband declined. Since then, Soleimeni gained power within the Iranian regime to the point he felt untouchable. But in recent months he overplayed his hand.  

In September missiles launched by Houthi rebels in Yemen, sanctioned by Soleimani, rained down on Saudi oil installations causing millions of pounds of damage while sending plumes of acrid smoke into the sky.

It was a symbolic strike intended to humiliate the Saudis and show them who is in charge in the region. It was a direct challenge to their American allies that they had failed to protect them.

Next came attacks by Iranian troops on international oil tankers sailing in to the Persian Gulf. Again it was a demonstration of who controlled one of the world’s most vital waterways.

But President Trump has been unfazed by all this drum beating from Iran. From the beginning of his presidency he has made the tough decision to call out Iran for backing aggression in the region. He ripped up his predecessor President Obama’s nuclear agreement with them and ramped up economic sanctions against the rogue state. The Iranian economy has cracked under the pressure with ordinary Iranians rioting in the streets at the spiralling cost of living.

It is against this background of a faltering economy that Iran has stepped up its provocative actions in the region. A week last Friday, a US civilian contractor was killed by a rocket attack in northern Iraq traced back to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis’ Hezbollah militia group backed by Iran. Al-Muhandis was also killed in Trump’s strike against Soleimani, along with other Iraq militia leaders working for Iran.

Then came the assault on the US Embassy in Baghdad last week. No doubt intended to storm the complex with the hope of securing American hostages to humiliate on TV, it triggered memories of the Iranian Embassy hostage crisis in 1979 that ended the Presidency of Jimmy Carter. A nadir in American power in the region that could not be allowed to happen again, especially in the year of Trump’s re-election campaign.

It was intelligence information that Qasem Soleimani was personally seeking to co-ordinate the continued attack on US diplomats in Baghdad that decided Trump to allow the deadly drone strike. If Iran foolishly follows through with “severe revenge” against the Americans, they will find they have taken on an adversary who has wisely prepared his ground. Early on in his presidency, Trump made a firm ally of Saudi Arabia, supporting them through thick and thin. Equally, Trump has doubled-down on his support of Israel by recognising their capital in Jerusalem. Both are formidable economic and military powers.

Less certain is the support of Europe as they have failed to whole-heartedly back his trade embargo of Iran. Britain, however, is sure to be a sturdy ally with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister rather than Jeremy Corbyn.

What happens next depends on the Iranian leadership. They won’t want to encourage pinpoint strikes against them on their own territory and millions of ordinary Iranians are already fed up with the economic hardship inflicted on them. Most probably they’ll incite some terrorist outrage, but they must be warned that Trump is in a bellicose mood as millions of Americans look to him for strong leadership.

Curiously, it might, in fact, be the perfect time for Iran to take a step back and confound expectations by de-escalating tensions and seeking an accord with the US. In this election year, Trump the Great Deal-Maker will be looking for some foreign policy successes and the holy grail of peace in the Middle East could be the most spectacular of these, alongside a trade deal with China.

In return, the damaging trade embargo on Iran could be relaxed and the regime could survive to pursue its foreign policy aims in a more peaceable manner. With the vicious warlord Soleimani out the way, a more practical faction might take over the reins of power in Tehran and help their long-suffering citizens back to the path of prosperity. We can only but hope.

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