The killing of General Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike has raised tensions between Iran and the United States to a new level. The overriding question is, will we slide into a war?
Neither party seems to want war. Both are stepping back from confrontation. After firing missiles at Iraqi military bases where U.S. military personnel are stationed — and mistakenly shooting down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing 176 people — Iranian officials have sent mixed messages about whether there will be further retaliation, but they say they will drive the U.S. out of Iraq and will resume enriching uranium without limits. President Trump has said the U.S. is “ready to embrace peace.” But the situation is fluid, and a mishap could bring war.
We urgently need a coherent, comprehensive policy toward Iran. Neither President Donald Trump nor the Congress seems intent on developing one.
Iran, a big country with a population over 80 million, presents us with a formidable challenge. It has a major presence and a lot of influence in the region. It aggressively seeks dominance in the region, and actively resists the U.S. influence. It supports the brutal regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and backs militias that attack our allies. We’ve had a fraught relationship going back decades, at least to the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-81.
Trump and a few of his aides say that killing Soleimani makes the region safer. But the additional U.S. troops deploying for the Middle East surely indicates the danger remains.
This situation is ripe for diplomacy.
Some officials in the Trump administration have suggested our aim is regime change. Others say we want to change Iran’s behavior. Some of our demands, as set forth by Secretary Mike Pompeo, are well out of reach. He says Iran must end all threatening behavior, stop supporting proxy forces and halt efforts to develop nuclear capabilities. But Iran sees these activities as essential to defending against threats from America and Saudi Arabia.
Trump has announced increased sanctions and warned Iran’s leaders against further hostilities or attempts to build a nuclear bomb.
This present set of circumstances could suddenly become much worse. In that situation, we should follow Churchill’s advice: It’s better to jaw-jaw than to war-war.
It is time for the United States and Iran to find a path to deal with our differences – so that we do not, by chance, by miscalculation, by some turn of events find ourselves at war.
In short, we have to reach for a political settlement, something that has eluded us for decades. We cannot expect to quickly resolve all the problems we have with Iran, but we should first seek limits on Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities, by far the most critical problem.
As it is, we’ve got the world worrying that the United States will attack Iran, and Iran will attack the U.S. to retaliate for Soleimani’s death. The need is to find a way to talk. Left unaddressed, the danger and the risks will only grow.
By Lee H. Hamilton