Editorial: 'US-Iran diplomacy needed - and fast'
The US assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani, one of the most influential and popular figures in the Islamic Republic - and one of the most important and powerful men in the Middle East - has the potential to draw the United States and Iran into major conflict.
The killing has given rise to a most volatile period in the Middle East, a development which behoves world leaders, specifically allies on both sides, to de-escalate the tension which is rapidly building this weekend. At this remove, that may seem a forlorn hope. It is inevitable there will be retaliatory measures from Iran. The hope is that those measures can be absorbed and contained without further miscalculation of the kind which has been on display on both sides for almost two years.
In May 2018, US president Donald Trump left the Iran nuclear agreement and adopted a "maximum pressure" policy of economic sanctions on Iran. For a year, Iran responded with restraint in an effort to isolate the US diplomatically and win economic concessions from other parties to the nuclear agreement, notably in Europe, which has been critical of the US decision to withdraw from the agreement, but Iran's then restrained approach failed to yield material benefits. By May 2019, Iran had chosen instead to breach the agreement and escalate tensions across the region.
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First came Iranian mine attacks against international shipping in May and June. Then Iran shot down a US drone, nearly sparking an open conflict with the US. In September, Iranian missiles struck the Abqaiq facility in Saudi Arabia, arguably the most important piece of oil infrastructure in the world. Shiite militia groups began launching rockets at US bases in Iraq, ultimately leading to the death of an American contractor last week. Retaliatory US strikes eventually led to the Soleimani assassination.
The Trump administration argues that Soleimani was a terrorist and that assassinating him was a defensive action which stopped an imminent attack. Undoubtedly, Soleimani has played a dark, indeed sinister, role throughout the Middle East for at least 20 years. But the US would never have felt compelled to act against him if not for the reckless policy the administration has pursued since Trump came to power. The question now is whether the US administration has thought through the consequences of its actions and has the capacity to absorb retaliatory measures without further escalating the situation, potentially towards open warfare. The hope is that Trump will be satisfied to declare victory and be content that he got the upper hand on Iran by killing Soleimani and not take further military actions.
However, at a minimum, the continued US presence in Iraq, where the assassination occurred, is more open to question than ever. A chaotic US withdrawal under fire could also present its own dangers. The mission to counter Isil remains live, and if the US is forced to leave Iraq that effort could suffer a serious blow. The expectation also is that Iran will now significantly accelerate its nuclear programme, which would be a profoundly alarming move. These are dangerous times in the Middle East. The requirement for diplomacy and statecraft has seldom been more urgent.