Local experts, congressmen react to heightened US-Iran tensions

  • President Donald Trump addresses the nation from the White House on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi airbases housing U.S. troops, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020, in Washington.  AP PHOTO/EVAN VUCCI  

  • David Mednicoff, chair of the Judaic and Near Eastern Studies Department and Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Public Policy at UMass, in his office Wednesday, January 8, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • David Mednicoff, chair of the Judaic and Near Eastern Studies Department and Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies and Public Policy at UMass, in his office Wednesday, January 8, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/8/2020 11:33:47 PM
Modified: 1/8/2020 11:33:11 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Will cooler heads prevail?

That’s what many hope in the wake of President Donald Trump’s Wednesday speech in which he said there would be continued significant sanctions on Iran but no further military action at this time.

“Barring any further immediate inflammatory attacks from either the U.S. or Iran, we should see a cooling of the immediate crisis and risk of full-scale war,” David Mednicoff, chairman of the department of Judaic and Near Eastern studies and associate professor of Middle Eastern studies and public policy at the University of Massachusetts, said in an email. “Both countries will now seek to reassess their position and take further covert and medium-term actions to bolster their influence and power.”

Trump’s comments from the White House Wednesday morning — which came hours after Iran fired more than a dozen missiles at bases in Iraq where U.S. soldiers are stationed, as retaliation for last weeks’ killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani — suggest that he is not prepared to ramp up military operations, especially since no Americans or Iraqis were killed.

“For now, at least, Trump’s remarks signal a de-escalation of the direct military conflict with Iran,” Mednicoff said. “Iran’s comparatively tame initial response to the Soleimani killing, which was likely communicated to Washington in advance, helped set the stage for this de-escalation.”

Even though Americans should be relieved by this apparent path of de-escalation, Steven Heydemann, the Janet Wright Ketcham 1953 professor in Middle East studies and director of the program in Middle East studies at Smith College, said tensions remain and that Trump will remain unpredictable in his approach to foreign policy.

“While the clearly impulsive action has not at this point led our country into a war, that possibility still exists,” Heydemann said. “It will take some time to figure out what the strike and the aftermath means for U.S. policy.”

Heydemann said it’s possible that Soleimani, right before he was killed, was in Baghdad to receive word from Saudi Arabia about a regional security agreement, meaning that the strike could have consequences that resonate long term.

“That could prolong a regional conflict between Arab and Gulf states,” Heydemann said.

Trump said that he would be increasing U.S. sanctions to put pressure on Iran. “Iran must abandon its nuclear ambitions and end its support for terrorism,” Trump said.

While Trump can impose the sanctions, other demands he made in his speech are less realistic, such as advocating for other countries, including members of NATO, to get involved in Middle East affairs, and demanding that allies join the United States in withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal.

Trump said the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia and China should “break away from the remnants of the Iran deal” and, with the United States, “work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.”

Mednicoff doesn’t see those scenarios happening. “This is part of the U.S. trying to bolster its position in the Middle East with respect to Iran. But neither of Trump’s calls here are likely to be particularly effective or meaningful,” Mednicoff said.

He observed that the killing of Soleimani without consulting allies, as far as anyone knows, meant that Trump extended his practice of taking unilateral actions at odds with European leaders’ own preferences and, in this case, international law.

“Allies don’t trust or agree with Trump, generally believe he has been proven wrong in destroying the Iran deal, and have little reason to go along with his requests,” Mednicoff said.

“So this call seems to be grasping at straws in the midst of a complicated and by no means resolved dangerous environment in the Gulf region.”

Needless swipes

Heydemann said Trump’s talk used bellicose language that has become typical of the president and needlessly inserted swipes at his predecessor, such as blaming President Barack Obama for the Iranian response to the Soleimani killing, claiming that the missiles fired had been funded by the administration as part of the nuclear deal.

“That kind of thing is not true, so he was lying, and second it’s counterproductive,” Heydemann said. “American allies continue to view the agreement as both significant and worth restoring.”

As for NATO, the Middle East is outside of its mandate, and Trump has shown a mistrust of multilateral European policy coordination, Heydemann said. He observed that Trump has a “very weak” track record of shifting costs to NATO, and he doesn’t expect him to succeed in this case, either.

Mednicoff said even though Americans may measure Trump’s actions by whether they feel threatened or targeted, the real effects of the past week’s developments are likely to be on the insecurity, violence and ever-increasing authoritarianism Middle Easterners may face, especially in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

In the medium term, he said, the Iranian government has united its people against American actions, and its measured response is a win for its foreign policy.

“The big question for the moment is whether the Iraqi government will insist that U.S. forces leave the country, and how these recent events have affected Iranian influence in the country,” Mednicoff said.

Congressman James P. McGovern issued a statement to the Gazette following Trump’s remarks, saying that it’s evident that Trump is in over his head, and that he is hypocritical to have spent three years trashing NATO and insulting allies, and now to be asking for their help.

“President Trump’s so-called ‘maximum-pressure’ sanctions have emboldened hardliners in Iran, and his strike on Soleimani has united the Iranian people against us,” McGovern said. “His withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran has directly led to the current cycle of violence we find ourselves in, and made it much more likely that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon.”

McGovern also said that Trump’s failed policies have brought the Middle East to the brink of war and that he “used his remarks as a petty opportunity to lie about President Obama’s legacy.”

“His actions have backfired, and his miscalculations have made the world a much more dangerous place,” McGovern said. “It’s time for the United States to walk back our aggressive rhetoric and engage meaningfully in a diplomatic process toward peace.”

Congressman Richard E. Neal released a statement following Tuesday night’s missile launches condemning the action and urging “both the Trump administration and the Iranian government to take a step back from the brink and exercise restraint to prevent a further intensification of hostilities.”

Neal also called on Trump and administration officials to brief the House and Senate immediately before undertaking any future action toward Iran and to seek congressional approval going forward.

He had no immediate response to Trump’s speech, with spokeswoman Margaret Boyle at Neal’s Springfield office explaining that a White House briefing was happening later on Wednesday “so everything is still very much in flux.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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