For all the talk about ending wars in the Middle East, U.S. policy under President Trump might very well lead to war in the region.
But this doesn’t need to be like that.
While the retaliatory Iranian attacks against an Iraqi base used by Americans has not caused any American fatalities or injuries, it is unknown whether more Iranian attacks will take place directly or indirectly. When that happens it will put Washington in a no-win situation. To avoid response will make Trump look like a whim and will not achieve what the military wants in terms of deterrence. Resposnign could escalate the situation.
Now that the U.S. is in the Middle East quagmire and with this catch 22 there are some possible solutions that will only work in the Middle east.
So, in this no-win situation what is the third way?
In case America doesn’t realize it public opinion matters and everyone has their own point of view which must be taken into consideration even if you disagree with it. Words matter and everyone in the Middle east reads President Trump’s twitter for good or for bad. Extreme discipline will be needed to get out of the war footing regarding what is said on twitter and all other media. What tickles republican’s fancy or Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. most probably will have the opposite result in the Middle East and certainly in Iran. If the goal is to deescalate, it would be great if someone would make it clear to the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania avenue that words do matter.
Actions must be proportional. To respond to disproportionally (as Trump and his choir have suggested) will not be a move to end Middle East wars, quite the contrary. For sure attacking cultural or other symbols of the Islamic Revolution in Iran would be a terrible mistake and of course a war crime that will land any of those ordering it or carrying it out in jail if they land in any country that is a signatory to the Rome Statute.
In the ongoing battles between Hamas and Israel, both sides seem to have a target bank of desolate locations where they can attack but where there are no or very few casualties. A strong response in numbers without human cost satisfies critics while not rising to the level of forcing the other side to deepen the cycle of violence.
But perhaps the most important way of avoiding the vicious cycle of violence and war is to work on two parallel levels. The old carrot and stick example apply in this context big time.
Ask any military strategist and you will find that ceasefire never succeed if they are not accompanied by a robust political process.
In the context of Iran, the process is crystal clear and doable. The Iran Nuclear deal approved by the major world powers was a good compromise that put off any possible Iranian ambitions while gradually reducing the sanctions. President Trump’s unilaterally abrogation of this deal might have made his right-wing republicans and Israeli friends happy but it accomplished nothing. Look at how Israel abandoned the US when the war drums starting beating as the Israeli prime minister ordered all his ministers to stay quiet after the assassination of Soleimani.
The United States has many cards to play and many players in the region that can help it deescalate but that requires a revisit to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action which delayed for 15 years all threatening Iranian nuclear activities. The UN agency that supervised that deal states Iranian commitment to it, why not work on revising or renegotiating it within boundaries and with a clear commitment to lifting the crippling sanctions that accompanied it.
The Middle East need not be the battleground for any more wars or violence. To be able to end wars rather than starting wars, Washington must listen to the advice of its allies, refrain from further provoking Iranians through the statements and unhelpful tweets of the U.S. President and at the same time provide a clear political road map that can include a return to the internationally accepted Iran deal and gradual removal of the sanctions that have been placed on the Islamic Republic of Iran.
All parties in the region, as well as the United States, don’t want another deadly war in the Middle East. To reach this goal, discipline and diplomacy must be used to their highest performance level immediately so that the voice of reason can be louder than the voice of guns.
Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.