The threat of a major escalation in Iran-US tensions appears to be rising following the death of top Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in a US air strike in Iraq.
The 62-year-old commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards was widely regarded as the second-most important person in Iran, reporting directly to the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The Pentagon has accused Soleimani and his elite unit of being terrorists, and claims the general was “developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members” in the region, the BBC reports. The killing has fuelled fears of a possible “World War 3”, a phrase now trending on Twitter. So are those fears justified?
Tensions have been growing between the US and Iran since 2018, when Washington announced it was withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal. An independent US report warned that the stage had been set for an all-out war – with President Trump’s decision to surround himself with hardliners in his administration increasing the risk.
As The Independent noted at the time, Israel and Saudi Arabia – the two states that successfully lobbied Trump to sabotage the nuclear agreement between Tehran and international powers – “have long urged Washington to take military action against Iran”. And the US leader’s inclusion of Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton in his cabinet appeared to suggest he was heading in that direction.
Those fears have been stoked by the killing this week of Soleimani in a drone strike on Baghdad International Airport. President Donald Trump, who ordered the attack, tweeted an image of the US flag shortly after the news broke.
The BBC reports that as commander of elite special forces, Soleimani is believed to have “orchestrated covert operations, involving a web of proxy militias, across the region”. Iranian officials have warned that his killing amounts to an act of war that will be met with “harsh retaliation”. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the attack an “act of international terrorism”, while former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezaei said that Iran would take “vigorous revenge on America”.
And in a statement posted on the Iranian government website, President Hasan Rouhani said: “Iran and the other free nations of the region will take revenge for this gruesome crime from criminal America.”
Threat of Russia to Europe
Rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine reached boiling point in October 2018, when Ukraine’s then-president Petro Poroshenko voiced his concerns about a possible “full-scale war” with Russia following the seizure of three of Ukraine’s naval ships in the Azov Sea.
The Guardian reports that after opening a bridge across the Kerch Strait, Russia has gradually brought the entire area under its control, causing “severe economic damage” to Ukrainian trading ports.
This domination, combined with Russia’s previous advances in eastern Ukraine, have prompted calls for the West to respond. “If it chooses to let this go, Putin will be emboldened to push his aggressions not just in Ukraine but along his entire European border and beyond,” says Bloomberg.
The head of the British Army, General Mark Carleton-Smith, told The Telegraph: “Russia today indisputably represents a far greater threat to our national security than Islamic extremist threats such as al-Qa’eda and Isis.
“Russia has embarked on a systematic effort to explore and exploit Western vulnerabilities, particularly in some of the non-traditional areas of cyber, space, undersea warfare.” Tensions between the US and Russia have also grown over fears in Moscow that the US might deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe.
The US has said there are no immediate plans to do so, and dismissed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s warnings as disingenuous propaganda. However, the US decision to quit the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty over an alleged Russian violation – which Moscow denies – “has freed [the US] to start developing and deploying such missiles”, says The Guardian.
Putin has said Russia does not want a new arms race, but has also dialled up his military rhetoric. In February 2019, he used a state of the nation address to threaten to develop new long-range weapons to target Western capitals and cut nuclear strike times.
The problem, says Bloomberg’s Tobin Harshaw, is that Putin “is an expansionist, with dreams of restoring not so much the Soviet Union but rather the Eurasian empire the czars strove for but never quite accomplished”.
In his pursuit of that ambition, “nuclear saber-rattling has become key to the Kremlin’s projection of power both at home and abroad, and could be an attempt to bring Washington to the negotiating table”, reports The Washington Post.
Some analysts have seen Putin’s approach as “a tactic to try to re-engage the US in talks about the strategic balance between the two powers, which Moscow has long pushed for, with mixed results”, adds Reuters.
In April last year, former comedian and actor Volodymyr Zelensky became president of Ukraine on a populist platform, with his “thumping victory” over then-president Poroshenko indicating a “strong, untapped desire to end the Russophobia that has been so prominent the last five years”, according to The National Interest.
“During the campaign, Zelensky outflanked Poroshenko by promising to do anything to achieve peace, including direct negotiations with Putin,” the news agency adds. The international community got a glimpse of this new approach in June, when Zelensky made an “emotional” plea to Putin to free 24 sailors captured near Crimea.
“I want to appeal to the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin,” Zelensky told journalists during a briefing. “We all have children. Return children to their parents.”
South China Sea
Tensions are also rising in the South China Sea between the US and China. Beijing views the expanse off the coast of East Asia as sovereign territory, while Washington regards “China’s militarisation of the area as a transparent rewriting of the international rules”, says US magazine The National Interest.
“Neither side is backing down – nor does either country seem interested in a compromise,” the magazine adds. During an interview in November, Vice President Mike Pence was asked about China’s failure to meet US demands over unfair trade practices, political interference and military manoeuvres in the region. Pence’s response: “Then so be it… We are here to stay.”
Confrontation in the region is all but “inevitable”, says Maochun Yu, a history professor at the US Naval Academy, in Maryland. Beijing is trying to push out its borders and expand control of peripheral waters. “China’s geopolitical and geostrategic priority is to revise or change the existing international order that has been based upon a complex system of rules, laws and customs that govern various global commons including the South China Sea,” he told Foreign Policy. “Revisionism brings unavoidable confrontation.”
UK-Iran tanker wars
The UK had a diplomatic run-in with Iran of its own, after Tehran attempted to prove its military might in the Strait of Hormuz, says The Independent. Iran’s seizure of the Stena Impero in the Gulf last summer came weeks after Britain helped seize oil tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar. The UK government claimed the Iranian vessel was transporting oil to Syria, in violation of EU sanctions. Then-foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt described Iran’s retaliatory seizure as an illegal move, deeming it “utterly unacceptable”.
Hunt insisted that the UK’s motives were in no way comparable to those of Iran, but Tehran appeared to disagree. In footage released by the Iranian government in July, armed troops wearing ski masks are seen rappelling onto the British tanker’s deck from a helicopter hovering overhead. Sky News described the manoeuvre as a “carbon copy” of that in the Royal Navy operation in Gibraltar, and noted that Iranians would “like the symmetry of the two operations”.
The broadcaster added that Iran appeared to be sending two clear messages to the UK: “we want our tanker back” and “look at what we can do in the Persian Gulf. Do you want more?”
Former first sea lord Admiral Lord West insisted that UK politicians should take those implicit warnings from Tehran seriously.
“This crisis has developed as the eyes of our political establishment have been focused on the election of a new prime minister,” West wrote in an article for The Observer in July. “There are very real risks of a miscalculation or foolhardy action leading to war,” he added.
In July, the UK government’s emergency security committee expressed a “desire to de-escalate” the stand-off. By September, the Stena Impero tanker was released and made its way to Dubai – an indication that even the most serious diplomatic incidents can be resolved without conflict.