US-Iran Confrontation Panel
On Thursday, January 16, Webster University Geneva’s International Relations Department and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Initiative organized a panel of experts to share their insights and perspectives on the implications of the recent US-Iranian tensions following the assassination of senior Iranian military commander, General Qassem Soleimani. The panelists included Dr. Daniel Warner and Professor Bijan Djalili who for many years were at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies (IUHEID) and Dr. Francis Piccand from the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs who is also a lecturer in foreign Policy at Webster Geneva. The moderator was Dr. Jubin Goodarzi from Webster’s International Relations Department.
In his opening remarks, Jubin Goodarzi explained that the US and Iran have been waging a shadow war against each other for the past four decades, but direct actions such as the assassination of Soleimani have been rare. He argued while many people within Iran are dissatisfied with the government, Soleimani had the respect and admiration of many Iranians across the political spectrum in view of his service to the country, particularly the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq and Syria from 2014 onward. Goodarzi pointed out that a “duel” between Soleimani and Trump should not have come as a total surprise. Many considered Soleimani, the “shadow commander” the most powerful man in the Middle East. A showdown with the president of the United States, the most powerful political leader in the world may have been inevitable due to the longstanding US-Iranian animosity. He surmised that the killing of Soleimani would usher in a new phase with Tehran intensifying efforts to drive the US out of Iraq and the Middle East.
Daniel Warner discussed the current U.S. administration's motivations for the killing of Soleimani. He alluded to the fictitious political film "Wag the Dog", in which the president's team intentionally distracts the public at home from a scandal involving the White House by waging a fake foreign war to rally domestic support and stir up patriotic feelings, as an analogy for how the Trump Administration can benefit in the short-term from a confrontation with Iran by pulling media attention away from the pending impeachment trial. He added that such a maneuver might also undermine and weaken the position of the current Democratic nominees, who may be perceived as weak and indecisive in foreign and military affairs. Also, by being unpredictable, and even by casting aside the accepted norm of proportionality in war, Trump’s foreign foes, including Iran, may tread far more carefully and be cautious for fear of provoking a disproportionate use of force against them. As are as Daniel Warner was concerned, it all comes down to re-election and maintaining power.
Bijan Djaili provided a detailed chronology of events prior to and during the current crisis. He also analyzed the different aspects of the situation in terms of the domestic situation in Iran, the country’s regional policies and its foreign relations with the major powers. He cited the grave situation within the country due to mismanagement and corruption that has been compounded by crippling US sanctions. Djalili also shed light on the unrest in recent months in Lebanon and Iraq which are proving to be a major challenge to the authorities in both countries who have the backing of Tehran. He stated that Iran is facing a difficult situation in view of the loss of Soleimani, the accidental downing of the Ukrainian airliner, the unravelling of the nuclear agreement, and the continuation and intensification of US sanctions on the country. The prospects for the future are unclear, but quite troubling.
Francis Piccand believed that in the short-term, the situation would remain precarious and unstable, at least throughout 2020. According to him, Iran may be at a crossroads in view of the dire and deteriorating economic situation and recurrent street protests within the country. This has contributed to the complexity of the overall equation at a critical time when there is the possibility of military confrontation with the US, and the country is facing the risk of greater isolation on the international stage. Piccand thought that both sides may take some risks, but without knowing the red lines of the other party, possibly and unwittingly leading to a cycle confrontation, retaliation and escalation. He then detailed some aspects of official Swiss policy as an impartial intermediary between the US and Iran, including the challenges Switzerland faces in transmitting messages between the two, and representing U.S. interests in Iran over the past 40 years.
Afterwards, there were a number of questions and comments from the audience, leading to a rich and stimulating discussion. Among the issues raised were the role of outside actors such as Russia and Israel, the possible actions of Hezbollah in the post-Soleimani period, the prospects for the resurgence of ISIS in view of recent US-Iran tensions in Iraq, and the role third party mediation to defuse the US-Iran crisis.