Iran’s big chance to choose peace over war
Tensions between the US and Iran have reached new heights. The Iranian regime on Wednesday launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two Iraqi military bases that house US troops in retaliation for last week’s American attack in Baghdad that killed Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.
The regime is also engaging in heightened rhetoric, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei saying: “I said during a speech at the time (of Barack Obama’s presidency) that the time for hit-and-run is over. If you hit, you get hit back.” Iran's minister of telecommunications Mohammed-Javad Azari Jahromi also took to Twitter following the US missile attack in Iraq, writing: “Get the hell out of our region.”
Iran must de-escalate tensions and refrain from turning the region into a battlefield. Tehran’s leaders can take several steps to prevent the heightened tensions from spiraling further. First of all, it must take the diplomatic route and stop intervening in the internal affairs of other nations and using foreign territories as a proxy battleground to advance its geopolitical and revolutionary ambitions.
Across the region, it has become apparent that millions of people are turning against Tehran’s meddling in their country’s internal affairs. Lebanon and Iraq, in particular, have seen people taking to the streets, openly rallying against the strategy Soleimani so carefully cultivated for decades. They seek to be free, once and for all, from Iranian-generated agitation. These protests, combined with the Iranian people also speaking out against their regime’s foreign adventurism, offered hope that Tehran might finally change its approach and pull back from spreading instability.
Amid the fear and animosity that clouds the political picture in the Middle East, Iran must take actions to de-escalate tensions and recognize the need to start dismantling their network of violence across the region.
The sad truth is that Iran has driven much of the increase in tensions in the Middle East over the past year. The raid on shipping off the UAE’s port of Fujairah, the drone and missile attack on Saudi Aramco facilities and the impounding of British tanker Stena Impero were all unprovoked aggressions that saw Iran further alienate itself from the international community.
The sad truth is that Iran has driven much of the increase in tensions in the Middle East over the past year
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Tehran’s clerical establishment ought to change its political calculations when it comes to its ties to its militias and proxies. This means it must refrain from ordering these groups to inflict harm on nations and governments that the Iranian leaders view as rivals.
The death of Soleimani is undoubtedly a seismic moment in our region and a considerable escalation. This is a man who almost single-handedly built up and oversaw Iran’s vast network of violent, disruptive proxies. His work has been the driving force behind instability in the Middle East. We now stand at a moment where this instability and tension risk escalating further — something both the region and the world simply cannot afford.
We should be under no illusions and there must be no false revisions about the devastating and destructive impact of this man’s actions. Soleimani bears responsibility for the elevation and influence of some of the region’s most destructive elements.
The likes of Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis and militias in Syria and Iraq, which have brought death and misery to millions, owe their subversive successes to him above all others. In Yemen, Soleimani provided immediate backing for the illegal overthrow of the legitimate government by a violent Houthi force, which was directly backed, armed and resourced by Tehran. Their actions plunged the country into devastating chaos. In Lebanon, his actions elevated Hezbollah to a position where they have been able to perpetuate a cycle of political instability that has seen the ordinary population lose out.
Tehran has two paths to choose from: To seek to further this alienation through continued violence or take the opportunity for de-escalation via diplomacy. The latter would require cool heads on both sides in order to see this moment not as an opportunity for violence, but a chance to take the heat out of long-running tensions. It would be foolish to view the death of Soleimani as triggering these pressures — the reality is it is just the latest chapter in tensions that have existed for many years.
Media and political reaction in recent days has seen intense speculation about how the Islamic Republic will continue to seek revenge. But Iran must immediately de-escalate tensions. The Iranian regime should be urged to not continue going down its violent and militaristic route and instead view this as an unlikely opportunity to work toward dialing down hostility, reducing simmering tensions and starting down the path of longer-term peace and prosperity. Iran’s overriding priority must be seeking peace instead of war.
- Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh