Thought Leadership

Dr. Horst Walther
US vs. Iran - What does it mean for Europe?

The bilateral conflict between the USA and Iran is a highly controversial issue, where the frontlines are irrevocably deadlocked and views are deeply entrenched.

To express a different opinion and one's own view of things is obviously not something this world has been waiting for.

I shall therefore confine myself primarily to letting other voices have their say, including those of people of high standing, and perhaps add a few cautious comments. And even that will prove sufficiently controversial.

  1. 1. Latest’s events - and more looming

„The new year began with yet another senseless foreign-policy decision by US President Donald Trump.

The assassination of General Qassem Suleimani, who led the extraterritorial operations of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, was a reckless, provocative, and shortsighted move.

Suleimani no doubt had an extremely pernicious influence in the Middle East.

But he also was the leader of an armed branch of the Iranian state and enjoyed obvious personal popularity in his country, no matter how much Trump pretends otherwise.“ writes Javier Solana 2020-01-13 in Project Syndicate

While Iran’s government vowed retaliation it was followed by calls for restraint and de-escalation from across the world and from Iraq’s president:

  • In a statement, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres called for leaders to “exercise maximum restraint,” because “the world cannot afford another war in the Gulf.”
  • U.K. foreign secretary Dominic Raab said while the country has “always recognized the aggressive threat posed by the Iranian Quds Force led by Qasem Soleimani . . . we urge all parties to de-escalate.”
  • German government spokesperson Urike Demmer said, “We are at a dangerous escalation point, and what matters now is contributing with prudence and restraint to de-escalation.”
  • French president Emmanuel Macron said that Iran should refrain from provocation, and Amelie de Montchalin, France’s deputy foreign affairs minister, told a French radio station that “we are waking up in a more dangerous world. Military escalation is always dangerous.”
  • EU president Charles Michel said Iraq violence “has to stop” and also urged de-escalation.
  • China’s foreign ministry called for preserving peace, and urged “all parties involved” to “maintain calm and restraint.”
  • Russia’s foreign ministry characterized Soleimani’s killing as “fraught with consequences” and that it does not “resolve complicated problems in the Middle East.”
  • Iraq’s president Balem Salih condemned the strike but also called for restraint, saying that the country should avoid continuing its four decades of armed conflict.
  • One leader who refused to comment: Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez.
  • In an early Friday tweet, Mike Pompeo wrote that President Trump’s decision to order Soleimani’s killing was “in response to imminent threats on American lives,” and that the U.S. is committed to de-escalation.

Iranian counter strikes in retaliation for the United States' killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani followed on 2020-01-08 through a ballistic missile attack on two Iraqi bases housing U.S. forces.

As a first reaction after Iran attacks Iraq's Ayn Al Assad airbase US President Donald Trump tweeted 'All is well!':

All is well! Missiles launched from Iran at two military bases located in Iraq. Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good! We have the most powerful and well-equipped military anywhere in the world, by far! I will be making a statement tomorrow morning.”

Later the Pentagon characterized 64 servicemen as having been diagnosed with "mild traumatic brain injury."

So, was that all? Is threat of a major conflict? Is there even a WWIII Looming?

  1. 2. Why I raise my voice - my personal Iran background

First, a few words on why I feel qualified to speak about the conflict US vs. Iran, what previous exposure I have had on this specific topic and the respective region in general and where my assessment may be a little biased.

1970 being 18 years old with my freshly earned high school degree in my hands and a 10-years-old VW Bus I set out to experience the road to Kathmandu. It wasn’t love at first sight. But with time passing by it was more and more Iran which caught my attention. In the end I developed a passion for the Persian language and culture. Five more Iran trips followed with the latest in 1979, the year when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had his triumphant return.

Meanwhile from 1977 to 1982 I added oriental studies as the second regular course to my studies at the university of Hamburg taught by the famous Shahnameh expert Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh. Not surprisingly my special focus lay on Iranian language studies, resulting in a German-to-Persian dictionary based on Ferdowsi Tousi's (935-1020) medieval heroic epic Shahnameh.

So, not surprisingly I feel much sympathy for the Iranian peoples and the Persian culture, less sympathy however for a strict and to the letter Islamic rule.

Likewise, I can muster little understanding for the claims of global hegemony of the leading world powers of their time, i.e. the US today and the UK before that.

Even less appreciative I am of the assertion of the claims of those self-appointed powers of a world order by means of military force.

As in addition I am convinced that politics is everybody’s job, I will not stand aside but voice my opinion.

Before that however. Let’s listen to some more commentators’ voices.

  1. 3. The weight of history

Carl Bild writes in 2020-01-17Listening to the litany of grievances on both sides, it is difficult to avoid the impression that both the US and Iran are hostages of history.” So, it is worth having a closer look at the historical events and undercurrents which have shaped the US – Iran relationship until today.

    1. 1.1 Iran and deep history

Iran looks back to a 2500 year of imperial history starting with the classical antiquity, characterised by the Median and Achaemenid Empire (650–330 BC), the Greek conquest and Seleucid Empire (312 BCE–248 BCE), the Parthian Empire (248 BC–224 AD) and the Sasanian Empire (224–651 AD)

These ~ 1200 year of Persian classical period was followed by the Islamic conquest of Persia (633–651). In its wake the following ~ 600 years were characterised by the Persianization of the conquerors during the Umayyad era, the Abbasid period and autonomous Iranian dynasties, and Persianate states and dynasties (977–1219).

This the so called Islamic golden age abruptly ended in a major catastrophe caused by the Mongol conquest and rule (1219–1370). Within less than 40 years the Mongols killed about 90% of the total population either by direct execution of particularly males or by mass extermination and famine caused by the destruction of the qanat irrigation.

The Iranian culture was decapitated and it never fully recovered from this disaster. What followed were 100 years of foreign rule by the Ilkhanates, the cruel Timurids, the Turkmen of the black and white sheep, until finally in 1501 with the Safavids a Persian dynasty ruled again for 200 years. The country experienced its final decline under the Turkic Qajar dynasty (1796–1925)

    1. 1.2 Iran and hegemonial world powers

Lorenzo Kamel writes 2020-01-19 in Soleimani and the weight of history:

Soleimani is the product of the same historical events that have curbed popular sovereignty and democracy in the region.

He then continues …

From Tobacco Revolt to toppling the Shah

The modern history of Iran is deeply intertwined with that of Western countries, which have repeatedly intervened in Iranian internal affairs and shaped contemporary Iranian politics.

In 1890, Shah Nasir al-Din granted English Major Gerald F Talbot a 50-year monopoly over the production, sales and exports of tobacco - a widely consumed product in Iran. This triggered the Tobacco Revolt of 1891-1892: the first form of organised resistance against Western expansionism in Persia, which paved the way for the "emergence of Shi'ism as an insurrectionary movement against colonialism".

In 1921, the British backed a coup against the Iranian government under the weak Shah Ahmad of the Qajar dynasty. The coup was led by army officer Reza Khan and was meant to install a stronger ruler in Iran, sympathetic to London and able to resist the attacks of Soviet-backed forces.

The origins of the Pahlavi dynasty, which ruled Iran until the "Islamic revolution" of 1979, can be traced to the 1921 coup d'etat backed by the British authorities. After suppressing all forms of opposition and consolidating power, in 1925 Khan was crowned Shah of Iran, thus founding the Pahlavi dynasty.

In 1953, the CIA and MI6 put together a plot to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mosaddegh, who had pushed for the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian oil company. London saw this decision as a serious threat to its interests. Washington, for its part, was also interested in Iranian oil and feared that Iran's powerful communist party, Tudeh - which had some interests in common with Mosaddegh - might take power.

These events laid the key foundations for the "most popular" revolution in modern and contemporary history, generally known as the "Islamic Revolution" of 1979. In the decades and years preceding it, in fact, millions of Iranians felt the need to repel external interference and to oppose the Pahlavi regime and its attempts to erase dissent.”

Ayatollah Khomeini‘s return

Of course, history didn’t end with the arrival of Ayatollah Khomeini. While the widespread popular discontent by far wasn’t fundamental Islamic by its nature (as I had the chance to personally experience during my trip to Iran in summer 1979) Nevertheless, during the popular upheaval most groups of this very diverse movement accepted  Time magazine's Man of the Year in 1979 as a unifying symbol of resistance and change.

For many of these groups a brutal awakening followed shortly afterwards, followed by a quick death. Khomeini e.g. is known for his ordering of execution of thousands of political prisonerswar criminals and prisoners of the Iran–Iraq War. For the outside world his world view is best characterized by naming the US the "Great Satan" and the then still existing Soviet Union “the lesser evil”. Democracy for him was   the equivalent of prostitution, which he apparently didn’t like either.

Iran hostage crisis

When in October 1979, the United States granted asylum to the ousted Shah in November, a group of Iranian college students took control of the American Embassy in Tehran, holding 52 embassy staff hostage for 444 days – an event known as the Iran hostage crisis. In Iran, the takeover of that "Den of Espionage" was popular and was openly supported by Khomeini as it served to cement his regime.

Iran–Iraq War

While Khomeini called for Islamic revolutions across the Muslim world, Iraq's secular Arab nationalist Ba'athist leader Saddam Hussein, encouraged by the US, was eager to take advantage of Iran's weakened military and the perceived revolutionary chaos to occupy Iran's adjacent oil-rich province of Khuzestan.

Iraq’s full-scale invasion of Iran led to the Iran–Iraq War (1980-09 –1988-08). The incompetent Iraqi military met fierce resistance by Iranians. The Iraqi military advance soon stalled and, despite Saddam's internationally condemned use of poison gas and although enjoying the support of several gulf states. In the end ~ half a million Iranians had lost their lives.

From JPCOA to today

Iran‘s  nuclear program dates back to the 1950s and was set-up with US-help part of the Atoms for Peace program. Post-1979 most of the international nuclear cooperation with Iran was cut off. An IAEA investigation in 2003 revealed undeclared nuclear activities carried out by Iran. In 2007 however, the United States National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) stated that Iran halted an alleged active nuclear weapons program. 

In 2011 again, the IAEA reported credible evidence that Iran had been conducting experiments aimed at designing a nuclear bomb until 2003. 2018 the IAEA reiterated its 2015 report, saying it had found no credible evidence of nuclear weapons activity in Iran after 2009.

Iran's first nuclear power plant, the Bushehr I reactor, was completed with major assistance from the Russian government agency Rosatom. It opened in 2011.

Finally 20 months of "arduous" negotiations culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement between the P5 (China, France, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom)+1+EU and Iran. A final agreement was reached on 14 July 2015. All sanctions were supposed to be lifted.

On 8 May 2018 the United States officially withdrew from the agreement after Trump signed a Presidential Memorandum ordering the reinstatement of harsher sanctions.

In 2019, the IAEA certified that Iran was still abiding by the international Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of 2015, However, in July 2019 the IAEA stated that Iran had breached the agreement. Iran has since further breached the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Even during the JPCOA negotiations a more hawkish fraction within the US advocated a rather different solution. US General Wesley Clark in leaked in March 2007 on “… we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.”

Javier Solana concludes

Javier Solana’s above mentioned article concludes hinting at a probably unintended, yet possible side effect:
To the long list of US follies must be added the perverse incentives that Trump has highlighted with his latest blow against Iran, which has raised an uncomfortable question: Would the US have acted the same way toward nuclear-armed North Korea?

Iran fulfilled, to the letter, the 2015 nuclear deal signed by the main global powers – formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – and continued to fulfill it for a year after Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the pact.

And yet, while Trump held amicable meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, his administration subjected Iran to crushing economic sanctions – treatment that is unlikely to encourage the Kim regime to stake its future on denuclearization. “

1.3 How history shaped the Iranian mind

In summary throughout the ~ 2.500 year of imperial history and the subsequent ~ 40 years of Islamic republic the Iranian people found little reason to put much trust into the amicable intentions of foreign powers.

Perhaps this factor also explains why the Persians celebrate their Abul-Qâsem Ferdowsi Tusi in this way. After all, it is generally believed that the Persians were spared the fate of other once proud peoples such as the Egyptians or the Syrians, namely having to give up their own language for Arabic. By creating his epic work Shahnameh he is said to have enabled Persian to survive.

For the very history-conscious Iranians, Donald Trump stands in a line with all the conquerors who have invaded this land at the crossroads of peoples: Alexander the Great with his Macedonians, the Muslim Arabs, the ultra-cruel Mongols, all kinds of Turkic tribes, English and finally the Americans.

History taught the Iranians to trust no one but to rely on themselves.

1.4. Political frameworks - Helpful context to know about

Knowing history certainly is important. This knowledge however doesn’t automatically guarantee understanding its driving forces. Therefor in the following some major conceptual drivers are presented, which have influenced the perception of both adversaries.

1.1.4 The Sunni vs. Shia schism

The population of Iran mainly adheres to the Twelver Shiism, which is the largest branch of Shia Islam, with about 85% of all Shias, while Shia Muslims constituting 10–15% of all Muslims. Interestingly, until the Safavid ruling, starting 1501, the majority of Iran’s population was Sunni and was forcefully converted to the Shia type of Islam.

Shia Muslims maintain the belief that the Islamic prophet Muhammad designated Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor and the Imam (leader), rather than Abu Bakr, who was appointed caliph after him. The Twelver Shiites recognize 12 legitimate Imams, with the last one, the Imam Mahdi, living in hiding and only appearing on Judgment Day.

This interpretation of history resulting I different beliefs, at times led to tensions among the Muslim Umma. It has been exploited for political purposes from both sides, Sunni and Shia. Nowadays it is predominantly the Sunni side in their most radical incarnation as Wahhabism and Salafism emphasizing the historical antagonism.

  1. 1.5 Political Islam

Islam, as Henry Kissinger in his book “World Order”, brilliantly, however not unbiasedly, points out, is inherently political, as it offers prescriptions to worldly issues, usually belonging into the realm of politics.

According to Shadi Hamid, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy, U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institute, the roots of modern political Islam can be traced back to 1928, when the Islamic scholar and schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna founded the transnational Sunni Islamist organization Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It’s influence since then has been researched in-depth by Shadi Hamid “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East” and “Islamic Exceptionalism” of several interviews with Islamist leaders in Rethinking Political Islam.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was appointed as National Security Adviser by U.S. President Jimmy Carter in 1977’s, advocated the weaponizing of a re-awakening of (political) Islam. Following the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, according to Murat Yetkin it was Brzezinski’s idea of giving money, equipment and training to Islamist tribes resisting the Soviet invasion, mainly with the help of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and China.

That program eventually halted the Red Army advance and contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But this “Green Belt” policy also planted the seed for the rise of radical Islamist militancy, triggering the emergence of organizations like the Taliban, al-Qaeda and later the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The arms and training given to “partners on the ground,” later turned against the West and hit the U.S. on 9/11.

Brzezinski’s ideas were actually a “Great Game 2.0” version of the imperial era of the late 19th century, when the Russian expansion was confronted by the British Empire in Afghanistan and Ottoman-ruled Turkey. Interestingly in a similar fashion he helped weaponizing Catholicism as a political power in Poland.

Regarding Iran it is important to notice the difference: While the “Great Game 2.0” was pure applied Great Power Politics (see next chapter) instilled by the US, the Islamic revolution in Iran was a genuine response to the US request of being part of that game.

  1. 1.6 The Theory of Power politics

The Brzezinski’s game of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend – for now” applied to the century old competition of the west with Russia, is just an incarnation of Great Power Politics, like elaborated on in “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics”, by John J. Mearsheimer.

Following the concept of power politics Mearsheimer recognises no world hegemon and just one regional hegemon: The USA. According to the logic of the concept and supported by a rich collection of historical examples, he predicts that the US, determined to remain the world’s sole regional hegemon, will go to great lengths to contain China, including taking recourse to violence.

China on the other side will attempt to dominate Asia as the best survival strategy in this concept is to become a regional hegemon like the United States in the Western Hemisphere and to make sure that no other hegemon emerges elsewhere.

All other regional powers and smaller states need to choose sides in order not to get marginalized. Iran will be urged by both sides. For now it looks to be obvious for Iran which side to take as the joint navy drills with China and Russia may indicate. A situation only a “Regime Change”, much desired by the US may change.

  1. 1.7 Halford Mackinder’s world island theory

"The Geographical Pivot of History" is an article submitted by the English Geographer Sir Halford John Mackinder in 1904 to the Royal Geographical Society that advances his heartland theory.

According to Mackinder, the Earth's land surface was divisible into:

The Heartland lay at the centre of the world island, stretching from the Volga to the Yangtze and from the Himalayas to the Arctic. Mackinder's Heartland was the area then ruled by the Russian Empire and after that by the Soviet Union, minus the Kamchatka Peninsula region, which is located in the easternmost part of Russia, near the Aleutian Islands and Kurile islands.

Later, in 1919, Mackinder summarised his theory thus:

    1. Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;
    2. who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;
    3. who rules the World-Island commands the world.

(Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality, p. 150)

Any power which controlled the World-Island would control well over 50% of the world's resources. The Heartland's size and central position made it the key to controlling the World-Island.

Mackinder extended the scope of geopolitical analysis to encompass the entire globe.

One may argue that this oddly looking theory, mainly emphasizing the strategic importance of Eastern Europe, appears a bit dusted in this ultra-mobile military reality of today.

However, Mackinder’s world island theory is still present in the chief strategist minds of the world powers. Iran certainly is an important part in this game.

  1. 1.8 The clash of civilisations

In his article “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” by Samuel P. Huntington published in 1993 the esteemed journal “Foreign Affairs” the author posed the question whether conflicts between civilizations would dominate the future of world politics.

Later in his book, he gives the answer, showing not only how clashes between civilizations are the greatest threat to world peace but also how an international order based on civilizations is the best safeguard against war. Since September 11, his thesis has seemed even more prescient and acute.

While not unanimously accepted as the leading model of global relations, “The Clash of civilisations and the Remaking of World Order” is now recognised as a classic study of international relations in an increasingly uncertain world and may have influenced especially conservative political minds.

    1. 5. The present - Iran in the geo-political force field

The US vs. Iran conflict today cannot be assessed properly without regarding the geo-political context. And in fact, it never could. What has changed however since the days of Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) in 1908 is the geo-political set-up.

During these 110+ years we witnessed the declining British world empire passing the token to a new rising Super Power, the United States of America. During this already maturing American Century the US outcompeted its fiercest enemy the Soviet Union (1922–1991) until the latter’s crashing collapse.

For a few years we saw a unipolar world order, gradually transforming into a multi-polar world order. Some observers like Alfred W. McCoy in “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power”already envision a new bipolar world order with US on one side and China on the other. He even goes so far as to allow for 5 different scenarios by which the American century may prematurely end around 2026 to give way for some kind of Chinese century.

As the historical Silk Road passed through Iran as an important trading point, Iran is planned to be the centrepiece of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), sometimes called the New Silk Road.

Whatever will happen in that severely strained US-Iran relationship will strongly affect other major powers interest, China to name first. And there is the option that these powers will not silently stand by in case of disruptive events.

    1. 6. Impact on Europe

So how will Europe act in its best interest in this force field? Does it exist at all? Or is it just a phantom of wishful thinking? As discussed earlier we need to be ready to face some deeper truth: There is no Europe – at least not in the sense of a player on the global stage. 

Despite all European treaties Europe is unable to act a single political entity: “The European Union is based on the rule of law. This means that every action taken by the EU is founded on treaties that have been approved voluntarily and democratically by all EU member countries.” 

The keyword here is “countries”. The EU is just a web of treaties, a loose association of stubbornly independent nation states that jealously and at all costs want to maintain their specific foreign policy profile and serve the vanities of their - in global comparison - local chiefs.

So it is not democratically legitimated by the “European people” in one direct step but rather so by the insertion of one more level of indirection. And exactly this one additional level causes nearly all the trouble. 

The underlying principle became known as the subsidiarity principle. It could well have been understood as an opening clause for the EU to become a more state like actor. In that sense however it has rather created adverse effects.  

It rather gives the impression, and everyone emphasizing the subsidiarity principle is confirming it, that acting as a single political entity is neither intended for the EU, nor would it be tolerated.

With this set-up in mind the answer is simple. Being more or less US vassal states, when asked to seek sides, the answer is simple: follow you master or you will be severely punished.

Should however Iran join a bloc with China and Russia in terms of trade and possibly even more, the consequences, this development may have for internationally operating companies are less obvious. Just as the US, with its unilateral boycott of Iran, is forcing the world to do without a previously important trading partner, so the trade conflict in this much bigger case may lead to a division of the world into two spheres.

Indeed, we are likely to experience a division of the world into spheres of interest - just as we did during the Cold War. But this time it is by no means certain who will be the winner. The losers, on the other hand, can already been determined. It will be the smaller countries like the European dwarfs that have not been geared to one of the major economic blocs.

In case of an outright war between the two countries Iran would face a devastation like during the Mongol conquest with Europe, like it was with the other middle eastern conflicts, bearing the burden of coping with a massive inflow of desperate refugees.

    1. 7. The future – Outlook & a final word

The US vs. Iran conflict is far from being over. Of course, it cannot be won by Iran.

But likewise, it cannot be easily won by the overstretched, declining world power, the US.

Although the Iranian Government is under severe political strain as major parts of the population are fed-up ad rise against them again and again, the extra-juridical killing of Qassem Soleimani rather had a counterproductive effect in terms of "Regime Change": for a while Iranian society may have closed ranks against a common enemy. And there are reputable voices claiming that Qassem Soleimani may be more detrimental to the US activities in the middle east while dead than he was during his life time.

Monday, 2020-01-27 the Taliban claimed to have downed a Bombardier/Northrop Grumman E-11A surveillance and communications plane.  There are rumours that the downed plane was the mobile CIA command for Michael D’ Andrea, also known as Ayatollah Mike, who was responsible for the assassination of Iran’s top commander Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani. The Veterans Today fake news website reports that he was apparently among the officers on board the plane, quoting Russian intelligence sources.

That news might be just fake, if however, there is any model for possible Iranian retaliatory strikes at all, it is such pinpricks that can hardly run without Iranian (and possibly Russian) support in the background, but which cannot be blamed directly on Iran. Contrary to all speculation and announcements by high-ranking military officials, however, it can be assumed that both sides will try to avoid an open war.

In the long term, Iran will be drawn into the great power rivalry between the USA and China, whereby completely different scenarios must be considered. But for now, let’s stick with the ongoing conflict.

What imperatives for a European future can be derived from this scenario?

Well, as boldly stated above, a European Union does not yet exist. It has yet to be founded. Only then will Europe have the global position to raise its own voice in order to be heard by the major players.

Once we are no longer trapped in US vassalage, we can stop supporting or even actively fighting wars for American hegemony in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Eventually we may come up with our own, genuinely European view at the world and perhaps a distinctly different opinion on this epic struggle.