The true cost of military conflict with Iran will be political

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on January 12, 2019.

Over the past week, the world has watched, slack-jawed, as Western relations with Iran have slid precipitously from uneasy détente to open military engagement. Canadians, in particular, were stunned by the horrific deaths of our compatriots, shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile.

As the world now knows, on Jan. 3, a U.S. airstrike killed Qassem Soleimani, the country’s most important military leader and the puppet master of Iran’s network of military operations, terror and covert insurgency. Then Iranian forces retaliated with attacks on US Air Force bases in Iraq, seemingly targeted to ensure maximum show of force while avoiding American casualties.

In his response, President Trump signalled a de-escalation of tensions, announcing new sanctions rather than retaliation in kind. A collective sigh of relief was shared by many who feared more military conflict.

But in political terms, the past week has set the region back significantly, shattering the delicate progress which has been hard-won and fiercely guarded.

Last week, the Iraqi parliament voted to expel foreign troops from the country. While the vote was non-binding, it signalled a shift in attitude toward the international coalition which has, for over a decade, worked alongside the Iraqis.

Over the past year, the Iranian regime has faced significant challenges to its authority — from both external adversaries and internal dissidents. The reintroduction of American sanctions in 2018 increased economic pressure, threatening the stability of President Hassan Rouhani’s government. In November, thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest an increase in gas prices. Many observers spoke of an Arab Spring-like shift in political power. Each of these developments served as a small but significant victory for reformist parties and political moderates.

That all seemed to be under threat this week. Crowds came out in mass numbers to mourn Soleimani, signalling what seemed to be a resurgence in unity among Iranians. Then, just days later, scores of dissidents came out in even greater throngs to protest Rouhani’s government, in light of his admission that Iran had shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752.

So, the regime’s campaign to make a martyr of Soleimani has been undermined by its own mistakes.

On Feb. 21 — little over a month away — Iranians will vote in their parliamentary election. History tells us the election will be far from perfect, but just months ago, it was predicted that the outcome would be at least a symbolic step toward a more moderate Iran.

The killing of Soleimani could provide a symbol for the regime’s malcontent, to be sure. But moderates and reformers have a rallying point of their own in the senseless killing of 176 passengers by the Iranian military. What’s more, in its violent response to widespread protests this week, including reported use of live ammunition, the Rouhani regime has shown its true nature.

Over the coming days, in lieu of military engagement, the U.S. will unleash the full extent of economic and political pressure against Rouhani’s government. If Trump can successfully convince America’s allies to abandon the Iran nuclear agreement altogether, the return of sanctions will hit the country hard.

The question this time, however, is whether Rouhani will again be able to redirect criticism of his regime towards Western nations, instead. Given all that’s happened in the past week, it seems highly unlikely.

As the prime minister said on Thursday, Canadians have questions and they deserve answers, accountability and above all — justice.

Our armed forces — and those of our allies — now find themselves in a quagmire: attempting to safely extricate some troops from Iraq, without surrendering the ground — strategic, diplomatic and ideological — which has been gained thus far.

For now, all we can do is support our military and give them our undying gratitude.

They, more than anyone, realize the true cost of all that has transpired.