Seven days that shook the world

Drama: Frenzied diplomacy and preparations for a wider war marked the first week of 2020.

Is the Iran crisis over? New evidence has emerged showing that in the days immediately before and after the assassination of General Soleimani, the world teetered on the brink of war.

So, how close did we come to war?

2020 began with a full-blown international crisis. We watched the US and Iran step towards the edge. Threats, accusations and ultimatums. Assassinations, angry protests and retaliation. And then? Nothing.

History is full of examples of events spiralling out of control. July 1914 and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. October 1962 and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

January 2020? Maybe not, now Trump is claiming victory and Iran is distracted by anti-government protests after accidentally shooting down a passenger plane. But a closer look at the last few days gives reason for concern as well as hope.

A political crisis often starts when something goes wrong. A mistake or a misjudgement. Last year, Trump threatened to attack Iran but never did. Iran smelled weakness and saw opportunity. They attacked US bases in Iraq, but were careful not to kill Americans. They want the US out of Iraq, but do not want a war they fear they will lose.

But on 27 December, something went wrong. A rocket strike killed an American. The US hit back, killing 25 Iranian-backed militia. Tensions began to mount.

On New Year’s Eve, pro-Iranian protesters stormed the US embassy in Baghdad. Fearing the worst, Trump asked his advisers for a list of targets to send Iran a message they couldn’t ignore.

General Soleimani was at the top of that list. On Trump’s order, the general was killed by a drone strike in Baghdad. If Iran didn’t step down, Trump warned, the US would hit more targets on the list.

What happened next would be incredibly important.

People took to the streets across Iran, calling for revenge. And on Tuesday, Iran fired missiles at US bases in Iraq. We held our breath, expecting the worst.

But behind the scenes, countries worked flat out to avoid war. French President Macron called on both sides to de-escalate. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s biggest rival in the region, sought reassurance that the US wasn’t going to drag them into war.

And Switzerland passed messages between the two countries. Before the attack, Iran sent the US a warning via Switzerland. And afterwards, another important message: That’s it. No further attacks.

The messages took two minutes from Tehran to Washington. They may have saved the world from war.

But is the crisis over?

Crisis? What crisis?

War was never likely, say some, and the crisis has passed. Trump’s foreign policy is broadly isolationist and Iran knows that it could never win a war against the world’s only superpower. The assassination of General Soleimani was a calculated and targeted strike and a victory for President Trump, removing a dangerous military threat without a wider conflict.

Others say we haven’t seen the last of this crisis. The events of the last couple of weeks show how dangerous the situation is: a misdirected missile, or a misinterpreted message could tip us over the edge. Worse, Iran may not be the US, but it has huge influence and power in the region. The crisis has made the Middle East more dangerous and we should expect Iran to strike back in the coming months.

You Decide

  1. Do people have more in common than their governments believe?
  2. Is isolationism the only ethical foreign policy?

Activities

  1. There is so much more to Iran than war. It is a huge, complex and ancient civilisation. Research something interesting about Iran and design a poster on the topic.
  2. The world has become more dangerous since the end of the Cold War. Discuss in small groups and decide whether you agree.

Some People Say...

“Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Theodore Roosevelt (1858 -1919), 26th president of the US

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
On 7 January, Iran launched 12 to 15 missiles at two US military bases in Iraq. No casualties were reported and Trump tweeted: “All is well!”, claiming that Iran had backed down. Hours later, a Ukrainian passenger flight was mistaken for a “hostile target” and shot down after take-off from Tehran. All 176 passengers were killed, including 130 Iranians. An attempt to cover-up the accident has led to widespread anti-government protests across Iran. The situation remains volatile and unpredictable.
What do we not know?
If the missile strikes were a symbolic act of retaliation for the killing of General Soleimani. The US claims that Soleimani was planning specific attacks against US targets, including embassies, in the Middle East. However, they have not given any more details so we don’t know the seriousness of the threat. Experts believe that Iran will be planning further attacks, but in ways that will avoid a major military confrontation. But we do not know when this will happen, or how the crisis will return.

Word Watch

Iran
The second-largest country in the Middle East, Iran has one of the world’s oldest civilisations and has a huge influence in the region, especially in Iraq and Syria.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand
The assassination of the nephew of the Emperor of Austria in 1914 sparked a series of events that led to the outbreak of World War One.
Cuban Missile Crisis
An attempt in 1962 by Russia to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, within range of the US mainland, led to the most dangerous confrontation of the Cold War.
Iraq
Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iran has dominated Iraq through pro-Iranian political parties and militia. Whilst the US has pulled out of the Middle East, there are still 5,000 troops left in Iraq.
Fearing the worst
The US does not want a re-run of the 1979 crisis when protesters stormed the US embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage.
General Soleimani
Considered the second-most powerful man in Iran, Soleimani led military operations against the US and its allies in the Middle East.
Switzerland
Historically, this small European country has stayed neutral in international conflicts and played an important role in peace talks.
Isolationist
The policy of staying out of international affairs and not intervening in conflicts.

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