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Is War Next for 2020?

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Is War Next for 2020?

By Charu Sudan Kasturi


The drumbeat of war is growing louder — from Asia to the Mediterranean to the U.S.’ rising tensions with Iran.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi

  • Iran is once again in the crosshairs of President Trump; India and China are at each other’s throats; and the Mediterranean is tense.
  • If any of these hot spots explode, the U.S. will get sucked into a conflict. Is that what Trump wants?

Here we go again. A news report last Sunday quoted intelligence reports to suggest that Iran is plotting an assassination attempt on Lana Marks, the U.S. ambassador to South Africa. By Monday night, President Donald Trump was ready with a trademark Twitter threat.

“Any attack by Iran, in any form, against the United States will be met with an attack on Iran that will be 1,000 times greater in magnitude!” he thundered. The supporting cast echoed him. House Armed Services Committee member Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said that a response to any Iranian attack on an American ought to be “immediate, overwhelming and disproportionate.” National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien used the language of bigots to proclaim: “The message to the mullahs is don’t make that mistake.”

If you’re not hearing the growing drumbeat of war, it’s time to get your ears checked. And Trump isn’t entirely responsible. Nine months into the worst pandemic the world has seen in 90 years, deep in a recession that shows no signs of ebbing, we are witnessing multiple hot spots on the simmer simultaneously. And with traditional alliances frayed and friendships turned sour — here, Trump is to blame — determining which might explode first and when is harder than predicting what the president might tweet next.

If any of these wrestling matches stray too far from the rules and descend into a free-for-all, the U.S. will get sucked in … it can’t afford to not defend its strategic interests in those parts of the world.

Take your pick. India and China, nuclear powers with two of the world’s largest militaries, are locked in a monthslong standoff in the Himalayas, with no evidence that tensions are easing. The U.S. and China are playing top gun in the skies above the Taiwan Strait, their fighter jets needling one another. Turkey, Greece and Cyprus are issuing threats and counterthreats as they scramble to gain a first-mover advantage over gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean, with Washington and Moscow trying to ward off each other’s influence in that region. And that’s without getting to the existing wars that America is already struggling to extract itself from, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

If any of these wrestling matches stray too far from the rules and descend into a free-for-all, the U.S. will be sucked in — not necessarily because it wants to, but because it can’t afford to not defend its strategic interests in those parts of the world.

Of course, there’s a faction within the global foreign policy community that’s worried Trump might actually provoke a military conflict to demonstrate a muscular response while rallying the nation around the flag at a moment of national crisis. At the moment, that’s conspiratorial — though no more so than Trump himself, who in November 2011 alleged that Barack Obama might go to war with Iran to secure his reelection.

But if you keep stoking a fire when you need to control it, it can burn everyone — including you. And the Trump administration is actively pouring gasoline onto the Iran fire. Starting this weekend, the U.S. is unilaterally reimposing United Nations sanctions against Iran. If that sounds like an oxymoron, it’s because it is.

These are sanctions — in addition to American economic strictures against Iran — that were in place before the nuclear deal with Tehran, at which point they were lifted. The Trump administration has failed to convince anyone other than the Dominican Republic at the U.N. Security Council that the global body needs to bring the sanctions back. So it’s testing the global community — and international law — by enforcing them on its own.

This was always in the cards close to the election. Iran is no saint, and is entirely capable of provocations of its own. Indeed, it has been accused of targeting foreign diplomats in third countries in the past. In 2012, a bomb attached to an Israeli diplomat’s car in New Delhi exploded, wounding an embassy staff member. Israel blamed Iran for the attack — Tehran unsurprisingly denied it. So it’s not impossible that Iran might have its eyes on an American diplomatic target in South Africa.

Politically, it doesn’t help Iran to create conditions that could assist Trump in the November election, at a time when he is trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Trump’s return to power would end all hopes of reviving the nuclear deal. But if Iran believes that the U.S. is bent on escalating tensions in the weeks leading up to the election, it might feel compelled to raise the costs for Trump.

That’s a dangerous cocktail of geopolitical pressures. A war is the last thing 2020 needs. But unless he’s careful, Trump might end up fulfilling his own prophecy from 2011 of a preelection conflict with Iran.

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