The true cost of military conflict with Iran will be political

This editorial first appeared in the Toronto Star on Sunday, January 12, 2020. 

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 changed this week. Crowds of dissidents protesting Rouhani’s government have been replaced by crowds protesting the United States. President Obama’s nuclear deal is now dead, bolstering hardliners’ claims that any attempt at rapprochement is futile.

And the regime now has a martyr. What many Western commentators overlook about Soleimani is his role as an apolitical figure. Even among moderate Iranians, he was respected for his military achievements and tendency to stay out of domestic politics.

On Feb. 21 — little over a month away — Iranians will vote in a 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. Instead, the killing of Soleimani has rallied the country against a common enemy, in the process undoing the headway made not only by Western governments but also those inside Iran who have fought relentlessly for their vision of a different way forward for their country.

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.

This time, however, Rouhani will have a much easier time redirecting criticism of his regime towards Western nations, instead. For reformers across the Middle East, as well as those of us who would like to see the conclusion of never-ending conflict in the region, that can only be bad news.

So, what does this mean for Canada? We have approximately 800 soldiers spread across the region, including Maj.-Gen. Jennie Carignan, who leads the NATO mission in Iraq. Those figures, combined with the tragic deaths of the 63 Canadians aboard flight PS752, remind us just how much our country has at stake in the region.

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.

Jaime Watt is executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist. He is a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @jaimewatt