After the first dozen days of the New Year, events in the Middle East appeared to be deteriorating daily in a procession of grim setbacks. Can this be reversed in the second dozen days of a new decade?
January 3 — Barely 48 hours after the dawn of 2020, the United States launched an air assault that killed Iran’s highest-ranking military leader, General Qassem Suleimani and like-minded colleagues as they were approaching Iraq’s international airport. The General had led a countless number of assaults against neighboring Mideast states in the 21st century.
January 7 — Iran responded by bombing several American bases in Iraq, but initial reports seemed to indicate that there were no significant casualties or property losses. (Several days later, a few Americans at the temporary bases were evacuated for checkups related to after-bombing ailments).
In a seemingly unrelated incident at the time, a Ukrainian airliner crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran international airport. None of the 176 aboard survived, including nine Ukrainian crew members. Kaveh Madani of Yale University did extensive research on passengers killed in the crash, many dual citizens of Iran and Western countries who were returning home from Tehran after holiday visits to relatives or friends in Iran. Among them: three university professors and instructors, six doctors and medical students, three dentists, 29 Ph.D. students, and 25 master’s degree students and graduates.
January 8 — In a White House speech to the nation and the world, President Trump acknowledged the gravity of the crisis but noted that Tehran’s latest strike had been relatively harmless. As the President put it: “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a good thing for the world.”
January 10 — After several days of denial, Iranian authorities admitted that its military had shot down the Ukrainian airliner in “a disastrous mistake.” Its air defenses, a spokesman said, fired at the airliner in error while on alert against expected American retaliatory airstrikes following the Iranian airstrikes against U.S. targets in Iraq.
In his White House address two days earlier, President Trump had cited the mutual fears of both Iran and the U.S. of activities in the region of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The terrorist group had at its peak in 2017-18, conquered a third of Iraq and Syria. It killed thousands of people in the two countries before being defeated by a coalition of Kurdish and U.S. forces in Syria in 2019.
As the President put it: “Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters have been killed during my administration. ISIS is a natural enemy of Iran. The destruction of ISIS is good for Iran, and we should work together on this and other priorities.
“Finally, to the people and leaders of Iran: We want you to have a future, and a great future —-one that you deserve, one of prosperity at home, and harmony with the world. The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.”
Middle East scholar and my good friend Gary Sick of Columbia University noted in a January 13 essay: “President Trump has said repeatedly that he wants to reduce the American military presence in the Middle East. Iran has routinely harassed U.S. forces in the region.
“There are several possible avenues in which the dangers of military escalation could be reduced, to everyone’s benefit. Perhaps starting with a hotline and/or an agreement on avoiding incidents at sea, as was done with the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. On a more ambitious note, the United States and the Soviet Union also negotiated an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) that offered a wide-ranging and effective forum for discussion of issues of mutual concern. The Middle East needs such a forum.”
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More