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Don’t expect “a shooting war” despite harsh words by President Donald Trump and Iranian leaders in the aftermath of the airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a University of New Mexico professor who was once a former CIA intelligence officer said Wednesday.
“I don’t think the U.S. government wants war,” Emile Nakhleh, director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at UNM and a former CIA officer, told the Journal. “The Iranian leadership doesn’t want a military confrontation.”
Words by the president and the Iranian government after a missile attack by Iran against bases housing U.S. troops that resulted in no casualties seem to indicate both nations are willing to de-escalate the crisis.
“The Iranian government isn’t suicidal,” said Alex Vatanka, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. “They know what a confrontation would do. They know it could result in a regime change.”
Vatanka, who spoke to the Albuquerque International Association last year, said the manner of the Iranian missile attack seemed to give Trump “an off-ramp” in which the U.S. didn’t need to respond.
Despite the strained relations and tensions between the two countries that have existed since the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, Vatanka believes the Iranians were caught off guard by the strike against Soleimani and needed to respond.
“They were worried about pubic mood,” he said. “They had to show resolve, that revenge was forthcoming.”
But that doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences now that the two countries appear to be pulling back from the brink of war, Nakhleh said. He said the security threat against U.S. diplomats and military personnel is at its highest level in years.
“There was a cooling of the relationship between Iraq and Iran,” he said. “There have been protests in the streets. People were beginning to speak out against Iranian influence in Iraq for the first time since the invasion of Iraq. … Now, Iranian influence in Iraq is ascending. The Iraqi parliament recently voted to have U.S. troops leave Iraq … and they will eventually leave.”
Vatanka agreed “pro-Iranian forces appear to be emboldened,” but said he felt sentiments against Iranian influence remained in Iraq.
Nakhleh said the killing of Soleimani also appeared to unite Iran.
“There was a split between the mainstream led by the president and the foreign minister and the hard-liners and the Republican Guard,” Nakhleh said. “Now that is gone … now they are speaking with one voice.”
But Vatanka believes the divisions may resurface, saying Soleimani had support of a minority in Iran. He said the failure of both the Iraqi and Iranian governments to deliver basic goods and services may send people back out to the streets in both countries.
Nakhleh said the crisis has opened the door for an increase in the influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Middle East.
“The Middle East is now the playground of Putin and Russia,” he said.
He also said it could also lead to the reemergence of Islamic State and al-Qaida. He pointed to last Sunday’s attack in Kenya by al-Shabaab, which is allied with both groups, that killed three Americans, including a serviceman.
If there is a positive development, Vatanka said, it is Trump signaling Wednesday a willingness to go back to the negotiating table with Iran over its development of nuclear weapons. Nakhleh said his abandonment of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran – known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – is what sparked the escalation of tensions between the two countries.
Emile Nakhleh, director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at UNM, formerly worked as a CIA intelligence officer.
Alex Vatanka is a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.