When the Middle East crisis broke at the start of this year, many outcomes were predicted by a panicked commentariat in response to the US drone strike on Iran’s terrorist-in-chief, Qassem Soleimani.
The various theories peddled by such observers fell into two broad camps: that war would inevitably result, or that the west would suffer from the wrath of an Iran united in grief for the loss of a great leader.
Some particularly emotive souls even conflated both ideas into a combined critique of the foreign policy erraticism and adventurism of their much-loathed target, the Trump administration.
In an extreme example of this phenomenon, London was last week subjected to a Corbyn-led rally of protesters who delighted in dusting off their old “Stop the War” hats (which should more properly be called “Stop Some Wars”, as it only appears to be conflicts threatening enemies of the west that these people ever want to prevent).
What was emphatically not foreseen by most, however, was what actually happened: a stunning foreign policy triumph for President Trump, and the unmasking of the Iranians — at least in this round of hostilities — as a bungling paper tiger.
To give some credit to pessimistic western critics, the crisis might well have led to an expanded conflict. But this was always unlikely, because for the Iranians to have upped the ante to the next level would have meant inviting ever more devastating reactions from the Americans.
What everyone appeared to have forgotten is that there is no equivalence of power between the US and Iran. On the contrary, Washington’s military capabilities dwarf those of Tehran.
The only real question was therefore whether the US would rise from its recent strategic torpor in the Middle East, and use them.
This was answered by the Soleimani strike and Trump’s threat to hit 52 targets in case of an Iranian escalation.
Under such circumstances, an expanded conflict between the two countries — which would not have been a ground invasion but an air campaign designed to disrupt the Iranian regime’s command and control abilities and hamper its ability to continue its repression of its own people — would have only ended with one outcome: the collapse of Iran’s theocracy.
It doesn’t matter how many terrorist attacks or forms of unconventional warfare a country might be able to unleash if its ruling regime is unable to defend its powerbase on home soil. The ayatollahs could see this clearly, which is why they pulled their punches by missile-striking empty bases in their rush for the exit ramp from conflict.
All this should have been obvious were western observers not blinded by the idea — or perhaps, in some egregious cases, hope — of perceived US decline. But even this myopia pales into comparison to the extraordinary assumptions made about the Iranian people’s likely response to the death of Soleimani.
A section of Iran’s population does enthusiastically support the clerical regime. But if this were a genuinely popular government, the ayatollahs would have had no need to shut down the internet at the end of last year to hide the fact that the authorities were butchering an estimated 1,500 of their own citizens in order to prevent escalating unrest.
Thus, the public mourning for Soleimani did attract crowds. But it was just that part of the population that Iran’s authorities wanted the world to see.
Many in the west bought the propaganda completely, only to have to eat humble pie when the tragic shooting down of PS752 by Iranian forces and the attempted Iranian cover-up led to a resumption of domestic protests at the sheer incompetence of the regime.
But by far the greatest sign that the Iran defeatists and doubters got it wrong, and that Trump has got it right, has come this week with the declaration by the UK, France and Germany to refer Iran to the Dispute Resolution Mechanism of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, commonly called the Iran Deal) regulating the country’s nuclear programme.
Iran has been cheating on the JCPOA terms ever since the Americans withdrew from it in 2018. But desperate to keep the deal alive (rather than renegotiate it to make it more effective, as the Americans wanted), the Europeans did not follow suit, even as Iranian infractions of JCPOA became ever more blatant.
Now, finally, the three European countries have rediscovered their backbone, and initiated a move that could lead to the snapback of sanctions on Iran in a couple of months. The Trump administration has long sought solidarity from its European allies on this subject. It is no coincidence that it has finally obtained it just after reasserting its own red lines in the region.
The lesson of all this is simple. Our enemies are not 10 feet tall, much as we might sometimes believe that they are. The west retains tremendous power to shape the world for the better. All it needs is the belief to do so.
Donald Trump may be an unusual messenger to remind us of this truth, but it is enduring nonetheless.
Main image credit: Getty