US-Iran: what does this mean for civilians caught in the middle?

Mourners surround a vehicle carrying the coffins of Iranian Maj Mourners surround a vehicle carrying the coffins of Iranian Maj © Sabah Arar/AFP via Getty Images

6-11 January 2020 Weekly Digest, by Phoebe Ohlin

Tensions have escalated between Iran and the US following a US air raid that killed senior Iranian military officials in Baghdad last week. The drone strikes come after diplomatic and economic hostility between the two countries has been steadily increasing, particularly over the last twelve months.

Relations between the two countries soured following the withdrawal of the US from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and their reimposition of crushing sanctions last year. The US stated that Iran’s continued manufacture of missiles breached the international agreement and blamed Iran for “destabilising activities” in the region. Iran justified its continued manufacture of missiles, claiming it needs an increased arsenal to defend itself against US-backed invasion or US-led military action.

Iran has accused the US of making life unbearable for Iranian civilians, deliberately targeting them with “economic terrorism”. Last year’s sanctions plummeted the Iranian economy into free-fall, as Iran claims the sanctions have been the greatest threat to Iran achieving its sustainable development goals. The reimposed sanctions triggered austerity measures and have created a dire situation for many of Iran’s poorest citizens. Amnesty International claims that at least 304 civilians were killed in security crackdowns in December 2019, as Iranians protested petrol rations and other austerity measures across the country.

Tensions reached a peak last week with a US airstrike triggering a diplomatic crisis and the threat of further military action on both sides. The Trump Administration stated that its attack on Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Qud Force, was a preventative measure as Soleimani was planning attacks on US diplomats and military personnel. Iran responded on Wednesday morning with a missile attack on an Iraqi military base that is currently used by the US and coalition forces.

There has also been some suggestion, notably by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, that Iranian missiles were also responsible for the downing of a Ukrainian commercial flight where 176 people were killed. While Iran vehemently denies any involvement, Western officials are suggesting that the passenger flight may have been mistaken for a military aircraft during the height of tensions.

Additionally, at least 56 people were killed in a stampede at Soleimani’s funeral this week. Iranian state TV reports that more than 200 people were also injured. Hundreds of thousands of Iranaians attended Soleimani’s funeral in Kerman, following a week of processions by mourners across the country.

Both sides have since backed down, however this is likely only a temporary reprieve. Both Iran and the US warned that any further action would lead to a re-escalation of tensions and risk more extensive military retaliation. Both sides have been criticized for their violation of Iraqi sovereignty and “failure to renew international cooperation”. The UN has urged both sides to avoid further war in the Gulf, emphasising that ordinary Iraqi people should not pay the price for external tensions. The UN Special Representative, Jeanine Hennis-Plesschaert pleaded that leaders show maximum restraint avoid another cycle of violence for Iraq. She tweeted, “For too long, Iraq has been a theatre for different power competitions. Iraqis deserve stability and peace. Cool heads must prevail.”

As the world holds its breath to see how the Trump administration and the Iranian Government will move forward, the safety of Iranian and Iraqi civilians must be of the highest priority. As the region grapples with the legacy of the last US-led war, sovereignty, stability and security can only be protected if the UN demonstrates robust leadership to ensure all parties respect international law and that diplomatic avenues are properly utilised.

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