Reflections on Thomas Pickering’s October 2019 presentation in light of recent events
by Mana Soroush
In October 2019, Thomas Pickering shared his perspective regarding U.S.-Iran relations with the Richmond World Affairs Council and an audience of over 200. With his extensive experience in global affairs, being a former U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, and Jordan, a U.S. Ambassador and Representative to the United Nations in New York, and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs within the State Department, Pickering shared his expert opinions on what would come next between the U.S. and Iran.
Within the first week of 2020 alone, immense worry built up amongst the general American and Iranian public after President Trump ordered an airstrike killing Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani. It is important for us to compare expert opinions to the imminent consequences of these global affairs, bearing in mind that the U.S. and Iran have not held formal diplomatic relations since the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1980.
Qasem Soleimani has led the Quds Force since 1998, run all Iranian military operations in Iraq and Syria, and served as the lead commander for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. Seen by most Iranian citizens as a hero and a martyr, the United States perceived Soleimanit to be the opposite, labeling him as a top threat to the United States. According to the Defense Department, Soleimani was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region” (Gan 2020).
In October 2019, Thomas Pickering suggested that war between the U.S. and Iran could be possible if the two countries are unable to communicate. Looking at the recent scenario, Pickering was right. We can see clearly that an act of war, killing another nation’s top military general, has taken place. At this point, relations between the U.S. and Iran will likely not improve until all ramifications for this act follow through. In other words, Iran will not allow the killing of Soleimani to pass by without holding the U.S. accountable.
Further predicted by Amb. Pickering, “Potential nuclear proliferation has been at the heart of tensions between the U.S. and Iran for decades.” We can see the accuracy in this statement since, in response to the killing of General Soleimani, Iran officially pulled out of their nuclear deal commitment to limit uranium enrichment. This has left them with no restrictions on nuclear development (Burman 2020).
Amb. Pickering stated in regards to communication between the U.S. and Iran, that “it is better to have a negotiated outcome than an unnegotiated outcome.” This, again, has shown to be true. The unnegotiated act of ordering this airstrike has put the U.S. in a position of direct conflict with Iran, and a much more dangerous position at that. Had the Trump administration decided to engage in direct negotiation with Iran rather than conducting this airstrike without consulting higher legislative bodies, it is clear that tensions would not have escalated to this point.
Further stated by Amb. Pickering, the U.S. and Iran could face an “accidental” war resulting from miscalculation, misguidance, misjudgment or misunderstanding (Goodman 2019). Compared to current events, Pickering’s prediction did not fully manifest (yet), in that the airstrike conducted by President Trump seemed to be very calculated. However, “miscalculation” in regards to the recent Ukraine International Airlines plane crash seems to be a more accurate term:
On January 8, a Ukraine International Airlines flight crashed due to a shootdown soon after taking off from Tehran, killing all 176 passengers. Initially, until a few days after the crash, the Iranian government denied shooting down this plane despite growing evidence against them. The plane was mistakenly associated, according to the Iranian government, with a U.S. attack on a “sensitive site” belonging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (BBC, 2020). Many Iranians turned against their government in protest of this tragic mistake, wondering why Iran would allow commercial flights to fly near “sensitive sights” during this time. While this tragedy did not occur in the hands of the U.S., it did occur during an extremely tense time period in regards to U.S.-Iran relations, leading Iran to make a grave mistake out of potential for attack.
Burman, M. (2020, January 5). Iran pulling out of nuclear deal commitment after U.S.
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Gan, N. (2020, January 3). Who was Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian commander killed by a US
airstrike? Retrieved January 26, 2020, from https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/03/asia/soleimani-profile-intl-hnk/index.html
Goodman, O. (2019, October 23). Top Diplomat Says War with Iran Could be Imminent.
Retrieved January 26, 2020, from http://www.richmondworldaffairs.org/october-2019-u-s-iran-relations-whats-next/
Iran plane crash: What we know about flight PS752. (2020, January 14). Retrieved January 26, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-51047006
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