Truth, said the Greek dramatist Aeschylus in the 5th century B.C., is the first casualty of war.
As the United States and Iran edged perilously toward a major military confrontation last week, top authorities in both nations failed to tell the truth to their anxious people.
In America, the Trump administration claimed “imminent” threats to U.S. personnel in the Middle East had been disrupted by the decision to assassinate Qasem Soleimani, the head of the external operations arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.
However, President Donald Trump’s own officials failed to provide evidence of such threats, which he later claimed menaced four U.S. Embassies.
It has become increasingly clear that the drone attack that killed Soleimani and others people at Baghdad International Airport on Jan. 2 was both an act of revenge for the deaths of hundreds of Americans in the past at the hands of Iran-backed Iraqi militias and an attempt to deter those plotting new assaults on U.S. targets. The Trump administration would have better defended its case by stating this and not falsely inflating the justification for it.
The messy actions of conflict, displayed by Iran
In Tehran, meanwhile, the government scrambled to avenge the death of Soleimani and sent missiles streaming into two Iraqi bases where Americans are located a week after Soleimani died. Fortunately, no one was killed, perhaps because Iran warned Iraq in advance and the United States took prudent measures to safeguard American troops.
However, a panicky Iranian missile defense officer, thinking the United States was striking back for the Iranian retaliation, shot down a Ukrainian civilian airliner taking off from Tehran’s international airport, killing all 176 aboard, most of them Iranians bound for Canada, including graduate students and newlyweds.
This would have been tragedy enough, but the Iranian government compounded the calamity by denying for three days that it was responsible for the crash. When the government finally admitted what had happened — in the face of overwhelming evidence presented by Ukraine, Canada and other countries — Iranians at universities and elsewhere poured into the streets in large anti-government demonstrations.
Credibility is crucial at a time when matters of war and peace are at stake and innocents become collateral damage.
This frightening escalation is the result of actions taken by both the U.S. and Iranian authorities and has deep roots: in the CIA coup that restored the shah of Iran on the throne in 1953, the anti-American revolution that deposed him in 1979 and the taking of 52 U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days. It has echoes of U.S. support for Iraq during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, which killed or wounded a million people and ended after a U.S.-guided missile cruiser shot down an Iran Air civilian plane in 1988, killing all 290 aboard, mistaking it for a military jet. Iran used the tragedy as a reason to accept a United Nations cease-fire.
Donald Trump on Iran: After Iraq missile strikes, let's give diplomacy a chance
Since 1979, the United States and Iran have never been friends, but they have not always been enemies. They indirectly cooperated to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and to fight the Islamic State terrorist group after it nearly captured Baghdad in 2014.
The U.S. decision to put Iran on an “axis of evil” in 2002 and to threaten it with “regime change” after invading Iraq in 2003 — as John Bolton did at the time and has continued to do — ensured that Iran’s theocratic leaders would see Washington as their implacable enemy and act accordingly.
In the absence of our old Iran plan, we have to come up with a new one
There is no way to know whether the 2015 Iran nuclear deal reached under the Obama administration could have led to some sort of U.S.-Iran detente. Trump’s election in 2016 immediately cast a pall over that agreement, which traded curbs on Iran’s nuclear program for sanctions relief.
However, Iran remained in compliance with it a year after Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018. It was only when his administration announced last year that it was seeking to impose a total embargo on Iran’s export of oil that Iran began to retaliate — against tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf, a U.S. drone, a Saudi oil facility and, finally, sites in Iraq where Americans are located.
To end this mutually destructive cycle of violence, honesty about U.S. goals is vital. Does America seek regime change or new negotiations over an expanded nuclear deal? If it is not the former, then why is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cheering on the anti-government demonstrations in Iran with such fervor? Why is Washington piling on more sanctions without any obvious diplomatic off-ramp?
Despite the fervent desire of many both inside and outside Iran for a less repressive government, the regime is unlikely to fall and will continue to meet opposition with brutal force. Innocent Iranians will also continue to suffer as U.S. sanctions crush their economy. If the Trump administration truly cared about the Iranian people as it claims, it would at a minimum approve a channel for payment for food, medicine and other humanitarian goods.
Iranians, Americans and many others in the Middle East and beyond looked into the abyss last week, and the hashtag World War III began to trend on Twitter. Is this really what we need now when truly global threats like climate change menace everyone?
It is not too late for America and Iran to stand down and seek some sort of accommodation that reduces threats to each other and to the region. But first, both sides have to level with their own populations about the nature of those threats and the reasons for the harsh actions they are taking to diminish them.
Barbara Slavin directs the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. The author of "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation," she has visited Iran nine times, six as a reporter for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter: @barbaraslavin1
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: On Iran, we need transparency and de-escalation of tensions