On the menu today: Politics takes a back seat as we focus on shocking events in the Middle East, from an Iranian counterattack with minimal casualties and an oddly timed plane crash in Tehran to some earthquakes near an Iranian nuclear reactor.
Whew! A Frightening Night for America Turned Out Not Quite So Bad
Last night, around the dinner hour, the situation in the Middle East looked pretty scary. We knew the Iranian military had fired some number of missiles or rockets at bases in Iraq that were housing U.S. troops. American reporters on the ground in Tehran were reporting that the Iranian Air Force had “been deployed,” with no specification of whether this was routine air defense in anticipation of an American counterattack, or whether the deployment was part of a second wave of strikes. Many of us noted that these were precisely the moments when online disinformation efforts kick into high gear, and like clockwork, random accounts claimed to have the first scoop on the damage from the Iranian attacks and U.S. casualties.
As of this writing — and who knows, by the time you read this, the circumstance may have changed — it appears that for the United States, last night’s attack turned out as minimally harmful as possible. The U.S. government has no reports of American casualties yet, and Iraqi military officials are saying none of their personnel were killed either. The Iranian government is telling its people it killed 80 Americans. The Iraqis say the Iranians fired 22 missiles.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, issued a statement on Twitter declaring, “Iran took and concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens and senior officials were launched. We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”
Notice that word, “concluded.” That suggests that in their minds, they have now settled the score — at least in their public rhetoric. Last night was not the first of multiple waves of missile attacks.
Military experts will be debating this for a while, but if a country fires 22 missiles at targets and doesn’t kill anyone, either they’re really bad at their jobs or this operation was primarily symbolic. The Iranians could have tried other methods more likely to kill Americans last night, but they didn’t. The Iranian Air Force stayed within its own territory. They’re telling their people that they won a great victory. The message to us, between the lines, is that they don’t want this fight to get any bigger.
If both sides are willing to deescalate, we can avoid an all-out war between the United States and Iran — and that’s pretty darn good news.
But it is also worth remembering that the Iranian regime has a history of responding to attacks with terrorism through proxies. Yashar Ali spotlighted examples last night — hitting back after an Israeli strike by killing Israeli diplomats in Georgia, India, and Thailand a month later, and then six months later, bombing a bus full of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. Last night may just be the symbolic, short-term retaliation while Tehran plots a more dangerous operation for some time down the road. All we can do to prevent that is continue our spying and eavesdropping, be on alert for all of the traditional targets — embassies, consulates, groups of Americans living, working, or traveling abroad — and make clear that any Iranian attack on civilians would bring a thunderously devastating response.
(What kind of devastating response? Just to spitball for a moment, almost all of Iran’s crude oil exports pass through terminals located on the islands of Kharg, Lavan, and Sirri in the Persian Gulf. Some Tomahawk missiles could take them out of commission for a long time. By last autumn, the current sanctions had driven down Iranian oil exports from 1.7 million barrels per day to less than 500,000 barrels per day. Imagine the state of the Iranian economy if that number shrank down close to zero for a stretch.)
The ball is now in President Trump’s court. He probably has two competing impulses right now. Iran threw a punch, and Trump’s instincts are always to counterpunch. But last night’s Iranian “punch” by and large missed, and the president can avoid getting drawn into a larger and more deadly conflict by making any U.S. response similarly symbolic and deescalatory. If the fight ends now, the United States is the big winner. We killed Soleimani, demonstrated that we can target just about anyone in the Iranian regime and eliminate them without warning, and have, so far, not lost any American lives in the Iranian counterattack, nor have our Iraqi allies.
What Made a Ukrainian Passenger Jet Crash outside Tehran Last Night?
This is the sort of event that sets off new conspiracy theories around the globe:
A Ukrainian passenger jet carrying more than 170 people crashed in Iran early Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran’s main international airport, killing all aboard, officials said.
In the aftermath of the crash, Ukraine has banned all flights from Iranian airspace, a move also taken by several other countries in light of the rising tensions between Iran and U.S. forces in the region.
The Boeing 737-800 likely crashed due to technical difficulties, Iranian state media quoted Ali Kahshani, a senior public relations official at the airport, as saying. Ukraine’s embassy in Iran at first concurred, issuing a statement ruling out terrorism, but then took it down without explanation.
The aircraft involved in Wednesday’s incident, a Boeing 737-800, was three years old and purchased from the manufacturer as new by Ukraine International Airlines, the carrier said in a statement. It had its last routine technical maintenance on Monday.
A lot of people might see this news and think, “that can’t possibly be a coincidence.” But it happens. On November 12, 2001, American Airlines Flight 587 crashed shortly after take-off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City — just two months after 9/11, during the U.S. campaign to topple the Taliban. It was the second-deadliest plane crash in American history, and almost everyone believed it had to be terrorism at the time. But terrorists had nothing to do with the crash:
The investigation into Flight 587 quickly shifted its focus from terrorism to [First Officer Sten] Molin. The vertical stabilizer fin’s separation from the craft before the crash indicated that great stress had been placed on the component. The NTSB’s final conclusion holds that Molin used” “unnecessary and aggressive” rudder controls to stabilize the airplane from turbulence it encountered in the wake of the Japan Airline Boeing 747 that States and Molin discussed just prior to takeoff.
A crashed jetliner in New York City, two months after 9/11, a terrible death toll . . . and it turned out to be just an awful coincidence, nothing to do with terrorism.
We don’t know the cause of the Ukrainian plane crash in Tehran, and they’re apparently not eager to share the black box. But one theory that might make sense is that Iranian air defenses were presumably on high alert last night, and had been since the strike that killed Soleimani. A combination of fatigue, stress, inexperience, insufficient training, or just plain routine human error prompts some Iranian air-defense team to mistake the passenger jet for an American fighter jet — and tragedy ensues.
No, We Don’t Have a Secret Earthquake Weapon . . . . Right?
Then there was the other odd coincidence of the night: “An earthquake measuring 4.7 on the Richter scale struck two towns in southern Iran near the Bushehr nuclear power plant but didn’t cause any casualties, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported.” Forget your theories that this is covering up some sort of massive bomb dropped by Americans — this is a region known for earthquakes, and the epicenters of the two quakes were about five miles down — far too deep to be caused by anything on the surface.
Neither the United States nor any other country have developed a weapon that can create earthquakes . . . as far as we know. But that doesn’t mean that various scientists haven’t researched the idea. Back in 1997, then-secretary of defense William Cohen gave a speech with this intriguing and vague reference:
Alvin Toeffler has written about this in terms of some scientists in their laboratories trying to devise certain types of pathogens that would be ethnic specific so that they could just eliminate certain ethnic groups and races; and others are designing some sort of engineering, some sort of insects that can destroy specific crops. Others are engaging even in an eco- type of terrorism whereby they can alter the climate, set off earthquakes, volcanoes remotely through the use of electromagnetic waves.
And the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, or HAARP, always was the centerpiece of wild conspiracy theories. The Air Force, the Navy, the University of Alaska, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency teamed up on the massive research project, based in Alaska. In 2015, the government ended its role in the program and turned the whole thing over to the University of Alaska.
Still, in an American government where everything leaks, including transcripts of the president’s calls with foreign leaders, do you think everyone in the government and every contractor and technician involved could manage to keep a weapon that creates earthquakes secret? Come on, put enough drinks in a lot of guys, and they’ll be boasting to the cocktail waitress that their day job is running the secret earthquake machine — even when they’re really just the deputy assistant technician.
As someone put it, the clearest evidence that the U.S. government isn’t secretly keeping the bodies and craft of aliens who crashed in Roswell locked up at Area 51 is that if we really had them, Trump probably would have tweeted about it by now.
ADDENDA: File this away under “good news that probably doesn’t get enough attention, and adds to cultural pessimism”: From 2016 to 2017, the United States saw its largest-ever single-year drop in overall cancer deaths, a 2.2 percent plunge spurred in part by a sharp decline in lung cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society.