As tensions mount, we must not forget about the Iranian people

As tensions mount, we must not forget about the Iranian people
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The U.S. is inching closer to a military confrontation with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The chances of a full-fledged war are only tempered by the fact that the majority of the House, a small majority of the Senate, many in the top U.S. military brass, virtually all U.S. allies — save Israel, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates — and President TrumpDonald John Trump2020 Democrats spar over socialism ahead of first debate Senate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House 'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again MORE himself do not favor a war.

The two most important current leaders of Iran — Gen. Qasem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, who has increasingly taken a more assertive role in all aspects of Iran’s domestic and foreign policy, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — have in recent days gone on record indicating they don’t want a war with the U.S. and don’t think one will happen

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There is more than one reason they don’t want war, and they're trying hard to reassure a jittery population that one won’t occur. They are fully aware of the increasing frustration and anger among the people.

A devastating war is sure to bring even further pressure on a population suffering under the weight of double-digit inflation, double-digit unemployment and gross inequality between the very rich and the increasingly pauperized population.

Early this year, the weight of these pressures led to a series of strikes and demonstrations around the country. A recent study by the Iranian Parliament Research Center found that 57 million Iranians live below the poverty line. 

The International Monetary Fund predicts that Iran could face 50-percent inflation and a 6-percent shrinkage of its economy in the coming year. 

Lest the population get any ideas about rising against the despotic rulers and their calumny of corruption and incompetence, the regime, using the pretext of helping flood victims, brought armed units of its proxies to Iran and paraded them in cities in the south.

The arrival of the radical Shiite group Hashd al-Shaabi from Iraq, the Hezbollah from Lebanon and of Afghan Shiites who were previously armed by the Iranian regime and sent to shore up the murderous Assad regime caused quite a stir in Iran.

Even before their arrival, a cleric close to the regime had openly declared to the people of Iran that if they “abandon” the regime, the regime will use these groups to keep themselves in power.

The arrival of the groups was also serving notice to the U.S. and Saudi Arabia that Iran’s essential style in any confrontation will be asymmetrical war. They wanted the world to know that while the regime coffers might be emptying, the proxies are still ready to be unleashed against the Iranian people, or the broader region.

But in spite of all these factors mitigating against a full-fledged military confrontation between Iran and the U.S., when the dogs of war are barking, one trigger-happy commander or one manufactured incident (i.e., Gulf of Tonkin incident) can beget a tragedy.

A war with Iran would be a disaster for the innocent Iranian people who are, as a nation, hostage to a foolish leadership. It would also be destabilizing for the region, and it would hurt Europe, not just with higher oil prices, but with a new surge of refugees to boot.

Eventually, even the U.S. allies who seem to be goading the U.S. into this disaster would suffer from such a regional war.

Russia and China would be the clear strategic winners of such a conflict. Iran's desperate regime would have no choice but to fall further into the Russian “sphere of influence” and depend on Chinese largesse to help delay the looming economic disaster.

If Russia is willing to shore up the disastrous Venezuelan regime in America’s metaphorical backyard, will it simply allow its most important ally in the Middle East to wither away due to U.S. military intervention?  

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In this current hyper-tense atmosphere, the prudent U.S. policy is to tone down the rhetoric of war, let the Iranian regime know that its adventurism in the region will be costly, and its brutality against the people will be watched.

Most importantly, the U.S. should let the Iranian people know that it stands with their aspirations to be rid of this incompetent theocratic regime. The great majority of the Iranian people have shown desire to have a government that abides by democratic laws at home and international norms around the world.

The U.S. must make it clear that it has no desire nor ability to decide who the successor to this regime should be but that it supports the aspirations of Iran's people to fashion their own future. 

A war only helps the incompetent rulers of Iran by rallying the population around the flag and deferring a reckoning with the economic disaster they have created. Crucially, it also hurts the people of Iran, the only force who can structurally solve the problem.

Abbas Milani is the director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.