IT will be sheer lunacy if the tensions in the Middle East were to escalate to an extent that the United States and Iran embark on a full-scale war that nobody wants.
Yet, despite the rhetoric and bravado, both the US and the Islamic Republic know that a war between the two traditional enemies would have catastrophic consequences not only in the region but also for the rest of the world.
But, the dangerous tit for tat moves being played out by both these countries have led to an avalanche of misinformation and fake news that illustrates just how toxic social media can be.
False reports on various platforms generated fears of a wider outbreak of war when international tensions were already high. Fake posts include news that 80 US servicemen were killed in Iranian retaliatory strikes in Iraq and also missiles from Iran were used to bring down the ill-fated Ukrainian plane which led to the deaths of 176 people in Teheran.
The barrage of misinformation underscores that despite the pledges and efforts by big tech companies to crack down on falsehoods, fabricated or misleading content remains a significant threat.
Tensions between the United States and Iran came to a head when Maj Gen Qassem Soleimani, reputedly the second most powerful figure in the republic, was killed in an American drone strike last Friday.
Iran vowed revenge, but the assassination was the culmination of heightened tensions in recent weeks when an American military contractor was killed and Iranian-backed militias stormed the US Embassy compound in Baghdad on New Year’s Eve.
On Tuesday, Iran fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two military bases in Iraq where American troops are stationed.
Iran does “not seek escalation or war”, foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said in a tweet hours after the missile strikes.
“All is well!” President Trump said in a tweet on Tuesday. “Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good!”
What’s happening in Iran today is déjà vu in terms of the many wars and escalations that have taken place in the Middle East.
But it would be futile to go into the various permutations of what is going to happen now given that the scenarios will be changing at rapid speed while the superpowers engage with each other.
How then should Malaysia react to these developments? Should we react at all?
Wisma Putra should of course take the obvious measures of warning Malaysian citizens against travel to the region and at the same time evaluate the situation in Iran and if necessary evacuate Malaysian students from there.
Malaysia Airlines’ announcement that it would avoid the “conflict airspace” of Iran follows a similar response from most major airlines.
This no-fly zone is a result of the US Federal Aviation Administration decision to ban US carriers from operating in the airspace over Iraq, Iran, the Gulf of Oman, and the waters between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s reaction to Soleimani’s death was typically acerbic. He described the killing as an immoral act that is against the law, and compared it to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“The act is akin to the killing of Khashoggi which happened across boundaries. This is also another act where one country decides on its own to kill the leaders of another country.
“Both are guilty of immoral acts, it is against the law, ” he said.
This remark is sure to rankle with the Saudi government, already upset over the KL Summit, the recently concluded gathering of Muslim leaders, including heads of state from Turkey, Qatar and Iran, none of whom can be described as friends of Saudi Arabia.
Last month, Dr Mahathir also spoke up for Iran at a conference in Qatar when he said the American sanctions imposed on the republic violated the United Nations charter and international law.
“Malaysia does not support the reimposition of the unilateral sanctions by the US against Iran, ” he told the Doha Forum, adding that Malaysia and other countries have lost a “a big market” because of the sanctions on Iran.
The Americans may not like it, but don’t expect Dr Mahathir to change or tone down his comments. He is his own man and has been criticising superpowers from the time he first assumed the prime ministership in 1981.
Asked this week if he would continue to voice his views on the world stage, the Prime Minister said he would continue to “point out the truth”.
“I am not worried about who is strong and who is weak. If things are not right, I think I have the right to voice it out, ” he said.
The writer believes that Malaysia as a trading nation should perform a delicate balancing act between the superpowers. The focus should be on making ourselves strategic. We do not have the military or economic might to influence geo-political decisions.
Brian Martin, executive editor of The Star, would like to come clean. He has vested interest in the proposed assessment rate hike since he’s a resident of Kuala Lumpur.
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