Columnists
Is retaliation more than an eye-for-an-eye? The USA’s new policy in the Middle East
By Henry H. Bucher, Jr., Faculty Emeritus in Humanities, Austin College
Jan 7, 2020
Print this page
Email this article

Since the assassination of Iran’s top-ranking general, Qassem Soleimani, and an Iraqi commander, by US forces in Iraq near Baghdad’s airport ( January 3, 2020), two relatively new factors stand out. The first is a recently shifted nuance in our media on the ancient concept of “retaliation.” The second is the modern interpretation of an equally historic attempt to restrict retaliation from morphing into war, especially when one side is more powerful than the other: “an eye-for-an-eye, a tooth-for-a-tooth….”

Dr. Henry Bucher
Since following the Mid-East news since the 1960s, I could count on our US media to headline our allies as always “retaliating” to their enemy’s aggression. Most of the international press would headline the same exchange by reversely noting that the “enemy’s aggression” was retaliation to a previous provocative strike. Some have called this the endless “dance of death.” What appears to be a sudden reversal in much of our media since the double murder by a US drone in Baghdad, is the US media’s constantly repeated question: “How will Iran retaliate to our murder of Soleimani?” The use of “retaliate” here may be subconscious, but that, in itself, indicates a subliminal shift to looking more realistically at what lies ahead. If our US media are headlining US aggression, what about our NATO allies that our president has angered? Even Putin and Saudi Arabia have shown disagreement with our Mid-East policy shift; and Russia, China, and Iran are cooperating more on Mid-East issues, and profiting from our blunders. 

The second issue is about limiting the assumed right in most cultures to retaliate—an idea dating back to Sumeria (2000 BCE). This was followed two hundred years later in Babylon by Hammurabi’s code. Hebrew scriptures are more easily accessible (Exodus 21:24) as are the similar laws in the Qur’an (Surah 5, verse 45). Libya and the Islamic Republic of Iran are examples of how  modern Muslim leaders have followed the Qur’an as literally as possible. 

In Libya, a US drone was involved in the killing of Muammar Gaddafi (October, 2011), with our policy of “regime change.” On 9/11/2012, the Islamic Ansar al Sharia killed the highest ranking US citizens available: US ambassador, J.C. Stevens and our Foreign Service diplomat, Sean Smith. CIA contractors were killed in following attacks; and the CIA affirmed that these were “premeditated.” Indeed they were, and should have been expected as “retaliation.” Most people today that remember “Benghazi” at all, think of the ten investigations and many attacks against negligent US diplomats. Republicans found “Benghazi” useful for the 2016 elections.  It also sounded like a replay of what is to come in Iran/US relations, and our 2020 elections. 

Mid-East scholar and author, Robin Wright* had a piece in the New Yorker (July 19, 2019) entitled: “Iran’s Eye-for-an-Eye Strategy in the Gulf.” She begins with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in June, 1982, and the July 4 seizing of Iranian military diplomats in Beirut by Lebanese Christian militia. Iran’s appeal for international action brought no response until the acting president of the American University of Beirut, David Dodge, was taken hostage and held in Iran for a year until Syria, (one of US’s “frenemies,”) intervened. Wright notes that this “eye-for-an-eye exchange between Iran and the United States was the beginning of a hostage saga that sucked in more and more victims over the next decade.” She then covers the similar tit-for-tat exchanges,  between Iran, the USA and Britain, starting in May, 2019, mostly in the area of the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a third of the world’s seaborne oil is shipped. 

What does this mean for Iran’s retaliation to the USA’s murder of Soleimani? If the government in Teheran can restrain the “sacred rage”**of rogue responders, the key leaders would follow the multi-faith injunction limiting and restraining their reaction to parallel the offensive action: their target would be a military one (persons and/or places) and would not be hurried but well planned. After 7000 years of experience (1500 years of it under Islam), why would Iran be in a hurry? 


 *    Robin Wright has written at least seven books on Iran and the Islamic world, and many articles. She has won several awards and honors, and has been a guest lecturer at Austin College.

**  Robin Wright’s Sacred Rage: the crusade of modern Islam was published in 1985 with a revised edition in 2001 (Simon & Schuster).