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It’s an inconvenient truth: the president of the United States has no coherent foreign policy. Period. At times Donald Trump talks sensibly about pulling out of quagmires in Syria and Afghanistan, while simultaneously ratcheting up threats against America’s favorite (at least since 1979) punching bag — Iran. He’s also loaded up his administration with the most hawkish of Iranophobes: National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Those two have never seen a problem they couldn’t blame on Iran or a solution that didn’t include regime change. Furthermore, there’s nothing that Israel’s about-to-be-indicted, corrupt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like more than to drum up a U.S. war with Iran. American blood (and money) for Israeli interests — now that’s “King Bibi’s” style. Still, before jumping into this next absurd policy adventure, perhaps it’s appropriate to review the troubled history between the United States and Iran, deflate some myths about the supposedly monstrous Islamic Republic, and consider just how bloody and destabilizing such a war would be.
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s theocratic government is, obviously, not the preferred system of the United States, but it is their sovereign system. More important, Iran does not pose a strategic or existential threat to the Homeland. Furthermore, the United States would do well not to overestimate the military threat of Iran; alienate the growing, youthful, pro-Western populace within the country; or rush into an ill-advised, hasty, and potentially costly, attempt at forced regime change.
Nuance is the key to understanding Iran. In truth it is neither as autocratic nor Islamist Universalist as its detractors claim, nor as benevolent as its protectors insist. Iran’s military is neither the aggressive behemoth that Washington alarmists fear, nor is it a weak pushover ripe for regime change. Iran’s geography, population, and inherent popular nationalism present an immediate challenge to regime-change fantasies. Moreover, the clerical establishment atop the Islamic Republic is far from stable or certain to last indefinitely. Protests during the “Green Revolution,” and, more recently, in 2017, illustrate that quite clearly.
In his more lucid moments, Trump has shown real foreign-policy leadership as well as skepticism regarding increased military invention in both his recent outreach to nuclear North Korea and comments indicating a desire to militarily de-escalate in Syria. There is, therefore, still (just a little) reason for optimism that this administration will eschew ill-advised military action and instead focus on a twin policy of de-escalation, and, where possible, engagement with Iran.
The decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) was absolute folly and probably undertaken by Trump only because of his insecure obsession with undoing everything associated with his predecessor, Barack Obama. Still, this withdrawal does not necessarily presage war. Other diplomatic options remain on the table to ensure that Iran — unlike North Korea —does not go nuclear.
Thus, I will argue that the realistic bottom line on Iran policy is as follows:
- Iran has not posed and does not pose any sort of existential challenge to the United States. The Islamic State is far from the convenient bogeyman of neoconservative/neoliberal imaginations.
- War or U.S.-imposed regime change in Iran is ill-advised, impractical, and risky — to be avoided at all costs.
- Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA (the Obama nuclear deal) does not have to augur imminent war. Attempts should be made to negotiate a new, more comprehensive deal, and — short of that — to implement other levers of diplomacy to de-escalate tensions.
- Russia and Iran are cooperating in Syria and have certain overlapping interests. However, they are not natural allies and have a long history of discord. The United States should avoid any overtly hostile activity that further binds those two adversaries in a long-term alliance.
- Iran’s military has significant weaknesses and should not be overestimated. America’s partners in the region (Israel and the GCC countries) possess more than enough military capacity to deal with local threats. The U.S. military is unnecessary in the region and only raises tensions.
- Nevertheless, Iran’s large population, difficult terrain, and significant asymmetric military capabilities, when combined with America’s many commitments around the world, make military action in Iran a risky endeavor best avoided. More bluntly: a regime-change ground invasion would be as foolish and militarily disastrous as Vietnam and Iraq.
- Iran is neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic. Its youthful, disgruntled population is surprisingly amenable to the West. The United States should take no action to alienate this segment of the population — which has the potential to alter the political calculus of a future Iran.
A troubled history: A true look at U.S.-Iran relations
Iran, unlike many of its neighbors in the Gulf region, enjoys very secure geography. Mountain ranges hem its strategic core, and its borders have been stable for centuries. Its geographic security has meant that Iran has been conquered only a handful of times in its thousands of years of history. Those who have conquered it have been absorbed by another of its strengths: its distinct Persian culture, which once exerted a strong influence on elites from Turkey to India.
In the twentieth century, Iran experienced waves of nationalism and resistance to outside influence that were independent of any particular regime. Charges of subservience to foreign powers have provoked crisis after crisis in Iranian politics, going back to a movement against concessions to Britain on tobacco sales in 1890. That movement highlighted another important trend in modern Iranian politics: the power of the clergy as an independent political force. Its later aftershocks would also see the emergence of movements to constrain Iran’s monarchs with a constitution.
The discovery of oil in Iran at the beginning of the twentieth century increased Iran’s geopolitical importance, but also increased resentment of foreign power within Iran. Nationalists were appalled by the great wealth flowing from Iran to Britain by means of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company — the ancestor of today’s British Petroleum. That resentment led to Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh’s nationalization of the oil industry, which, coupled with growing political instability under Mossadegh and fears of Soviet influence, led to a U.S.-backed coup against him in 1953.The coup restored the faded power of Iran’s monarch, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Older Iranians have never forgiven the United States for this overthrow of a democratically elected leader.
The shah’s rule saw massive changes in Iranian society, driven in part by rising oil prices and in part by his efforts to impose social and economic reforms. A number of those reforms targeted the clergy’s power and attempted to secularize the public sphere; protests against the reforms elevated a young cleric, Ruhollah Khomeini, to prominence — and forced him into exile. More than a decade later, in the mid 1970s, Iran’s rapid growth slowed, creating a period of chaos and political violence. The shah’s diverse opposition coalesced around Khomeini, who ultimately succeeded in toppling him. In the chaos after the shah’s fall, Khomeini’s followers marginalized secular and leftist forces. In addition, his supporters occupied the U.S. embassy and took its staff hostage, an action that led to the collapse of a more moderate Iranian government, helped cement Khomeini’s power, and set the foundation for decades of hostile relations with the United States.
Shortly after the revolution, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Iran, kicking off a devastating war that would last into 1988. The United States, fearful that Khomeini-style revolutionary Islamism would spread across the region, provided some support to Iraq, as did many Arab and European states. However, in a moment of strategic backsliding the Reagan administration also sold arms to Iran in exchange for hostages held in Lebanon in the infamous Iran-Contra affair. Shortly before the war’s end, an American cruiser mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner, killing 290.
The postwar period saw Iran struggling to recover economically, even as its foreign policy kept it from normalizing relations with the West. Between 1989 and 1992, the regime carried out a string of overseas assassinations of Iranian dissidents and terrorist actions. Those actions contributed to the U.S. decision to pursue a policy of “dual containment” — pressuring both Iraq and Iran at the same time — to block an Iranian oil deal with the American firm Conoco, and to impose new sanctions.
The late 1990s and early 2000s saw a brief window of opportunity for an opening. In Iran, reformist president Mohammad Khatami, who promised a “dialogue of civilizations” and began opening the political space, was elected. The September 11 terror attacks in the United States gave the two countries a common enemy (the Taliban, with whom Iran had nearly gone to war a few years before) and saw them work together at the Bonn Conference to build Afghanistan’s new government. Iran allowed the U.S. military to enter the country to deliver aid in the wake of a massive earthquake in 2003. Iran may have even offered a “grand bargain” aimed at reconciliation in the same year, although that incident remains disputed. Either way, the U.S. blew an opportunity for détente and engagement.
As a result, Khatami would ultimately be succeeded in 2005 by the hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Meanwhile, the controversy over Iran’s nuclear program was building, driven by the public exposure of an undeclared enrichment facility at Natanz in 2002 and the failure of an EU-led negotiation effort to freeze the Iranian nuclear program. Those two trend lines converged in 2006 and 2007, with the adoption of Security Council sanctions against Iran.
The Bush administration had a strong current of skepticism toward Iran. Iran’s inclusion in Bush’s 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech shocked many in Iran and undermined those who had pursued a reduction in tensions. The presence of U.S. forces on Iran’s eastern and western borders increased Iranian fear. U.S.-Iranian tensions grew rapidly in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, as Iran supplied Shia militias with advanced bombs designed to target the U.S.-led coalition’s armored vehicles, and U.S. forces raided the Iranian consulate in Erbil.
During the first term of the Obama administration, the United States and international community began applying growing pressure on Iran over its nuclear program. Intensified sanctions combined with the Ahmadinejad government’s severe economic malpractice to produce deep disruptions, culminating in 40 percent inflation. Mass unrest following the 2009 presidential election — labeled the “Green Revolution” — saw brutal repression and the house arrest (which continues to today) of major political figures. Talk of an American or Israeli airstrike on the Iranian nuclear program became common, and each side participated in a wave of bombings and cyber-attacks, including Iranian attacks on Israeli diplomats and apparently Israeli-backed assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists.
The beginning of direct U.S.-Iranian talks in Oman in early 2013 paved the way for a new round of negotiations. Together with the subsequent election of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, the war talk and violence died down. Following two years of negotiations with the United States, Europeans, Russia, and China, Iran inked the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Under this arrangement, all Iranian pathways to sufficient fissile material for a nuclear weapon were blocked for approximately fifteen years, in addition to a major increase in inspections, some permanent restrictions, and some temporary measures to slow Iran’s nuclear research and acquisition of military hardware, including missile technology. However, in 2018, Donald Trump — as he’d earlier threatened — announced U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. However, all other parties to the deal remain in the agreement as written. The United States was now acting like an international pariah.
To better understand Iranian foreign policy, it is important to recognize that the history Iranians remember of their relations with America is very different from the history Americans remember. Americans’ memory centers on the hostage crisis; terrorist actions such as the bombings of the U.S. embassy in Beirut (April 1983, 63 dead), U.S. and French peacekeepers’ barracks in Beirut (October 1983, 305 dead), and Iranian overseas terror attacks in the 1980s and 1990s; and Iran’s supply of advanced weapons to Shia militias as they targeted American servicemen in Iraq during the war there.
Younger Iranians’ memory, on the other hand, centers less on the coup against Mossadegh and more on the Iran-Iraq War — on the international community’s failure to condemn Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran, its support for Saddam even as he used chemical weapons against Iranian troops, Iraqi actions (including the gassing of Halabja and the missile attack on the frigate USS Stark) for which the U.S. blamed both sides, and the U.S. downing of the Iranian airliner. Nearly all of Iran’s neighbors and most of the great powers supported Saddam in one way or another. That led to a strong Iranian sense of isolation, including distrust of the international community, of international institutions, and especially of the United States
The Iran-Iraq War was a formative experience for most of Iran’s current leaders, whether they participated in it directly, were engaged in overseeing it, or conducted Iran’s foreign relations during it. The different readings of history, in which each side sees itself as the victim, contribute to deep mistrust between the two sides, making major improvements in relations difficult and unlikely. Contemporary disagreements over Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syria and America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA also divide in a binary manner between U.S. and Iranian perceptions of each event.
This article was originally published in the August 2019 edition of Future of Freedom.