The ‘New’ Iranian Stand-Off Is Just Business As Usual for the USA

In recent months, news coverage has again become dominated with reports from Iran, with President Trump and his counter-part President Hassan Rouhani stuck in a now-familiar war of words in response to Trump escalating sanctions against the beleaguered Gulf nation, with Rouhani recently calling the Trump “mentally retarded”. Retarded… maybe not. Simple? Most definitely. Yet the US administration’s latest escalations with Iran are not the birth of a new conflict but exhaustively predictable behaviour from a nation which has been behaving this way for decades, even when it was ruled by much sharper minds than Donald J. Trump.

It is notable that Iran can take credit for being one of the few prizes for aspiring rulers of any international hegemony which has resisted subservience to America, the dominant world power. The country has become economically crippled and a fundamentalist, autocratic Islamic theocracy along the way. The Republican administration of 2019 has not radically hardened America’s response to their resistance: Democratic and Republican administrations alike have pursued the same neo-realist approach which requires rebellious, resource-rich and strategically important states such as Iran to be brought in line or duly punished.

One of the foremost motivators within the international system is the re-assertion of dominance upon those states which step out-of-line with the goals of the present Great Power, which the USA has been ever since becoming the global hegemon in the wake of World War II. The necessity of military dominance in maintaining this position and affording the US the ability to become the richest nation on Earth is one of the leading reasons the US military budget is over three times larger than even it’s second biggest rival, China. To even the closest Great Power, the potential losses are exponentially lesser than the one dominant state. Actions within three continents over the past seventy years, most notably in Cuba, Vietnam and Iran, have been responses to state actors who don’t align with the goals of the US administration. New Zealand should count itself lucky that its primary resource is woollen. 

In 1953 a military coup overturned Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq which allowed the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to rule as state leader, a man sympathetic to the US and keen on modernisation. In 2013, declassified documents confirmed what was barely a revelation: that “the military coup that overthrew Mosaddeq and his National Front cabinet was carried out under CIA direction as an act of US foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government”. The coup was actually motivated by Mossadeq’s mistrust of the United Kingdom rather than America, the previous world hegemon, which he regarded as ‘evil’. He was an anomaly in the region both for his absolute resistance to empire and concern for human rights. The coup was proposed by then-Foreign Secretary (and later PM) Anthony Eden in response to the Iranian leader nationalising the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which would come to be known as BP. Eden barely had to persuade President Eisenhower, who asked the CIA to seek “through legal, or quasi-legal, methods to effect the fall of the Mosaddeq government”. This resulted in the other-throw of Mossadeq, a democratically elected politician, and was the end of the Iranian parliamentary system. 

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The 1953 Iranian Coup D’état

The true seeds of today’s headlines were planted during the 25 years of the Shah’s rule however, and by the eventual revolution against him in 1979 at the hands of the fundamentalist Islamic Republic, which replaced him with the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called rebellions such as these which were successful a ‘virus’ which can ‘spread contagion’. He made this claim in the wake of another successful challenge, when Salvador Allende became leader in Chile. In the same part of the world, with another generation’s hawkish Republican administration controlling the US, Hugo Chavez was recently deposed shortly after petitioning the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to raise oil prices to benefit the global south.

The Iranian people’s overthrow of an undemocratic CIA-plant was a movement supported by various Islamic and leftist groups internationally, but the removal of the US-obedient Shah far from meant the return of democracy to Iran, and was the beginning of a hard-line period of rule where human rights have been eroded immensely. The nation’s newfound theocracy means there exist such human rights breaches as punishment for crimes such as fornication and homosexuality, execution of offenders under 18 years of age, restrictions on freedom of speech and the press (including the imprisonment of journalists), and restrictions on freedom of religion and gender equality in the constitution (especially attacks on members of the Bahá’í religion).

For a large part, the UK and US have themselves to blame for this. Responding the election of an anti-imperialist leader in a country scarred by the British Empire by removing said leader and enforcing a tyrannical stooge hardly made the population more sympathetic to the US or any less radical, and the fundamentalist nature of the uprising was conflated by the Shah’s own oppressive rule, where one of the few places rebels could meet free from the monarchy’s watchful eye were mosques. 

While the devastating conflict of the Vietnam War has proven to be pop culture’s most obvious muse and US meddling is most historically apparent in it’s neighbouring South American nations, Iran is perhaps the USA’s most enduring embarrassment, as it was once one of the crown jewels of America’s stakes in the Middle East. Look at the embarrassingly worshipful treatment Israel gets from the Trump administration today: after the implementation of an obedient Shah, Iran was with (post-1967) Israel and Saudi Arabia as one of these trophies. Since World War II, US leaders have barely concealed why. Eisenhower called Saudi Arabia, with its plentiful reserves of oil, “one of the greatest material prizes in world history”. In the seventeenth century such reserves would have been little but a sticky nuisance but, in the industrial-age, control of oil equates to a great deal of leverage over rich industrialised rivals in Europe and Asia. The US has still produced its own fossil fuels, but oil dictatorships are fertile markets for American arms and vehicles, and agreements with the US mean these nations have been happy to prop up the dollar currency. Yet while control of the Gulf gives the US considerable advantages, it also invokes a great degree of panic within the world powers’ administrations whenever the virus of freedom takes hold in one of these key states, as happened in Iran in 1979. 

Jimmy_Carter_with_King_Hussein_of_Jordan_the_Shah_of_Iran_and_Shahbanou_of_Iran_-_NARA_-_177332_04
Jimmy Carter with King Hussein of Jordan, the Shah of Iran and Shahbanou of Iran in 1977

It feels strange to write about this history at a time when developments occurring in real-time within between Iran and the Trump-led US so closely mirror the aftermath of the revolution. In it’s wake, the then-Republican President Ronald Reagan dealt with it through tacit support of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran, eventually intervening militarily to protect Iraqi ships. When the war ended, the Department of Energy actually invited Iraqi engineers to the US for weapons training. Such was US reliance on Hussein with their Iranian client lost, Iraq even got away with killing 37 US soldiers when it’s missiles hit the USS Stark: compare the lack of response to this crime this to neo-con Ben Shapiro’s suggestion last week that the US should kill Iranian civilians in response to an unmanned drone being shot out the air.

Iran is a brutal regime, no doubt. However, the Trump administration’s narrative is not that Iran is a threat to its own people – this much is clear – but that it is a threat to America and world peace as a whole. As Bernie Sanders scoffed on Face The Nation this week: Iran is not a threat to world peace, at least not close to as much as America is. In 2010, US intelligence agencies reported to Congress that Iran’s military policy is strictly “defensive … designed to slow an invasion and force a diplomatic solution to hostilities”. Little suggests a major deviation from this path since. The last terrorist act conducted by Iran against the US was the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia 22 years ago, which killed 19 U.S. air-force personnel. There is no excuse for such murderous acts, but it is also true that since 9/11 Iran hasn’t targeted the US military once. They actually collaborated fully with the illegal US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, even offering the United States Al-Qaeda troops crossing their border in exchange for ‘normalising relations’. President Bush didn’t want them, and denounced Iran as part of his ‘axis of evil’ instead. 

Since the 1979 rebellion, the Islamic Republic has indeed been a staunch defender of Shia interests worldwide: providing logistical assistance to Hezbollah in Lebanon, supporting the Houthi’s in Yemen, supporting the Assad regime against it’s Sunni opposition ISIS in Syria and closely monitoring Shia’s in Nigeria fighting against Boko Haram extremists. The US would be right to claim that President Rouhani’s government is interested in promoting Shia Islam abroad, but as a threat to American or world peace, it isn’t a credible one. Shia’s are a small minority of global Islam, and aren’t homogenous even within Iran. Many of the most notorious threats named by Western mainstream-media have been Suffi-extremists such as ISIS who believe in the Salafist interpretation of Islam promoted globally by US-ally Saudi Arabia, not Shias, who many hard-line Sunnis consider to be as treacherous as the jews of Tel Aviv. Some of these Suffis are the very same extremist groups the US allied with in Kosovo in the 1990s and Syria in the 2010s. 

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Shia and Sunni population distribution globally

As for the threat of nuclear war: the notion of a theocratic state developing nuclear weapons even as a deterrent is indeed a fearsome one, considering the fact such a belief-system fosters only a tangential relationship with reality. However the Rouhani regime insists that Islam prohibits the development of such weapons, and if there is something they have been consistent about then it’s the strictness of their faith. As recently as 2012 independent assessors have reported to Congress that Iran has no intentions to develop nuclear arms. Even if they did, such concern on the part of America is somewhat hypocritical. In the US-backed Shah period, the monarch did regularly express a desire to become a nuclear state, saying to journalists at one point that it was his regime’s plan “without a doubt and sooner than one would think”. The US government even petitioned US universities to help with Iran’s nuclear development. Although many of the relationships Iran had with neighbouring countries under the Shah have remained in place, crucially Iran was no longer a US ally, and the very secretaries who were campaigning universities in the 1970s had a sudden change of heart in the 1980s.

Doubts that America’s concerns about Iran becoming a nuclear state are insincere are further underlined by the actions of the Trump administration. If it is genuinely concerned about Iran developing nuclear weapons it is going about it in a rather bizarre way: there was a quite excellent solution signed in 2015 called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) – Obama’s so-called Iran Deal – and the current President has dismantled it. 

FILE - Sept. 10, 2015: President Obama, accompanied by Secretary of State John Kerry, meets with veterans and Gold Star Mothers to discuss the Iran Nuclear deal, in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington.(The Associated Press)
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, two architects of the JCPA, in 2015

Ratified in 2015, Iran signed the JCPA deal with the PS5+1 group (USA, UK, France, China, Russia, Germany). Since coming into office, President Trump claimed that it was “a horrible one-sided deal that should never, ever have been made” and that “it didn’t bring calm, it didn’t bring peace, and it never will”. In 2018 he broke with European allies to sign an executive order re-imposing sanctions on any foreign company that continued to do business with Iran. His criticisms were not true however: the JCPA was one of the more remarkable diplomatic feats in living memory: a rare, genuinely stabilising achievement.

Under the terms of the deal, Iran agreed to reduce their nuclear enrichment levels by over 16%, reduce their uranium stockpile by 98% and turn over two thirds of it’s centrifuges to the IAEA (The International Atomic Energy Agency). In return, decades of economically-crippling sanctions were lifted. For the US, this meant nothing: simply removing illegal sanctions imposed upon a nation who they had helped to topple the democratic government of, and support a neighbour’s war against. Even better, it opened up an opportunity for US collaboration with Iran against ISIS (the only sustainable option for their total demise) and gave America access to Iranian markets. It also alleviated the dramatic levels of poverty the sanctions enacted upon the Iranian people – a small footnote in global politics, but supposedly the entire point of living within a civilisation rather than a perpetual state of war in the first place.

The JCPA had many critics. For Republican and many Democrat politicians, if the US couldn’t have Iran as an ally, many hoped that economic suffering of it’s population would lead to a government overthrow and perhaps a new leader in the Shah-vein. But this was never going to happen: President Hassan Rouhani was, and remains, a popular leader – far more popular than his US counterpart among his citizens, and voter turnout is higher there too. Even if a minority did topple the regime, there was no guarantee that Rouhani’s replacement would be sympathetic to the West. There was speculation at the time that Iran would quickly break the deal, but they didn’t, and never would have. It has proven far more historically important for the Iran to remove the sanctions which have crippled the country than stockpile uranium: it’s why they agreed to the deal in the first place. This predictable obedience bore true: up until the moment President Trump broke with the deal, the IAEA was reporting that Iran was meeting every condition.

Naturally, the JCPA wasn’t perfect, but many of the major barriers which could have been enforced to stop Iran becoming a nuclear state were refused not by Iran, but America. Iran advocated for a demilitarised nuclear-free zone, with the support of other Arab states, but at NPT review conferences US regularly vetoed the idea, last by Obama in 2015. Accepting it would be to admit that key ally Israel has nuclear weapons, and disastrously obligate them to be inspected. We do however know that Israel has at least 80 warheads, and has recently developed a new Jericho III missile rumoured to have significantly better range than anything the Iranians are capable of developing. 

Therefore the official rationale of the Trump administration is questionable at best, and it is a blinding coincidence that Iran apparently acted in an unacceptable manner less than two months after his presidency began. For Donald Trump himself, it seems likely that the fact America made any compromises to get the Iran deal signed (compromise being used loosely here: again, the US only removed sanctions it imposed upon a nation it had destabilised) was a ripe opportunity to evidence his own bravado, tweeting “they don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”. The posturing is clear: the deal was very ‘kind’ on the US, not Iran. The effects of the JCPA reduced the ability of Iran to develop a nuclear missile, should they renege on it’s terms, from a matter of months to a year at best. For President Trump’s inner circle, Michael Flynn, H. R. McMaster and John Bolton (a man who would declare war on the moon if daddy let him), the Trump Presidency is an opportunity to restore a harder line against one of the disobedient nations which managed to resist CIA-backed democratic overthrow or, as his predecessor called it: the virus.

Even once the JCPA was broken by the US, Iran stuck by the terms of the deal. The IAEA confirmed as recently as May 31st 2019 that the state continued to remain below the agreed-upon thresholds, and they are only going to finally exceed the uranium stockpile cap at the end of the June. Even this doesn’t necessarily mean that Iran is developing nuclear missiles. So far it hasn’t it, but we cannot know for sure that it doesn’t want to. The only certainty is that if they did develop one, they could never use it: their destruction at the hands of Israel and it’s western allies would be certain and absolute. The US on the other hand broke the terms of the JCPA without consequence five weeks into President Trump’s term, and many of the sanctions he has placed upon Iran since have been brutal, and illegal. In October 2018, the UN’s International Court Of Justice ruled unanimously that America’s restrictive measures on humanitarian trade, food, medicine and civil aviation contradicted the 1955 Treaty of Amnesty and led to civilian deaths. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded by withdrawing from the Treaty.

In 2019, the Trump Administration’s stance has hardened further, in a manner reminiscent to the rhetoric espoused by the Reagan Administration after Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar was overthrown in 1979. They have now classified a division of the Iranian Military as a terrorist organisation, ended waivers which allowed other countries such as China and Japan to import Iranian oil and sent an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf on the basis of ‘escalatory action from the Iranians’, which John Bolton has so far not specified and there has been no real evidence of. Since then, 2500 US troops have been deployed to the region, some in the wake of attacks of two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, potentially but not definitively carried out by Iran.

In the latest escalation, a $110million US drone was shot down by Iran’s armed forces, in territory the US claims was international airspace and what Iran deemed to be their own. In either case, it’s hard to view the flying of a weaponised drone around a country’s border unprovocative – but the definitive nature of the shooting is the first undeniable military escalation on the part of Iran, granting the Trump Administration a far firmer justification to retaliate – launching a cyber-attack upon Iran last week, and calling off a retaliatory strike which could have killed up to 150 Iranians at the final moment. The administration claims that this would have been a proportionate response, but it’s hard to congratulate the President for not launching an attack against another sovereign nation, given the US’ role in creating it’s fundamentalist nature, it’s dire economic situation and the fact that it’s hard to imagine anybody launching an attack on US soil being met with anything other than devastation in return. As Bernie Sanders put it this week: the present US approach is “like somebody setting a fire to a basket full of paper and then putting it out”.

Of course even if the militaristic posturing is dialed down in the coming months (Trump should be mocked for seeking congratulation for not killing 150 civilians, but he at least did call off the strike) it will still mean Iran being subject to more crippling sanctions, forgiven by European states too weak to protest. Consensus on Iran’s relative guilt in all this is not unique to conservative media either: liberal outlets regularly term Iran a ‘rogue state’, presumably in contrast with the ‘normal’ USA. The simple historical fact that Iran would have been of little concern to the average citizen of America had the CIA not backed a coup there in 1953 is irrelevant to their current position as the new Number One Threat. 

This is not to say that President Trump is the sole cause of all this. Firstly, Trump has never been the sole author of any policy decision at all (the man is an empty vessel in every sense of the word), but also because Hilary Clinton’s stance on Iran was perhaps even harder. When it occurred in 1953, the CIA’s hand in the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadeq was the very first active interference in the affairs of another country during peacetime, making Iran the oldest rebel in post-war American history. The standoff of June 2019 is truly nothing new. A change in such a dynamic can only come about if there is a leader who is willing to acknowledge that America’s dedication to the establishing peace is directly correlated with the extent to which the compromises it has to make to get there affect its position as the most powerful state in the world.

President Obama went surprisingly far with the JCPA but was shackled by an inability to admit to several facets of US’ obligations in the Gulf, compromising with its official enemy but unable to do so against its allies Saudi Arabia and Israel. Mainstream American discourse is changing however: Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard, prominent 2020 Democratic nominee candidates, have expressed a desire to end ‘regime-change wars’. To them, US military dominance is not worth it, even to American citizens. It’s a long way until October 2020 and Trump’s hawkish allies could still lead the US into armed conflict with Iran, but Trump’s dismantling of a peace-making deal which miraculously included genuine compromise is an even shoddier pretense for conflict with Iran than even George W. Bush’s efforts. With the most popular politician in America speaking openly about the true US relationship with Iran for the first time in 80 years, it might not be ludicrous to hope for a different outcome this time.

Words by Liam Inscoe – Jones.

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