Understanding the US/Iran relationship

For the last couple of years, the Trump administration has been edging closer to war with Iran. This was especially true during the first few weeks of January 2020.

On January 3rd, Donald Trump ordered the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s top commander at the helm of Iran’s elite Quds Force. Although the general had been labeled a terrorist by previous US administrations (Bush and Obama), there seems good reason that he was never before targeted. While Trump claimed he did the world a favor and that his action was intended to “stop war,” the targeted killing has added to the instability in the Middle East. Trump’s action has prompted Iraqi legislators to vote to expel US troops. Iran has announced the end of the JCPOA nuclear deal. And hardliners in Iran have been emboldened.

Soleimani became the leader of Iran’s Quds Force in 1998, and the Trump administration holds him responsible for the death of hundreds of U.S. soldiers during the Iraq War. While there is no denying that Iran has been aggressive in spreading its influence in the Middle East and using military proxies to further its objectives, the Trump administration neglects to credit America for the profound errors it made over many decades of its presence in the region. And many US actions have compromised the stability and security of Iran. 

This seems a good time to review the history of the relationship between the two countries.

Sunni/Shia struggle: a helpful lens 

One helpful lens for understanding the US/Iran relationship is the struggle for regional influence by the two primary denominations of Islam, Sunni and Shia

As the two largest countries in the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia also hold the region’s largest Shia and Sunni majorities, respectively. For decades, the two countries have sought the leadership of Islam and of influence in the region. They’ve been embroiled in a “cold war” since 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini took power in Iran and implemented a concept of government by the clergy — a concept obviously rejected by the various Sunni royal families (such as Saudi Arabia’s House of Saud). 

As Iran and Saudi Arabia vie for regional supremacy, the conflict between them has often been waged through proxy groups. The late General Soleimani was hugely instrumental in Iran’s support of Shia militants in Iraq, Hebollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and in Syria. Saudi Arabia in turn has supported Sunni groups, including the Yemeni government, and the Free Syrian Army against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Shia militias supported by Iran have achieved very important political victories in the Middle East, and Sunni ruling families (such as that of the Saudis), are worried that their grip on power in their countries and in the region is being weakened. 

For reasons having to do largely with oil, the US has historically supported Saudi Arabia against Iran. 

Here below is a short list of aggressions, military and otherwise, by the United States and Iran against each other. Although the list is by no means exhaustive, it provides an outline of some of the specific actions that are at the heart and the foundation of the antipathy between the two countries.

We’ll begin with what seems the single biggest error and act of aggression by either country against the other — the 1953 US-sponsored coup d’état that overthrew the moderate, secular and democratically-elected leader of Iran. 

US aggression toward Iran

  • In 2013, the U.S. declassified documents describing how in 1953 the UK M-16 intelligence and US C.I.A. together engineered a coup, Project Ajax, to overthrow Iran’s democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Their action was in direct response to Mosaddegh’s decision to nationalize Iran’s oil industry and expel foreign oil corporations (principally the UK and US) that had been extracting Iran’s oil wealth for themselves and leaving just a small fraction for Iranians. Prime Minister Mosaddegh was secular, had rejected communism, and embraced alignment with the West. The US coup ushered in the return of the corrupt last Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a dictator who ruled his country through torture and killings carried out by his secret police (SAVAK). That turn of events also meant that Iran did not benefit from Mosaddeq’s domestic oil industry plan. The Shah was overthrown in 1979 by the Islamic Revolution.

  • In 1980, the US gave Iraq a green light to invade Iran. That led to the 8 year Iran-Iraq War, which took more than 500,000 lives. The US provided Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein with intelligence that knowingly facilitated his use of chemical weapons against Iranian military and civilians, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 100-150,000 Iranians. When the UN Security Council, on March 21, 1986, issued a declaration that cited the 1925 Geneva Protocol against chemical warfare and condemned Iraq’s use of chemical weapons, the US was the only member state to vote against it.

  • On July 3, 1988, the US Navy missile cruiser USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 people on board (including 66 children). The US ship was traveling in Iranian territorial waters, and the Iranian plane was civilian. A settlement between the 2 countries was reached at the International Court of Justice, but the US did not apologize to Iran.

  • In May 2018, the Trump administration withdrew the US from the 2015 JCPOA nuclear accord between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany. Despite all signatories to the agreement and the IAEA monitoring agency having confirmed that Iran was complying with its obligations under the treaty, Trump still proceeded to pull the US out of the accord and reinstate sanctions that had been lifted by President Obama when the accord was signed. Those sanctions have now decimated the Iranian economy and brought the Iranian people to their knees, affecting food security and availability of critical medicine. It’s unknown how many civilian lives in Iran the sanctions have directly and indirectly cost.

  • On January 3, 2020, Donald Trump ordered the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds force who was widely considered the man likely to become the next leader of Iran. That same day, the US also attempted in Yemen the targeted killing of another Quds commander, Abdul Reza Shahlai. Although the Shahlai operation failed, that US attempt may indicate that Trump’s overall intentions in the two operations were to blunt Iran’s support of the Houthis in Yemen.

In addition to the US aggression against Iran described above, the US has for decades interfered in Middle Eastern politics in ways that more indirectly affected Iranian interests. This includes aggressions against Iranian allies, actions that compromised Iranian strategic interests in the region, and other overt acts that threatened Iranian stability in one way or another: 

  • 1949: US CIA backed a military coup in Syria.
  • 1956-57: US CIA attempted regime change in Syria.  
  • 1958: US intervened militarily in Lebanon. 
  • September 1982:  US-led Multi-National Force carried responsibility for having allowed the slaughter of almost 3,500 civilians in the Sabra neighborhood and Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon. 
  • April 1988:  In Operation Praying Mantis, the US attacked an Iranian frigate within Iranian territorial waters in retaliation for Iran having mined the Persian Gulf
  • To counter Soviet attempts to expand its sphere of influence during the Cold War, toward the end of the 1980s, the U.S. began backing the mujahideen in Afghanistan. The CIA’s Operation Cyclone armed, financed and trained mujahideen in support of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan against the USSR.  That choice proved unwise, as it built an unpredictable militia that was uncontrollable. 
  • 1990-91: US ambassador to Iraq gave Saddam Hussein a green light to invade Kuwait. The Gulf War that followed created more than 3 million refugees, many of them Shia (reminder: Iran is predominantly Shia). About 500,000 of those took refuge in Iran.
  • 2001-present: US invasion of Afghanistan, on Iran’s long eastern border. The initial declared purpose was to rout out Al Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power. About 13,000 US troops are still there. 
  • 2003-2011:  US-led invasion of Iraq (on Iran’s western border) gave rise to a Sunni/Shia civil war, with the Shia minority increasingly the target of Sunni majority fighters. It also led to the birth of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL); a widespread insurgency against US coalition forces; and an enormous displacement of the Iraqi population (over 4 million), which destabilized neighboring countries (including Iran). 
  • 2007: US ransacked the Iranian consulate in Erbil, Iraq.
  • 2011+ Syrian War:  US provided support for the Syrian opposition against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies (Iran among them). The Trump Administration began more direct military efforts to oust al-Assad and counter Iranian influence in the country.
  • America’s unconditional support of Israel has strained the relationship between the US and the rest of the Middle East.

And then a short list of Iran’s worst aggression toward the US:

  • 1979-81: Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran, taking its 90 employees hostage, and then releasing those who were not American. The seizure was the result of Iranian anger at US President Carter having welcomed to the US for medical treatment the former Iranian shah whom the US had reinstalled as part of the 1953 US-sponsored coup (and who was later deposed). 
  • 1983 suicide bombing of the US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon by Hezbollah (supported by Iran), killing 241 US personnel.
  • During the Iraq War post 9/11, Soleimani waged a campaign of sabotage and attacks, resulting in the death of hundreds of American service personnel. This was in response to the US troops already in Afghanistan (on Iran’s eastern border), and having just attacked and entered Iraq (on Iran’s western border).  Despite the presence in Iraq of two Shiite militias, Suleimani built his own militias, trained in Iran and backed by Hezbollah, whose objective was to gain influence and cause Americans enough pain that they would reduce their presence in the region.
  • 27 December 2019:  Attack on US K-1 Air Base in Kirkuk province in Iraq by what may have been the Iranian-supported militia Kata’ib Hezbollah, killing an American contractor and injuring 4 other Americans and 2 Iraqis. Although Kata’ib Hezbollah denied responsibility for the attack, the US retaliated by bombing its facilities in Iraq and Syria, killing 25 and wounding 55. 
  • 31 December 2019:  Iranian-supported militia Kata’ib Hezbollah attacked the US embassy in Baghdad. There were no deaths or injuries.
  • 8 January 2020: In retaliation for the US assassination of Qasem Soleimani, Iran launched missile strikes on US airbases Ayn al-Asad in Iraq and in Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan). Because Iran gave Iraq fair warning of the imminent attack (and by extension to the US), the strikes conveyed more symbolic meaning than anything else. No one was killed, and injuries were limited.

Washington supports the Saudis — despite Saudi support of terrorism

Despite key differences in ideology and politics, Riyadh and Washington have enjoyed strong ties for decades. Both were allies during the Cold War, fighting against the potential threat of communism in the Middle East, and collaborating in an effort to stabilize oil prices.

Key to their strong ties has been the willingness of the United States to overlook the brutal policies of the Saudi regime. Saudi Arabia is notorious for its human rights violations. At least partly in support of the Saudis’ effort toward dominance over Iran in the region, the United States has designated Iran as the largest state sponsor of terrorism. But is that label accurate? 

Actually, the evidence is strong that Saudi Arabia is the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the Middle East. The majority of groups named in the US State Department’s state sponsor of terrorism list are either Saudi-funded or groups that adhere primarily to the ideology of Wahabbism, as do the Saudis. 

In Saudi Arabia, as within some extremist groups, Wahabbism is the operative Sunni doctrine. Often ultraconservative, it typically strives to implement a “purer” form of Islam and promote a literal interpretation of the Koran.  Though not always the case, it often presents as an “intolerant and aggressive form” of Islam — best illustrated by the fact that Wahabbism is the core ideology of ISIS and Al-Qaeda. An 18th century political alliance between the founder of Wahhabism and a member of the House of Saud helped to ensure the future influence of Wahhabism in the region and the durability of the House of Saud we see today.

That religious doctrine, and that political-religious alliance, has also helped to fuel global terror. A 2010 memo written by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that Saudi Arabia is “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” Thus, the biggest US ally in the region is also the largest and most active state sponsor of terrorism. The Saudi record on human rights, including freedom of the press, is also one of the worst in the world. Most recently, the US intelligence community unanimously determined that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, critic of the Saudi regime.

The Trump Administration, however, has turned a blind eye to all of this. It has also turned the facts on their head in order to rouse public support for aggression toward Iran. The purported motivation of the US for the assassination of Soleimani consisted primarily in him having killed so many Americans during the Iraq War — more than 10 years ago. 

So, why would the Trump administration be so anxious to bring down Iran? And why would Donald Trump engage in an assassination of Soleimani that stood to escalate the tension between Iran and the US?

Trump’s support of Israel and Saudi Arabia, and hostility toward Iran

There are several clear reasons.

  1. US attachment to oil has the country regularly seeking out and supporting oil-rich allies, however unsavory. This is true with Trump more than with any other previous US president.
  2. Both US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence are hawkish on Iran. They are Christian evangelicals, singularly focused on the evangelical belief in the “rapture.” That includes unconditional support for Israel and those states Israel considers allies (e.g., Saudi Arabia), and hostility toward those they see as Israel’s enemies (e.g., Iran). Both Pence and Pompeo were said to have pushed Trump to assassinate Soleimani.
  3. On the other hand, Donald Trump’s primary focus is domestic politics — and particularly his primary voting blocs in the 2020 presidential election. US evangelicals are among those, and their religious beliefs are similar to those of Pence and Pompeo. Fulfillment of the scripture, as they see it, means unconditional support for Israel, and unconditional antipathy toward those seen to be her enemies.
  4. Trump’s killing of Soleimani can be considered a strategic domestic political move ahead of the US general elections in November 2020. Historically, when a US president engages in a major foreign policy crisis, he benefits from both the distraction and the nationalistic fervor it can evoke. 

Whatever Trump’s reasons for killing Soleimani, the UN has declared the US airstrike on Soleimani unlawful and a violation of international human rights law, injurious to the international legal framework for protection of the right to life. 

But in terms of military and security strategy, it is also critical that in killing Soleimani, the Trump administration disregarded his key role in stopping Al Qaeda and ISIL from spreading in Iran and Iraq. US and Iranian interests had previously converged with their common enemy in ISIS. Instead, Soleimani’s death has been received by IS forces as “divine intervention,” likely allowing them now to reorganize in Iraq. 

While it’s undeniable that Iran has been very aggressive in furthering its interests in the region, what we’d like to emphasize here is that there is more to the story. And while the business of keeping a tally of casualties can be messy, and helpful only to a limited degree, statistically speaking, the US surely has much more Iranian blood on its hands than Iran has American blood.

It can also be said that Donald Trump, who came into office with no political or foreign policy experience, has been monumentally disadvantaged by a Secretary of State and Vice President who are so singularly focused on their political-religious agenda that they’ve shown themselves incapable of balancing competing interests (including national security ones). They’ve made a mess of Trump’s foreign policy. And that could ultimately draw the US into a completely unnecessary war with Iran.

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