Iran and United States were cold war era allies. They had a strategic partnership in that time period in order to contain the Soviet Union. However, the US-Iran relations have seen a rocky past for the last 40 years. The two countries treaded on a point of confrontation after the hostage crisis. Iran has been one constant US obsession over this time period. North Korea, though in the crosshairs, has been just another irritant. However, the American focus has remained on Iran. The Soviet Union has transformed from an archenemy, to a friend, to a challenging nuisance. China has moved from being a partner to a great-power rival. However, there has been one persistent foe and that is Iran. The longevity of this rivalry is astounding. The US fought a decade long war in Vietnam and lost 58,000 soldiers. However, full ties between the two were restored in 1995. On the other hand, Iran has been attributed with fewer than 500 US casualties but its relationship with the US has never become functional ever since. Iran fits nicely into what a US definition of a serious threat would look like. It has a revolutionary ideology, an expansionist orientation and network of allies around the world. The United States is a liberal meritocratic democracy with allies in around the Middle East whose interests diverge with Iran’s. Whereas, Iran is a theological state with an increasingly expansionist agenda looking to stick to a historical nostalgia of a great power. The differences, besides a clash of realist interests around the Middle East are also ideological.
The root of the tumultuous relationship in the eyes of the Iranian public, between Iran and the United States started with the ousting of Iranian President Mohammad Mossadeq who had sought to nationalise Iran’s oil industry. The overthrow of Mossadeq was the original sin. The coup led by UK’s intelligence agencies but also involving the US as a junior partner removed the president and replaced him with the Shah. Shah’s relationship with the US tainted the image of both in the eyes of Iranian public. Shah, a close ally of US but having a large degree of mistrust with his populace was removed after Khomeini’s revolution in 1979. The turning point was the ran-sacking of the US embassy and taking 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days, which had the blessings of the Khomeini government. This development soured the relationship. Soon thereafter, Iran-US interests were clashing in the Middle East.
The history of the US-Iranian relationship must be explored more deeply – there have been multiple confrontations between the two states time and again. The first one was in 1983, when Iran and Syria worked together in separate attacks against the US embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut. However, the US resumed selling military equipment to Iran in 1985, via Israeli intermediaries. This episode known as the Iran-contra affair was based on the logic that Reagan was desperate to rescue US hostages trapped in Lebanon. However, Reagan believed that if Iran would be seen losing then it would seek the help of the Soviet Union. Therefore, he thought about a plan to simultaneously hasten the demise of both the Soviet Union and Iran and this he thought could only be through dialogue. Nevertheless, Iran had no Gorbachev and had a more robust governance structure; therefore the demise tactics applied to the Soviet Union did not work on Iran.
The second confrontation between the two states occurred with the shooting down of the civilian Iranian jet in 1988, when USS Vincennes shot down an Iran Air flight. Later on, in 1996, Iran orchestrated the Khobar towers complex bombing in Saudi Arabia. The complex housed US military personnel. Yet, by the time, the blame for the attack could be authoritatively pinned on Iran, in 1997, the American will to punish Iran had lost its appeal as Mohammad Khatami, who has pledged to end Iran’s provocative foreign policy and looked to improve Iran’s relationship with the West, had been elected president in the interim. Moving onto the new millennium, George W. Bush did not get the opportunity to implement an Iran policy as 9/11 derailed his plans. However, Bush did undertake one step and that was to shut down US cooperation with Iran in Afghanistan as Iran began shipping weapons to insurgents in Iraq. Prior to that, there was cooperation between United States and Iran in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A key convergence between Iran and US occurred when they fought the ISIS together to drive them out of Mosul and regain control of the territory. There was intelligence sharing and wide scale cooperation between the two as they successfully managed the operations. ISIS had earlier overrun parts of Northern Iraq and Eastern Syria.
Iranian attempts can largely be seen as opportunistic responses to US blunders over the past. An example of this is seen in 1983, after a US peacekeeping mission transformed into an intervention backing the country’s government, Lebanese militants supported by Iran and Syria attacked American diplomats, military personnel and intelligence officials.
The policies of confrontation between Iran and America increased in the previous decade as Iran, with its network of allies, intensified attacks on US interests in the region. It also began covert support of the Taliban and worked on making a crescent of proxy groups surrounding Saudi Arabia and its allies including in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon. This generated fear amongst two key US allies i.e. Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Iranian regime looked to counter Israel through its Hezbollah allies and by amassing assets on Israel’s border with Syria. Iran sees Syrian territory both as a frontline across which to confront Israel and as an important link to its ally, Hezbollah, in Lebanon. However, recent attacks by Israel on Iranian targets have shown that these strategies have been counter-productive.
Concurrently, Iran started supplying arms to Houthis to pinch Saudi Arabia and to Al-Assad’s regime in Syriain order to counter the revolution cum armed movement against Assad’s regime.
The United States, on the other hand, was supplying Saudi Arabia with high-tech weaponry such as Raytheon precision-guided munitions (PGM), support for Boeing Co F-15 aircraft, and Javelin anti-tank missiles. Some of this weaponry such as the PGM’s were used to launch an air campaign against Houthis. However, despite modern air defence equipment supplied to Saudi Arabia, the combined drone and cruise missile barrage by Iranians on two Saudi facilities that knocked out half of the kingdom’s oil production could not be prevented. Saudi Arabia therefore is likely to increase its spending on defence equipment after this latest assault, particularly Air Defence equipment in the future. Muhammad Bin Salman has already signed a contract worth over $350bn with United States during his visit there in 2017. Moreover, United States supplies military equipment to Israel such as aircrafts (such as F-16 F-15), helicopters (such as Apache Cobra) and various kinds of missiles such as (Patriot, Maverick, Hellfire, Cluster Bombs, etc). However, in recent years due to technological advances by local Israeli manufacturers, it has become more self-reliant and started manufacturing local equipment such as aircraft (IAI Kfir), artillery (Makmat), and UAV’s (IAI Heron). Israel is one of the leaders in drone and air defence technologies around the world.
In realist terms, the relationship is highly tilted in favour of the US. Iran’s population is only 1/4th that of the US and its economy is barely 2 per cent. The US and its allies spend $750 billion annually on their armed forces, 50 times as much as Iran. Both Israel and the US produce state of the art weapons and battle management technologies. On the other hand, Iran’s Navy and Air Force is equipped with outdated arsenal and its primary weapon of choice remains indigenously developed ballistic missiles that it also readily supplies to its Hezbollah allies in Lebanon and Houthis in Yemen. Iran primarily operates through proxies with money, technology and weapons to do its work in the region
The arch-realist Kissinger said that Iran must decide whether it is a cause or a country. The question that arises is that should the US seek to adopt a realistic perspective, which is that like any other self-securing state Iran seeks to maximise its security interests in a profoundly hostile environment or have ideological confrontation with Iran and its theocratic regime? As far as ideology is concerned, Iran looks to sustain its image as a bulwark against US and its allies’ power in the Islamic world. It regularly seeks to espouse the Palestinian cause and supports proxies such as Hezbollah and Houthis. Therefore, despite sporadic tactical alliances between Iran and the United States, such as in Afghanistan after 9/11 and Iraq, after the overthrow of Saddam, in the long run, there is a divergence of interests due to underlying strategic, ideological and political reasons. Recently, Trump labeled Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation and denied waivers to China and India for the purchase of Iranian oil.
European approach to Iran, on the other hand, has been more in preference of negotiation rather than confrontation. European powers helped establish the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). The embargo on Iran under JCPOA is likely to be lifted next month and arms sales from Russia and China are likely to resume. This might lead to increased insecurity in the region due to an arms race. Upto a point, Europeans had been exercising ‘strategic patience,’ keeping Europeans onboard and sticking to the nuclear agreement. It reduced its compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action by expanding its stockpile of low enriched uranium.
For ensuring peace in the Middle East, where there is increasing anarchy as two states have collapsed, i.e. Yemen and Libya, and a third was on the verge of collapse, i.e. Syria, United States must take on a leading role to ensure peace and stability. Increasing protests across Iraq, Jordan, Algeria and Sudan due to social issues are destabilizing these countries as well. They are in a very perilous situation and their governments, particularly in Iraq, are on a tenuous footing. It is imperative that a regional framework is developed that incorporates the interest of all countries. The Organization of Islamic Countries can play a leading role in this regard. Confrontation will not solve the problem. If a regional framework is developed, it will aid in bringing prosperity, freedom and security across Middle East, which resultantly would benefit America and its allies, and America will be able to withdraw its forces from the region – a long held demand of the American public. However, as of present, the policies of Trump have fuelled conflict between Iran and Israel, alienated the Palestinians, supported an unending war and a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and split the Gulf Cooperation Council. There is another approach the US could take in the region. It would involve stepping up US diplomacy and scaling back US objectives to what can plausibly be accomplished with the means available. The policy should be one based on containment rather than trying to overthrow the regime.
The United States as a global superpower can work towards opening up of diplomatic relations with Iran which will in turn more effectively help it navigate the complex waters of Middle Eastern politics. Even though the repressive policies of Iran on its populace are something that champions of human rights in United States will object to, however as shown by opening up of relations with North Korea, it is possible that in the future, American and Iranian relations can also find a new opening after 40 years of mutual hostility. Donald Trump can in this regard play a leading role, particularly as his hawkish National Security Adviser John Bolton has been shown the door. Moreover, the restraint shown by the United States after Iranian downing of the US drone also elucidated the fact that rationality still prevails in American thinking with regards to its Iranian policy.
In conclusion, it can be said that although the two countries have highly divergent interests in the Middle East and a history where collaboration has been only sporadic, however, the future trajectory will show that only if the two tread on a path of mutual reconciliation rather than confrontation, can there be an end to increasing tensions in and around the Middle East.
-The writer is a researcher at Center for AeroSpace Security Studies. He plans to pursue international law and
international relations for further studies