Understanding U.S- Iran relations
By Hashim Abid
The US-Iranian relationship over the years has been much misunderstood by many. Reality is that Iran and the United States are not really “enemies” as the media portrays it to be, however, this does not mean that they are friends either. Instead the two are frenemies who require each other’s assistance regarding each one’s interests. For the last forty years, Iran along with Saudi Arabia and Israel-has safeguarded American interests in the region. Especially the Persian Gulf, where Saudi Arabia and Iran have continued to aid US interests in the region, which was part of the twin pillar policy. Although the twin pillar policy has been obsolete since Shah’s disposal, the reality, however, tells a different story that Iran continues to safeguard US interests.
The Carter Doctrine explicitly committed the United States to protecting the Persian Gulf from external threats since, the Persian Gulf has been one of the pillars of the American-led liberal world order post-1945. After Shah’s disposal, there was vacuum waiting to be filled and the only one who could have filled that vacuum was the so-called newly formed Islamic republic in 1979. Even though negotiations broke down between Carter and Ayatollah Khomeini due to the hostage crisis- which lasted for 444 days-Iran continued to aid US interests in the region. For the US, Iran was a strategic imperative due to its oil resources and the Soviet proximity towards the Iranian borders. Henceforth, the US had no choice to secretly collude with the new Iranian regime and employ it as a bulwark against communism. Despite the pronounced anti-American feeling at the heart of the Iranian regime, officials like Zbigniew Brzezinski, to Ronald Regan’s CIA director, Bill Casey- would pursue fundamentalist Islam, which was just another pawn on Brzezinski’s “ The Grand Chessboard”.[[i]] As it was essential to uphold American resistance and containment towards the Soviet Union’s expansion, which could have easily penetrated the Persian Gulf due to vacuum created by Shah’s disposal.
Graham Fuller, a former CIA officer who headed the Middle East desk also possessed a similar idea. In one of his national intelligence estimate (NIE), he suggested that the US seek more closer relations with Iran’s Ayatollah regime. He advised many that, Islam is friendly to free-market capitalism, which can be used as a useful tool to counter the Soviet Union. Fuller said: “ Islamists strongly oppose Marxist interpretations of society…. Islamists have always powerfully objected to socialism and communism.”[[ii]] Furthermore, Ayatollah Khomeini’s leading advisor Ebrahim Yazidi also possessed strong links with the American government, who advised Khomeini to have friendly relations towards the U.S. Many years later, Bani Sadr confirmed that, “the Iranian hostage crisis had been a part of an American plan to strengthen Khomeini’s position”[[iii]] Some would assert that this is an anti-American view and does not possess much weight, which is true; however, two scenarios can be extracted from this evidence. The worst-case scenario is that Iran has been colluding with the United States all this time. The best-case scenario is that Iran and the United States have colluded on an occasional basis since the last forty years.
Many would state the Iranian hostage crisis was an embarrassment and a failure for the US, however, many have said the same regarding the US invasion of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it is essential to identify what was the US objective to enter Afghanistan in the first place, and why has it lost regardless of its military superiority. Most view US intervention in Afghanistan as a complete failure, which is valid to a large extent that it has damaged America’s image as a leader of the liberal world order and has also been very costly. However, geopolitically it has helped the US maintain a presence near Russia’s sphere of influence, which is tantamount with the US policy of dominating Eurasia- as the neoconservatives were bent upon dominating the whole world. Same goes for the Iranian hostage crisis; it gave Khomeini the ammunition to invoke anti-American sentiments and maintain them, which helped the regime attain full support of its people and also helped America in safeguarding its interests in the region. According to a 1980 CIA analysis titled Islam in Iran-partially released to the public in 2008- that, “Khomeini explained he was not opposed to American interests in Iran.”
Iran possesses a rich and prominent history, which the Iranian people feel incredibly proud of; however, since the late nineteenth century the country’s monarchs have behaved like puppets controlled by foreign powers, which resulted in the exploitation of resources and the destruction of people’s living standards. Moreover, Reza Mohammad Pahlavi Shah was no different; his rule enraged the Iranian people and generated strong anti-Western imperial sentiments. Khomeini, on the other hand, had the opportunity to gain unprecedented popularity and support from the Iranian public in comparison to the previous rulers-through invoking anti-American sentiments, which became useful in regards to the regime’s survival and has continued to be useful for the last forty years. Reuel Marc Gerecht a former resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) stated, “Anti-Americanism is the common denominator of the Arab states with “ pro-American” dictators. By comparison, Iran is a profoundly a pro-American country”.[[iv]]
During the Iran-Iraq war, the United States provided Iran with military aid through Israel to halt Saddam’s Hussein’s expansion. However, the United States also provided aid alongside the British to Saddam Hussein in order to prevent Iran from winning and taking over Iraq. The reason being is because the Americans did not want either side to prevail as it would pose a threat to U.S interests since, an Iraq strong enough to balance Iran was a threat to the GCC, and a strong enough Iran would be able to counter Iraq and instigate a threat within the region. This illustrates that the US does not trust Iran and vice versa seem to be the case. But it has not stopped the two from aiding each other’s interests- especially Iran aiding US interests- on several occasions.
When America invaded Iraq after 9/11 America ended up helping Iran by disposing its long-time adversary from power- Saddam Hussein- and surprisingly enough, Iran supported the American Operation-Enduring Freedom. Thus, both sides benefited, the US received critical support from Iraq’s neighbour to invade, and Iran got to expand its Shi’ite influence within Iraq. Simultaneously Taliban- another rival for the Iranian regime- was removed from power through America’s invasion of Afghanistan; henceforth, America ended up gifting Iran in both scenarios and also in achieving its interests.
Iran’s rebel behaviour helps the US in balancing Israel and the Arab states, where they end up becoming further dependent on US military aid in order to protect themselves. During the Bush Administration, a bellicose language towards Iran was utilized-due to the regime’s instable behaviour – to install missiles in Poland, and Putin raised this issue at the Munich security conference in 2007. It also turned out that Bush’s statements regarding the severity of the Iranian nuclear threat turned out to be contradictory, where according to an intelligence report Iran ceased its nuclear programme in 2003. Nevertheless, the Bush administration was pretty adamant in proving that Iran’s nuclear programme was still a threat. The US was trying to accomplish two things here. First, the US was using Iran’s erratic behaviour and its anti-American rhetoric to install missiles in Poland, which were actually meant for Russia. Second, it was also trying to obtain a pretext to change the Iranian regime by invading it, but that option became null and void when America invaded Iraq on a faulty intelligence report indicating that WMDs were in Saddam’s possession. Also, if Iran’s nuclear programme were ceased in 2003, it still does not mean that Iran does not possess a nuclear threat. The truth is that Iran does possess the nuclear capacity to build a bomb- a nuclear capacity sort of like Japan- but during that specific period it was purposefully exaggerated by the Bush Administration.
When Obama came to the office, his Administration pursued a new approach towards Iran by providing it with economic incentives to cease its nuclear programme. Strangely enough, Iran signed the deal and eased up on its pursuit of its nuclear programme, which shows that Iran is not really determined in its fight against America; instead, it is seeking self-interests, which are concerning the regime’s survival. The nuclear card for Iran is an important card, which could have helped the country obtain political advantages, but instead, it chose to capitulate it and quite easily. This illustrates that Iran used its nuclear capacity of developing a bomb to generate fear in the region to achieve its interests- regime survival-but also simultaneously aid America’s interests. However, since Obama had a softer approach towards Iran, the Iranians decided to sign the nuclear agreement and maintain their regime. It shows Iran is aligned with American interests and is ready to adapt by calculating the cost and the benefits for its regime’s sustenance.
During Trump, the relationship between the two countries has become dire; however, even during Trump’s current rule Iran has assisted the US in Syria. The scrapping of the JCPOA nuclear deal allowed Iran to enter Syria and support the Assad regime from the ground. Moreover, maintaining the regime with or without Assad in power is a long term American policy. For US and Israel, having a weak regime in Syria is beneficial to the U.S deal of the century and Israel’s growing hunger for annexation. The reason is that over the years Hafez and his son Assad invoked the loss of Golan heights in 1967 to maintain their regime. According to Naji Mustafa, spokesman for the opposition National Liberation Front (NLF), that “ Assad regime never sought to regain the Golan Heights”. Henceforth to preserve such a regime is in America’s favour and Israel’s as well. Thus, Iran has helped the United States once more, but Iran also sought to deceive America by building a military infrastructure in Syria near the Golan heights, something which US and Israel are certainly not happy about.
This illustrates that Iran is desperate to aid American interests in the region even though Trump’s attitude towards Iran has been abysmal. Iran tries to help the US on several occasions for its own self-interests, but simultaneously it tries to deceive it in thinking that it could gain some leverage upon the superpower. This is because Iran wishes to maintain its regional power status, and with it the regime, however, the decision does not depend on Iran; rather, it depends on what America prefers. A similar leverage paradox can also be viewed between America and Pakistan. The way Pakistan behaves towards America is like it possesses some leverage on the US and concurrently seeks US economic and military aid. Over the years American funding to Pakistan has become a blackhole. Iran is to some extent is remarkably similar. Iran enjoys the role of being an unstable beast in the Middle East region, which helps America balance Israel since Israel possesses the tendency to be less tolerant towards Iran. However, on the other hand, America possesses less tolerance for Israel’s behaviour, sicne, Israel’s actions can cause a global economic catastrophe. Whenever Israel desires to attack Iran, America ends up preventing Israel since it will produce instability within the region.
Another interesting factor is that whenever the tension between Iran and America increases in the region the surge in oil prices ends up benefiting America. Furthermore, Iran’s actions within the region surges Saudi Arabia’s dependency on America therefore, once again benefiting America. Thus, Iran’s bluff is a useful tool for the US in maintaining a balance of power in the region and Iran does not have a problem with that, but from time to time Iran tends to pursue objectives, which do not correlate with US interests. Therefore, the US has to exercise control on the Iranians to temporarily isolate them.
In conclusion, Iran has been a key ingredient of America’s Greater Middle East project where Iran has helped America by increasing the dependence of all states in the region onto the US, which has helped America in maintaining stability. There has been collusion between the two on number of occasions because on many occasions Iran’s actions end up benefiting the US. Nevertheless, over the years, Iran’s resistance to give up its hunger for power and change its behaviour has also created obstacles for American designs in the Middle East. For America, Iran’s role in the region is something temporary but for Iranians it is permanent, and this is where the core issue remains between the US and Iran. Otherwise Iran much like Israel and Saudi Arabia has been amenable to US interests.
[i] Robert Dreyfuss, The Devils Game (New York: Metropolitan Books,2005), P.218.
[ii] Graham Fueller, The Future of Political Islam ( New York; Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), P, 26.
[iii] Interview with Abul Hassan Bani Badr first president of the Iranian republic”, Al Jazeera Arabic, 2000; “ My Turn to Speak: Iran, the revolution and the secret Deal with the U.S”
[iv] Reuel Marc Gerecht, The Islamic paradox: Shiite clerics, Sunni Fundamentalists, and the coming of Arab Democracy ( Washington, DC: The AEI Press,2004), P.50.
Hashim Abid is political analyst and a researcher specializing in Middle East region.