February 5, 2017
The conflict between the US and Iran is not rooted in any grand plan for Iranian control of the Middle East. It is the result of US concern about the system of alliances Iran has built up to prevent a repeat of the disaster of the Iran-Iraq war.
If since coming to office the new Trump administration has been making tentative moves towards repairing the US’s fraught relations with Russia, towards Iran it has been acting with heightened hostility.
It has blamed Iran for a missile attack on a Saudi frigate carried out by Yemeni forces, criticised Iran for its missile tests, and slapped more sanctions on the country. President Trump has made no secret of his strong disagreement with the Iranian nuclear agreement Iran agreed with the Obama administration, and he has also called Iran “the number one terrorist state”.
What are the reasons for this hostility?
I should say first of all that I do not agree with the criticisms of Iran which are commonly made. Many of these assume an Iranian grand strategic plan to take over or dominate the Middle East by supposedly manipulating Palestinian and Shia Muslim grievances, and by waging war on Israel.
There is in fact extraordinarily little evidence of such a plan, and I don’t believe it exists.
As anyone who has had any dealings with Iranians knows, the central event in defining Iranian attitudes on foreign policy was the long and terrible war waged against Iran in the 1980s by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
This was a clearcut war of aggression, launched by Saddam Hussein in order to capture territory and to establish Iraq as the leading state in the Arab world. Like all of Saddam Hussein’s adventures it miscarried disastrously, ending in a terrible war of attrition in which hundreds of thousands of people died, and which Saddam Hussein fought in his usual ruthless way, with chemical weapons, indiscriminate bombing of Iranian cities (including Tehran) and plans to develop nuclear weapons, which were only aborted as a result of the war he fought with the US over Kuwait in 1991.
For Iranians the war with Saddam Hussein remains a traumatising experience, just as the war against Hitler was a traumatising experience for the Russians who lived through it. Not surprisingly the main objective of Iranian foreign policy since then has been to ensure that nothing like it happens again.
That explains the pattern of Iran’s alliances, and of its enemies. Iran’s allies – Syria and Hezbollah – are the allies it made during the war. Its enemies – first and foremost Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States – are the countries that supported Saddam Hussein during the war, and which indeed egged him on.
In the case of Syria the alliance with Iran was not based on the fact that the then Syrian President – Hafez Al-Assad – was an Alawite, or that Syrian Ba’athism belonged to a different faction of Ba’athism to that supposedly practised in Iraq by Saddam Hussein. It was because the Syrians were as alarmed by Saddam Hussein’s overweening ambitions as the Iranians were.
In the case of the hostility to Iran of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, it was not because Iran is Shia and they are Sunni (the differences between the two branches of Islam are in the West consistently overstated). It was because following the Iranian Revolution of 1979 Iran introduced genuine democratic elements not just into its system of government but into its whole practice of Islam (thus “the Islamic Republic”) which is anathema to the reactionary autocracies of the Gulf.
This background also meant that once Saddam Hussein fell the Iranians could no more be indifferent to what happened in Iraq then the powers that had defeated Germany in the Second World War could be to the post-war situation in Germany. As it happens most objective observers of the situation in Iraq since 2003 have tended to agree that Iran’s influence in the country since Saddam Hussein fell has been restrained and stabilising. Certainly there is no sign of Iran trying to micromanage Iraqi politics in the way the US did during the period of its occupation, or of Iran aspiring to take possession of Iraqi territory.
In addition to these Arab allies Iran has more recently, and with some success, sought to forge close relationships with Russia and Turkey, and to integrate itself – though always on its own terms – in the Eurasian institutions.
The trouble with any system of alliances is however that the allies sometimes need defending. In the case of Iran’s allies this has sometimes been against Israel – as for example in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war – and sometimes against Saudi Arabia and its Jihadi proxies – as during the present Syrian war.
Inevitably this has raised Iran’s profile in the Middle East, and provoked the hostility of the US – the ally of Saudi Arabia and Israel – whose actions Iran has been thwarting.
Beyond this there is the fact that Iran is a country against which the US itself continues to nurse a grievance because of the undimmed memory for some Americans of the US embassy hostage crisis, which followed the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
This alone is sufficient to explain the intense hostility to Iran of many powerful people within the US.
In Donald Trump’s case there appears also to be a personal factor. On the one hand he seems to be personally offended by the over-generous deal he seems to feel Iran extorted from the Obama administration during the nuclear negotiations. On the other hand, he seems to have very strong feelings for Israel, even going beyond those felt by most US politicians.
This creates a potentially very dangerous situation. Iran is not going to back away from the alliances which it sees as essential for its security. It already feels that it made important concessions to secure the nuclear deal, and is resentful of promises it made to the US which it feels the Obama administration failed to honour. It is very difficult to see Iran making the kind of concessions that might satisfy Donald Trump.
The key question therefore is how far will Trump himself go? He is still new to the Presidency and is on a steep learning curve. If he hoped that by making overtures to the Russians he could turn them against Iran, then the Russians are now working hard to disabuse him.
Ultimately the question of war or peace between the US and Iran will depend on which Donald Trump wins out: the fervid supporter of Israel, or the pragmatic businessman.