On August 7, the United States imposed new economic sanctions on Iran, de facto violating UN Security Council Resolution 2231. This event is only the latest in a long series of attacks made by Donald J. Trump since he came to power, attacks ranging from withdrawal from the JCPOA to insults at the United Nations General Assembly to threats of all kinds via his tweets. To add insult to injury, the U.S. has even threatened countries and companies that will likely continue to do business with Iran. Trump also promises blanket sanctions on Iranian banks and an embargo on Iranian oil. As the U.S. administration continues to work behind the scenes to undermine Iran and to heap pressure on it, Trump invites President Rouhani to talks without preconditions. What is behind this invitation? Is it a way to divert attention on what is happening in the U.S., especially on Russia’s meddling probe? Is it a way to scare Iran to push it to give in to U.S. demands?
In any case, Trump’s modus operandi is becoming well known. It is a show, always orchestrated the same way: he breaks the existing status quo, storms, attacks and threatens, then invites his ‘opponent’ to a meeting and finally, nothing happens — the two adversaries will keep to their original plans. A parallel with what happened with North Korea is obvious. Trump replicates the same initiative, but where Kim Jong-un has accepted (North Korea still being officially at war with the U.S.), Rouhani does not take the bait. Trump inviting Rouhani to meet is perhaps a sign that he recognized the inefficiency of his plan. He is aware of the failure of his attacks on Iran and the waters are muddied. His natural reflexes do not serve him in the face of the Iranian power that relies on the support of China and Russia (and to some extent on that of the EU).
With all of Trump’s bravado and vindictive attitude, still a legitimate question emerges: Would the supreme interests of the U.S. in the Middle East not be better served by Iran than by the Gulf monarchies? To answer this question, an analysis of the U.S.-Iran relations since their establishment in the nineteenth century is key to an understanding of the situation with any historical depth. To provide this background, the salient historical facts are presented next, without going into details and without taking a stand for one camp or another.
FROM FRIEND TO FOE
While the British and Russian empires played the Great Game in Central and Southern Asia on the edge of the Persian Empire, the U.S. was considered a friendly Western country that the Iranians could count on to: 1) weaken and break the British and Russian domination and interference in Iranian affairs; 2) modernize the country; and 3) clean up and straightening out public finances. American friendship then was valuable.
The first glitch came after the Iranian ambassador in Washington was recalled to protest against the publication of an article criticizing the new Shah Reza who was installed following a coup with the help of the British (the latter wanting to stop the Russian penetration in the region). However, relations between the two countries resumed after less than a year of interruption.
The seeds of anti-American sentiment are planted with the Mosaddegh affair.
Meanwhile, the British-Russian invasion of Iran led to the abdication of Shah Reza. The new shah Mohammad Reza was closer to the Americans, to the great discontent of the British and Russians. His foreign policy was pro-American until the advent of the second stumbling point between the two countries in the early 1950s, when the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was elected. Indeed, Mosaddegh, the leader of the movement to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, who was democratically elected and supported by the USSR, was illegally deposed by a coup fomented by the CIA and coordinated with MI6 (Operation Ajax).
The policies of Mosaddegh did not suit the Americans nor the British at a time when the Cold War was in full swing, and the importance of oil was beginning to prevail, not to mention the geostrategic position of Iran, which could block the USSR’s access to warm seas (something the U.S. wanted as part of its Russian Containment Policy). The oil dispute with the British was continuing. It was necessary to act quickly, especially since China had just joined the communist bloc, raising fears of a red tidal wave in a geostrategic region rich in oil. By attacking Mosaddegh, a symbol of secular democracy and resistance to foreign domination, a schism appeared, and the seeds of an anti-American sentiment were sown in the imagination of the Iranian people.
The Americans re-installed their closest ally, the Shah. Since Iran was the pillar of the American Foreign Policy in the Middle East, they provided millions of dollars in financial aid and logistical support for the formation of the Shah’s infamous brutal secret police and intelligence organization (SAVAK). They even helped Iran to create its nuclear program in 1957.
Decades later, another glitch in relations between the two countries occurred with Jimmy Carter who, unlike his predecessors, had an ambiguous policy with regards to Iran. He decried human rights abuses in his foreign policy, targeting, among others, Iran, which was beginning to be singled out for its worsening record on the matter.
The Iranian Revolution and the American hostage crisis are a tipping point for the relationship between the two countries.
In the meantime, the growing unpopularity of the Shah and his policies, his astounding enrichment and that of his family at the expense of his people, the rampant social injustice and his notorious police, the continual interference of Western powers in domestic affairs and many other socio-economic elements pushed the Iranian people to revolt in 1979, to the great shock of Americans who had not imagined the ‘unthinkable’.
The event that crystallized the current state of relations between Iran and the U.S. is, without a doubt, the 444-day American hostage crisis that began on November 4, 1979. The Americans were released after the signing of the Algiers Accords in January 1981 (in which the U.S. agreed to not interfere, politically or militarily, in Iran in exchange for the delivery of the American hostages). The world’s largest economy had suffered a historic affront when it was also being threatened: 1) abroad, by its former enemy Japan to usurp its first place in economic power, and by the USSR as an ideological adversary in the midst of the cold war; and 2) at home, by an unprecedented recession.
The relationship between Iran and the U.S. is one of love-hate with its ups and downs.
From then, everything went downhill. The Americans took revenge by using Saddam Hussein as an instrument, pushing him into a war against Iran (1980-1988) and providing him with logistical and military assistance while delivering information to both parties as a means to manipulate them. The Iranians, for their part, used Hezbollah to carry out attacks on Americans in Lebanon and developed friendly relations with the USSR.
Iran-U.S. relationship may be characterized as one of love-hate, following the self-interests of each. On the one hand, Americans provided information to the Khomeini government to help him eradicate the burgeoning pro-Soviet infrastructure in Iran, sold him weapons despite the existing embargo (the Iran-Contra Scheme), attacked oil platforms, shot down an Iranian passenger plane (Air Flight 655 with 290 civilians on board), and under the Clinton administration imposed a total embargo (including banking restrictions)… On the other hand, Iranians freed American hostages imprisoned by Hezbollah, invited to the dialogue of civilizations (an olive branch presented by Khatami in a CNN interview in 1998), sympathized with the Americans during the September 11 attacks…
A relative warming in relation between the two countries had started to grow until the famous Bush speech at the UN treating Iran as part of the Axis of Evil in 2002. While US incursions into Iranian territory took different forms and a hard-liner US speech took over diplomacy, Iran resumed the development of its nuclear program. Iran also increased its meddling in the affairs of the region (e.g., Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon) through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), after the premature death of the Grand Bargain proposal and the refusal of the olive branch presented by Ahmadinejad to solve the problem of uranium enrichment. Iran was and is fearing American attacks, especially after some covert operations occurred inside the country, as well as the raids of its Consulate General in Iraq and the hardening of sanctions targeting Iranian organizations in 2006. Throughout these years, the U.S. continued with its direct military support of the Gulf monarchies.
A glimmer of hope appears with Obama’s administration and the signature of the JCPOA.
With the advent of Obama, the U.S. disengaged from the Middle East, which has allowed Russia to re-enter the region, Iran to establish itself as a regional power (as Huntington had predicted in his Clash of Civilizations), Turkey to resume its old reflexes and China to infiltrate the region insidiously through its Belt and Road Initiative under the cover of economic and non-political interests. Obama wanted to solve the Iranian issue diplomatically. He implicitly recognized the strategic interest that Iran represents to the U.S. by signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which upset the existing precarious equilibrium that had existed among the autocratic Arab leaders of the Middle East. Then Trump happened! He questioned everything. He has turned everything upside down and continues to do so by upsetting the world order on a daily basis. His latest attacks on Iran show his ignorance when it comes to his ‘declared enemy’.
IRAN THE UNWAVERING NATION-CIVILIZATION STATE
Iran has a millennial civilization that extends into the regional history and continues to do so today.
Iran’s influence in the region is undeniable.
Indeed, Iran has a cultural and linguistic influence on neighboring Central Asian countries (e.g., Afghanistan, Tajikistan) due to the historical weight of Persian empires. The number of native speakers of Farsi is estimated at more than 110 million. Architecture and culinary arts are other examples. Centuries of influence cannot be erased easily, and the interpenetration of ethnic groups only reinforces this influence. Iran’s civilizational reach is more extensive than the current weight of Middle Eastern Arab countries who 1) have a pre-modern mentality; 2) are highly divided, while being infiltrated and influenced by Iran (e.g., Lebanon, Syria, and Qatar); 3) control nothing but their oil production (and are dependent mainly on the U.S. and the West in general); and 4) are not able to destabilize Iran.
Moreover, Iran has a strong theological influence on Shiite Muslims and, directly or indirectly, on countries that have Shiite populations like Bahrain, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. Shia theology is based on the Platonic philosophy developed by Iranian thinkers such as Molla Sadra in the 17th century. It threatens Sunni theology which is not based on any philosophical thought, thus producing a stiff resistance and fear on the part of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Finally, Iran has developed and modernized its political system, although still sluggish as it is still an ongoing process. The renewal of the elites is done through the ballot box, unlike its premodern Arab neighbors (with few exceptions, e.g. Kuwait). Add to all these factors its oil reserves, its highly educated population and its geostrategic position, it is clear that Iran holds a natural place of regional power (just as Turkey has an influence on the Turkic republics), firmly resisted by the Gulf monarchies.
Iran will not crumble easily or quickly versus the U.S.
Iran is a strong state that does not crumble easily or quickly facing U.S. threats, because, just as the Chinese today, the Iranians are aware of 1) their cultural, civilizational and imperial specificity since ancient times; 2) their significant contribution to Muslim civilization; 3) their creative genius; and 4) their strong nationalism, no matter where their political allegiance lies, elements that are absent among today’s Arabs.
If Trump wants to bring Iran to its knees, he must engage in a very long period of sanctions. But even that will not influence the strength of the Iranian state since the rest of the world does not align behind the U.S. China and Russia, among other powers, offer an alternative to a world without the world’s leading economic power. Trump’s diplomatic regression does not serve the interests of the U.S. On the contrary! It only isolates the U.S. on the world stage. What could happen then?
FROM CONFRONTATION TO NEGOTIATION?
Since Trump’s reaction is known for its unpredictability, three scenarios may be considered.
Trump continues his commitment to the Gulf Monarchies.
The first scenario is a very short-term one that can (in no way) be considered in the long term: Trump continues his commitment to the Gulf monarchies and provides them with weapons and logistical assistance while creating his famous Arab NATO (the MESA). For the U.S., it is tactical to sell arms and get rich by boosting the American armament industry, but it is a short-term strategy only. The Gulf monarchies will feel reassured for the duration of the engagement, but they only buy time, knowing that they are condemned sooner or later to change and become modern democracies.
If there is a revolution in the highly seismic region (another Arab Spring), many countries of the Middle East will tip toward the Iranian bastion because of its strong influence. Nothing prevents a revolution happening in Saudi Arabia that would be the end of the rule of the young dynasty placed by al-Wahhab. Iran, meanwhile, will continue its influence and interference in the political life of neighboring countries at a quicker pace with the strategic objective of overthrowing the Arab regimes in place. Russians will continue to interfere in Syrian affairs while the Chinese will observe what is happening to protect their vital interests with regards to the Belt and Road Initiative. Finally, the Europeans will try to find a way to defuse the situation while continuing to sell weapons to those who want them.
Trump backs down and continues Obama’s policy.
The second scenario is short-medium term: Trump backs down and continues Obama’s policy. He will look for ways to meet Rouhani and create a staging to save face and renegotiate a new treaty with Iran to return to the status quo ante. In this case, the EU will support him and encourage any initiative in which everyone will find what they are looking for. Iran, for its part, will find itself in a position of strength because it has kept its commitments recognized by other powers and thereby earned their support. They will push Iran to accept a slight renegotiation of the JCPOA (more cosmetic changes than anything else). China and Russia will rally behind the EU for their support to break the stalemate, while the Gulf monarchies will not be happy at the turn of events.
Trump thinks of his reelection and starts negotiating with Iran for a Sykes-Picot 2.0.
The third scenario is a long-term one: Trump thinks of his reelection and starts negotiating with Iran for a Sykes-Picot 2.0. If Trump wants to be reelected and if he has any delusions of grandeur to be a great president (and why not receive the Nobel Peace Prize while he is there?), he must engage with Iran as equals (no domination or paternalistic benevolence or moralizing or patronizing).
Under the umbrella of the UNSC, a Sykes-Picot 2.0 should be negotiated by the U.S. and Iran plus the Mid-Eastern Arab countries and Israel, in order 1) to serve the interests of all and 2) to limit by an international treaty the influences of each other, if only in terms of peace, to allow the creation of wealth and the stabilization of the whole region (borders and countries); an area that is a source of migrants, refugees and terrorists. For the U.S., the agreement should be symmetrical with the Gulf monarchies and Iran to allow them to benefit from one another and avoid further aggravating the situation. The U.S. has lost all footholds in Asia and it will be in its great interest to have powerful allies like Iran and Turkey to contain (as in the past) Russia, and even today’s rising China, as was the case with the Baghdad Pact.
This scenario is a bit far-fetched, but it is the only (sustainable) solution, whether now with Trump as a president or thirty years from now. In diplomacy, commitment is sought, not disengagement, to protect everyone’s interests. The confrontation, the alienation of the other and the overbidding lead to nothing, and only make everything worse in the end. Is it not time for the U.S. to find a modus vivendi with Iran? Is it not time for Iran to find a modus vivendi with the U.S., Israel and its Arab neighbors and regain its place on the world stage? Is it not time to have peace and prosperity in the Middle East?
Image: Al Drago / Bloomberg
Dr Fatima-Zohra Er-Rafia is a lecturer at HEC Montréal and Polytechnique Montréal, a consultant, and an independent researcher. She holds a PhD in Business Administration with a focus on China and Japan. Dr Er-Rafia specializes in international affairs, geopolitics, cross-cultural management, and strategy. Her focus is on Weberian sociology, politics, economics, and history, and she uses aspects of all these disciplines to study Asia. Dr Er-Rafia previously served as a Corporate Strategist at Desjardins Group and as a Management Consultant, Director of Operations, and a Strategy and Business Development Consultant at Stratégies Internationales. She provides training for Business Executives at the international level and regularly gives presentations about Asia’s geopolitics, and its business, management, and culture. She is the recipient of several honors and awards and author of two book chapters on China and Japan, several articles and business case studies. For more info: www.fatimaerrafia.com