By Ferry de Kerckhove
Understanding Iran: not easy
There are two sets of perspectives when dealing with Iran. The first differentiates between those who have traveled to Iran and discovered its amazing geographic beauty, its rich cultural heritage, and its sophisticated intelligentsia, particularly pre-1979,1 and those who have missed the opportunity to visit Persia and tend to look at it through the scary gaze of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei. Then there is the more political perspective of a “choice” between the discomfort arising from the past embrace of the Shah’s dictatorial regime and the ferocious denunciation of the theocratic construct of the Ayatollahs. Western governments have evidently felt more comfortable dealing with autocratic secular regimes, where interests oftentimes trump values and dictate cooperation.
While the present Iranian regime has been careful not to destroy Persia’s historical past and the innumerable remains of ancient glory, it has profoundly altered the foundations of the country. Yet, it has not altered Iran’s authenticity nor its national identity. There are two strands of factors that explain the state and fate of Iran in the Middle East: its relations with Arab neighbours and their intertwining with the role of the US in the region.
Apart from Iran, Turkey, and Egypt, who evolved as nation-states over millennia, most Middle Eastern countries have evolved as dictatorships. Despite their pasts going back to ancient times, their modern history was not that of nations, nor even of states or clearly defined identities, but rather that of Western creations, designed to serve Western interests. The only bond for these nations was – and still is – Islam. As a religion, but also as a transnational political unifier, Islam countered the appropriation of their people by foreign installed leaders, often without any link to the countries carved out of the Ottoman Empire, to bind them to the West. The result is a set of countries defined more by their dealings with the outside world than by their leaders’ relations with their peoples. It’s no wonder that, under such conditions, local religious leaders fill the social gaps and local needs of the people under the yoke of dictators who feel they “own” their countries and do not need to attend to their peoples’ aspirations.
The result was the fight, launched nearly one hundred years ago by the regimes in place, against faith-based groups under the guidance of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. The latter’s ideological commitment to the unity of Islam provided for “a softer position” toward the Shia-Sunni sectarian divide inside the Islamic world,2 predicated upon the succession of the Prophet centuries ago, which would pit mostly Shia Iran against Sunni Arabs. This conflict has been profoundly instrumentalized, leading notably to the Iran-Saudi Arabia competition. The Iranian revolution of 1979 had the hallmarks of a popular “revisionist” Shia counterpoint to the elitist Saudi-Wahabi (Sunni) religious domination through their hosting of the holy places of Mecca and Medina. In the early days, that religious conflict permeated the region’s nations, reducing the potency of an already fragile nationalism; eventually the Sunni prevailed, but the Shia-Sunni dimension remained an important catalyst. As Frederic Wehrey3 argues, “The reasons these religious differences get inflamed or get sectarianized is because of a breakdown of governance, a breakdown of economic distribution”. It helped produce Daesh.
As for Saudi Arabia, it had built its power entirely on its oil resources and the alliance with the United States underpinned by the Carter doctrine: “an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America.” To this day, the Carter doctrine still largely defines US policy and support for the Kingdom, regardless of the fact that the US is, for now, nearly energy self-sufficient. Indeed, what matters today, from an economic standpoint, is the control of energy distribution from the Middle East to rich Asian markets. Iran is a major factor in that equation.
So too is Russia.
In the early stages of the post-WWII Middle East, the Palestinian issue took pride of place as an igniter of upheavals and wars. However, the Egyptian and, subsequently, Jordanian peace treaties with Israel eventually pushed that conflict below the radar screen, with more and more Arab states resigning themselves to let Israel: a) expand its settlements in more and more of what would could have been a Palestinian state in the West Bank, and b) crack down on Hamas-held Gaza. All Arab states cling to the 2002 Saudi Arab Peace Initiative’s principle of an independent Palestinian state in exchange for peace and recognition of the State of Israel. Every year at the UN dozens of resolutions are adopted calling for the implementation/enforcement of the foundational UNSC binding resolutions. Yet today, Iran, along with its affiliates Hezbollah and Hamas, is the only country which remains totally but helplessly committed to a settlement-less, independent Palestinian state, and Ayatollah Khamenei still calls for the “elimination of the Zionist regime,”4 which has often been interpreted as a call for the destruction of the presently constituted State of Israel.
In a way, Iran’s position perfectly suits Israel’s Prime Minister. Indeed, for Netanyahu, Iran’s being branded as the existential threat to Israel allows him to demonize Iran’s Palestinian allies and divert attention from his own harsh and onerous policies in the West Bank and Gaza.5 Iraq’s Saddam Hussein played a similar role of scapegoat diversion in the 80s and 90s. The fact that Iran has become a theocracy seems to make it easier for the US policy class to echo the Israeli Right’s depiction of that country as “genocidal and irrational”.6 This is ironic because Iran, while defending Palestinian rights, hopes that the Palestinian issue will remain a thorn in Israel’s side, eventually leading to a quasi-state, with all the continued regional instabilities that fosters within the Arab world.
In the last four years, Yemen, one of the Middle East’s poorest nations, has been locked in an intractable civil war that has killed thousands of people and pushed millions to the brink of starvation. Fighting began in 2014 when a Houthi Shia Muslim rebel movement hostile towards Saudi Arabia took advantage of the country’s weak leadership and seized control of large swaths of territory. The conflict escalated dramatically in March 2015, when Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states – backed by the US, UK, and France – began air strikes against the Houthi rebels, notably to prevent Iran from gaining a foothold in the country. Saudi Arabia says Iran is backing the Houthis with weapons and logistical support, a charge Iran denies. The ensuing stalemate has produced an unrelenting humanitarian crisis.7 While most of the fighting is carried out not very successfully by the Saudis, there is a questionable tendency among Western countries to equate Iran’s role with that of Saudi Arabia, which enjoys the full support of the US President.
US-Iran relations: an amazing series of twists
The story starts during WWII, when the Allied Forces took on Iran and the German-sympathizing Shah whom they deposed in favour of his son, while ensuring the independence and territorial integrity of the country by buying out the Soviet Union and ensuring that Iran’s energy resources remained tied to the West. A decade later, in 1953, a joint US-UK-orchestrated operation overthrew Iran’s legitimately elected Prime Minister Mosaddegh who was angling towards nationalizing his country’s oil industry. Thereafter, Iran under the Shah became a critical component of the US containment strategy against the USSR in the region. Even the Arab-led 1973 oil crisis, which was abetted by the Shah and led to soaring oil prices, would not alter the relationship, even though the US economy suffered significantly from the impact.
Perceived as the architect of the accession to the throne of Iran by Shah Reza Pahlavi, following the 1979 Iranian revolution which deposed the Shah, the US became Ayatollah Khomeini’s “Great Satan”. The US Embassy hostage crisis from 1979 to 1981 brought the Iran-US crisis to its apogee, notably in the aftermath of the botched US hostage rescue attempt. Canada became a perceived archenemy of the new Iran due to its contribution in whisking six American diplomats out of the country. Canada’s leading the fight at the UN against Iran on human rights has deepened the rift.
Then, in a reversal of fortunes reminiscent of a 19th century diplomatic ballet, in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal (1985-86), the US secretly shipped weapons to Iran to get its assistance in freeing US hostages held by Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, the proceeds of this “bargain” ultimately going to rebels in Nicaragua. Of course, one should not forget US military support to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the 8-year war between Iraq and Iran (1980-88). Adding to the feud, the US downed an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, assuming it was a military jet. Most victims were pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Then, in his 2002 State of the Union address, President George Bush denounced Iran as part of an “axis of evil” along with Iraq and North Korea, causing outrage in Iran.
In 2002, news emerged about a secret Iranian nuclear program, leading to years of attempts to bring it to a halt. Following the massive pressure of sanctions by the largest coalition ever built, this was eventually achieved through the unique 2015 nuclear deal labelled JCPOA: the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action, under the auspices of the UNSC P5 plus Germany and the European Union. This deal is considered the signature foreign policy achievement of the Obama presidency. In a nutshell, Iran agreed to limit its most sensitive nuclear activities and place them under international supervision for a range of different periods of time. Hopes for a normalization of relations with Iran began to be expressed in earnest. All these were dashed in May 2018 when President Trump announced the US withdrawal from the agreement and reinstated a range of sanctions against Iran with extra-territorial implications for countries trading with it.
As the US increased its ties with and military support for Saudi Arabia, notably in Yemen, Iran became US enemy number one. Relations worsened. Ships in the Strait of Hormuz were disabled, and Iran was deemed the aggressor. Iran shot down a US drone claiming it was within its airspace. The US argued otherwise. Iran’s tone has become more aggressive, raising renewed fears about sabotage action in the Strait with potentially major implications. The UK’s arraignment of an Iranian vessel and a reciprocal arraignment of a UK ship by Iran have added to the tensions.
Thus, following the JCPOA-induced calm and hopes for world peace, the current American posturing, inchoate decision-making process, blustering and war games have brought the world to heightened levels of tension and greater instability in the Middle East. With the recognition of Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its undivided capital confirmed by the move of the US Embassy, as well as the recognition of the Golan Heights seized by Israel from Syria as Israeli territory, the Trump administration has developed the most unfavourable position towards the Palestinians of any modern administration. Furthermore, by supporting its Arab partners against Iran, the US President has achieved two major objectives: a) being politically recognized in the US as the most pro-Israeli presidency ever, while b) ensuring that its Arab partners would side with the US to oppose Iran rather than oppose the US in fighting Israel.
Meanwhile, Iran has officially reduced its formal commitments under the nuclear deal through the tame measure of a marginal increase in the concentration of its enriched uranium, from 3.67% to 4.5%, as well as breaking the 300kg limit on its low-enriched uranium stockpile. These measures are not bringing Iran any closer to a nuclear weapon per se, but they are clearly meant to both taunt the US into calling for talks and exert pressure on the Europeans to finally implement its INSTEX – Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges – to allow companies to trade with Iran despite US sanctions. This is a dangerous gamble. Indeed, the unfortunate but likely result will be a greater divide between the US and its so-called European allies and, ultimately, a collapse of the existing deal, as Iran feels itself compelled to abandon even more of its provisions. A tenuous dialogue is continuing, somewhat akin to the Sisyphean Rock, constantly shaken by Trump tremors.
Ironic as it may seem, unless the US pursues an ultimately doomed regime change in Iran, if the world wants to avoid yet another conflagration in the Middle East, it might need to pray for another Trump/North Korea scenario: first outburst and bravado, followed by an offer of talks with no precondition, and then a negotiation of some kind of lengthy extension of a renamed JCPOA, transforming “the worst deal in the world” into “the best one ever” – basically the same but for a longer duration. But Iran will want – and deserve – far more respect before it deigns to answer an American opening. In pursuing sanctions against Ayatollah Khamenei, the US is headed down the wrong path. §
Essential data about the Strait of Hormuz
The Strait of Hormuz is the world’s most important chokepoint, with an oil flow of 17 million b/d in 2015, about 30% of all seaborne-traded crude oil and other liquids during the year. In 2016, total flows through the Strait of Hormuz increased to a record high of 18.5 million b/d.8 Any closure of the Strait of Hormuz by Iran or other actors could disrupt more than half a trillion dollars’ worth of seaborne trade to and from Gulf countries.9
1 Iran was the author’s first diplomatic posting, in 1974-76
2 Mahmood Pargoo: lobelog.com/iran-and-the-muslim-brotherhood-frenemies
5 As ably described by Tom Friedman in Farid Zakaria’s GPS of June 30, 2019
6 Jeff Faux, thenation.com