War With Iran?
Proximity to Conflict Obscure America’s Inability to Take Accountability for and Rectify Our Past Mistakes
Over the past few weeks the United States and Iran have escalated their decades long conflict, inching closer to open war. As Americans, we understandably fault Iran for their behavior, experiencing legitimate frustrations when the Iranian government and military shoot down drones and hijack ships, not to mention funding violence and terror beyond their borders. The entrenched enmity is worsening.
If the problem is enmity between the United States and Iran, the question must be, what caused this enmity? There is an objective answer that does not involve any degree of chicken or egg speculation; the original sin was committed by the United States in 1953 when, goaded by the British, the CIA orchestrated a coup to remove the democratically-elected Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, and strengthen the position of the shah. The Iranians suffered this indignity for a generation before overthrowing the shah in 1979, and many Americans now view the Iranian revolution and the Iranian hostage crisis as the cause of discord. Operating as we tend to do under the “might makes right” assumption, we cannot acknowledge that the United States fostered an international pariah and is now trending toward war with an artificial enemy of our own creation. Might must indeed make “right;” 52 Americans were held hostage for 444 days, none of them died, and all returned home safely, while perhaps 30 million Iranians (the population of Iran nearly doubled from 20 to 40 million during the shah’s reign) dealt with political, cultural, and religious repression for 26 years, and yet the Iranians have somehow become both the initiators of the conflict and the hardline extremists.
If American-Irani relations were poisoned not in 1979 but in 1953, and the toxins not delivered by the Ayatollah Khomeini but by the CIA, one might wonder why and how the relationship festered for so long, the gulf between the two nations widening and the potential for conflict increasing all the while.
The common American response is that Iran is a horribly-behaved international actor which pursues nuclear weapons and sponsors terrorism beyond its borders. However, this response is inaccurate because it is under-informed. Iran is all of those things. Because America has forced them to be.
The Iranian position reflects the saying “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” The game is geopolitics, and there are many tools, both legitimate and illegitimate, in any nation’s geopolitical toolkit. But the United States, by isolating Iran from the international order we created, has deprived Iran of many of its legitimate tools, forcing it to rely on illegitimate ones. Iran would love a lay-up, but all it can do is take off-balance jump shots with two defenders in its face, so it keeps heaving.
America’s artificial conflict with Iran is a Catch-22 of our own creation. We ostracize them from the international system and force them to behave poorly then use their poor behavior as an excuse to escalate the conflict and further isolate them from the international order. And all because the Iranians had the audacity to overthrow a hated monarch forced upon them by the United States!
The United States once recognized this. In the early 1950s as the British — enraged by Iran’s nationalization of the oil industry — urged the United States to support a coup against Mosaddegh, then Secretary of State Dean Acheson noted that the British were “determined on a rule-or-ruin policy in Iran.” Ruling no longer being an option for post-WWII Britain as it watched Iran nationalize the oil industry, the British enlisted America in Iranian ruin, and we have eagerly embraced and implemented the strategy.
This is not to excuse Iran’s behaviors. The Iranian regime is destabilizing and sponsors violence and terror beyond its borders. But all nations have geopolitical interests, and Iran has a proud Persian history buoying its modern motives. The Iranian government, no matter its leadership composition, was always going to play a role in regional politics, and if it is unable to use legitimate diplomatic and economic tools then it was inevitably going to rely on less legitimate, more destructive ones. Iran did not fail to use those tools, it was and is denied a chance to employ them by the United States.
President Obama recognized this and attempted to bridge the gap between the United States and Iran via the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. Critics claim the JCPOA was a bad deal that did not prevent, only delayed, Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons. In this they were superficially correct, missing the underlying foundational points entirely because they were unable to identify — or admit — that the source of American-Irani enmity is America. Notwithstanding that pushing Iran’s nuclear acquisition timeline from a few months to a few years was itself an accomplishment, the bigger point is that those years could have been used addressing the original sin and trying to bring Iran back into the international order, thus diminishing or removing the impetus for acquiring nuclear weapons in the first place. This fundamental misunderstanding is reflected in another of the misplaced criticisms of the JCPOA — that it made no effort to curtail Iranian state-sponsored terrorism. Like nuclear weapons acquisition, state-sponsored terrorism is a tool utilized by primarily by pariah nations ostracized from international norms and orders.
Admittedly bringing Iran into the global order would be no easy task. Though the American-Irani conflict is an artificial creation, many real issues have filled the rift between the two nations over the past 40 years. Iran would have to disavow many of the geopolitical ambitions that underly its support for state-sponsored terrorism and nuclear desires. Those ambitions are deeply-rooted in the current regime, and perhaps even in Iran’s Persian history. But those difficulties can be overcome, and must, if the conflict is ever to be fully resolved. In the past, both Germany and Japan exchanged ambition for opportunity and profited greatly, but both nations were initially forced into that exchange after defeat in war, precisely the outcome to be avoided with Iran, particularly since there were numerous legitimate reasons for war with Japan and Germany and there are none at all to justify war with Iran.
Strategically, that goal — reintegrating Iran into global structures — should be America’s primary focus. Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons stems from the insecurity it feels being forced out of the international system and therefore into enmity with many of its major — and more powerful — actors. Treat the cause, not the symptom. Those who want to deny Iran legitimate outlets to funnel its ambitions and address its grievances while also demanding and expecting that Iran will forgo using the only tools at its disposal want to have their cake and eat it too; they are living in a geopolitical fantasy.
Fundamentally, the artificial conflict with Iran is not only a useful foreign policy distraction for American politicians when needed, but increasingly an impediment to addressing a more serious threat, China’s ascent. In fact, the American position toward Iran abets China’s rise by pushing Iran toward a new world order envisioned by China with China at the top. By ostracizing Iran for the last 40 years, the United States created an artificial conflict, but China’s desire to disrupt the American-led world order could mean that Iran, rather than being a pariah state, becomes a cog in a Chinese-led global system. And what a cog it would be.
Iran, after all, is no undeveloped backwater. Contrasted with America’s “friend,” Saudi Arabia, Iran has a long and proud cultural, political, and intellectual history — factors that could, theoretically, underpin friendship with either America or China. Also unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran has more to offer the world economy than oil and violent ideology. While both nations export plenty of each, Iran is a nation of 80 million mainly young and often highly educated people. If plugged into the international economy they represent untapped potential for Iran and the world. Even plugged into the world economy, Saudi Arabia is — beyond oil exports — sclerotic and stagnant. From its geographic position, Iran radiates influence west into the Middle East and east into Asia.
Consider Iranian strength in the context of its current situation. Even with the world’s super power — America, the region’s strongest military power — Israel, and the region’s wealthiest nation — Saudi Arabia (as well as a host of other regional actors) arrayed against it, Iran represents a real threat to the international system and its neighbors. Imagine what such a nation could contribute if it were offered a chance to participate in international systems if, when forced to be a threat to those systems, it is capable of becoming such a serious one. In the context of the much bigger geopolitical threat, China, a war with Iran is a distraction with obvious counterproductive results regardless its outcome — likely a crushing yet ephemeral American victory similar to those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As the United States and Iran lurch closer to conflict, it is worth remembering how and why we got here and who bears the real burden — as well as who has the real capacity — to address the foundational tension in a manner that avoids conflict and ideally paves the way for a better future between the two nations. The onus for extending the fig leaf rests with the United States. We committed the original infraction, and only we can offer Iran what it will take for them to cast aside their current geopolitical ambitions: incorporation into the international systems that provide better conditions and livelihoods for those within it than those outside it.