The US has never come to terms with Iran’s new political order that emerged after the 1979 revolution, which brought down the Shah and his regime. The Shah of Iran was a compliant ruler who fitted well into the US’ strategy in the Middle East. The clerical regime that followed was anything but. There were fears that it would destabilise the region, shared by the US’ friends and allies in the region. And those fears have been resurrected, with President Trump dumping the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran designed to curb its nuclear programme. We will come to this later but, first, to sketch out a bit of history after the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Among the US friends, at the time, was Saddam Hussein in Iraq, who had a long-standing maritime boundary dispute with Iran, and was keen to settle scores with the new regime before it had time to settle down. The US encouraged him on this course and provided him with military aid to take on Iran.
Thus started the Iraq-Iran war in 1980 that lasted eight years, with Iran bearing the brunt of heavy casualties. Iraq was drained out economically, with the country owing debts it had incurred from fellow Arab countries to prosecute the war, which they had encouraged. And they seemed in no mood to write off these debts. Saddam sought to sort out his political and economic problems by invading Kuwait, keen to annex it with its oil riches. The adventure was foiled by the US-led military action that left Saddam choking, with international sanctions choking Iraq.
And when the 9/11 terrorist attacks hit the US, it was followed by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan because of its link with the al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin-Laden, based there and sheltered by its Taliban regime. The US then had George W Bush as its president and the new regime set out to reset Middle Eastern affairs, starting with getting rid of Saddam Hussein’s regime as it was regarded as unfinished business from the time of Bush senior.
And they started creating narratives about Saddam’s al-Qaeda links and his weapons of mass destruction, which were found to be non-existent. Saddam was overthrown and hanged, followed by an unstable and chaotic Iraq, which to this day is in a state of perpetual disorder, bordering on anarchy. The resultant sectarian strife led to the emergence of IS, which, though seemingly beaten now in Iraq and Syria, exists as a powerful ideology wreaking havoc inside and outside Iraq.
The majority Shia rule in Iraq, though with deep divisions, gave Iran considerable political influence in Iraq. Some of its prominent leaders were living in exile in Iran during Saddam’s rule.
The US invasion and occupation of Iraq had made Iran terribly nervous. However, as the US occupation landed it in a quagmire, Iran was less vulnerable and had more influence with the new Shia political order in Iraq. At the same time, Iran had started to work with nuclear technology, including enrichment of uranium, which would enable it, at some point of time, to develop an atomic bomb, if it so desired.
And this program was reaching an advanced stage. There were two ways to deal with it. First was to attack and destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, though it wasn’t that easy because, unlike Saddam Hussein’s research reactor that Israel was able to destroy earlier, the Iranian facilities were less exposed to such instant hits by enemy bombers. Therefore, there was greater risk of things getting out of control.
Israel still favoured this option, provided it had the US backing and protective cover. The US, under Obama, was not convinced. Obama wanted greater flexibility in the US’ Middle Eastern policy, and permanently ostracising Iran with its growing nuclear capability, was no way to go about it; especially when Iran was willing to rewind its nuclear programme. The Israeli alternative of attacking Iran’s fairly secure nuclear facilities, with unpredictable and disastrous results for the region, didn’t seem like a sensible course. Obama, therefore, opted for sanity over petulance and Trump’s instinctive sense that he would be right.
Going by the US intelligence and International Atomic Energy Agency inspection reports, Iran has held its part of the 2015 nuclear deal to wind back much of its nuclear programme. If the agreement hadn’t been in place, Iran would have been close to, if not actually, developing a nuclear weapon, if it had chosen to do so.
Writing in the New York Review of Books, Steven Simon says that, “Between 2006, when nuclear-related sanctions were first put in place, and 2013, when the interim deal freezing Iran’s capability was agreed on, the number of centrifuges increased from few, if any, to nearly 20,000…. Given that Iran was installing about 3,000 centrifuges per year while under intensive sanctions, had there not been the agreement, Iran would now have yet another 15,000 centrifuges.” In other words, the agreement was doing its job.
Why is Trump then scrapping it? Trump thinks that Iran is not following its spirit. It is continuing its missiles programme (not covered by the agreement), stoking trouble regionally In Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and refusing to come to terms with Israel’s existence and supporting the Palestinian cause. Last, but not least, Trump is committed to overturning whatever Barack Obama did – a personal crusade Trump has carried out against Obama while the latter was in the White House and now continuing.
Iran, of course, is threatening to restart its nuclear programme if the nuclear deal is scrapped. But it is hoping that other signatories to the 2015 agreement, which include the UK, France, Germany, China and Russia, might be able to salvage it. It would be difficult because the US’ sanctions regime against Iran would also apply to European and other countries doing business with Iran. What does the US hope to achieve? Well, Trump wants a subservient Iran that will do its bidding, like in the days of the Shah. And it is hoped that crippling sanctions against Iran would create popular unrest leading to the overthrow of its clerical regime, replacing it with a responsive (to the US) political order enabling it to restructure Middle Eastern geopolitical atlas.
The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia