The US and Iran have engaged in a truculent political standoff since the overthrow of the Shah and the onset of the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979. Most Western political leaders view Iran as a cross between Darth Vader and Al Qaeda, a nefarious world leader of state-sponsored terrorism threatening Western interests. We might be tempted to understand the enmity between these countries as evidence of some anti-Western bias in Persian culture or perhaps a fundamental clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. However, if we are to grasp the source of the conflict, we must acknowledge the inconvenient truth of history.
Many politicians and commentators ignore the fact that prior to 1979, the US and Iran enjoyed close relations for decades. The same holds true for Israel. The US and Israel aided and abetted the Shah’s reviled dictatorship by supplying and training his military and intelligence agencies and providing staunch political support. And therein lies the problem. After the revolution, the US and Israel became Iran’s bitter enemies. Moreover, current Iranian sentiment towards the US reflects anger about the CIA’s overthrow of its nationalist government in 1953 and America’s support for Iraq in its eight-year war with Iran in the 1980’s. This important history remains essential to understanding the Ayatollah’s profound distrust of the West.
Given Iran’s enormous animosity towards the US, we would expect these countries to oppose one another. And they often do, most recently in Yemen, where Iran backs rebels while the US supports the Saudi aerial bombardment of rebel positions. Yet in other situations, like the fight against ISIS, Iran and the US remain allied. Compounding this curious paradox is the supreme irony that Iran greatly benefited from US military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, which toppled one Iranian enemy, Saddam Hussein, and weakened another, the Taliban.
How can we make sense of the shifting sands of Iran/US relations? A crucial variable involves the global civil war between Islam’s two rival factions, the Shia and Sunni. This sectarian conflict helps explain ongoing conflict in such disparate countries as Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. Iran is a powerful Shia nation. Accordingly, Iran’s support of rebels in Yemen, militias in Iraq and its current fight against ISIS, express its underlying goal to become a regional powerbroker that bolsters the political and military strength of Shia movements and strives to end oppression of the Shia by Sunni dominated governments, like in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. In addition, Iran seeks to undermine Israeli and Western influence, hence its support for Hamas, a Sunni group in Gaza.
Acknowledging the history between Iran and the US and recognizing the former’s clear political goals, there is nothing mysterious about Iranian objectives: they remain at odds with Western interests. So how does the US blunt Iran’s growing political and military influence? First, we should recognize that Iran’s foreign policy has created problems for its government. Since its revolution, Iran fashioned itself as a champion of the poor and disenfranchised. But Iran’s firm support of the Assad regime in Syria because his Alawite movement is connected to the Shia, raised doubts about its mission on the Arab street. In pursuit of its policy, Iran persuaded Hezbollah, a Shiite group in Lebanon, to support Assad while ties between Iran and Hamas were weakened when the latter sided with Syrian rebels. Iran’s Syria policy suggests that when its goal of supporting disenfranchised and Shia movements collide, Iran will choose to support the latter even if it jeopardizes relations with the former. And this poses a clear risk to Iran’s aim to become a dominant regional power.
At the same time, we must recognize that the most effective strategy to blunt Iranian political and military influence in the Gulf involves identifying and supporting political movements, parties or leaders capable of establishing governments that integrate the interests of moderate Shia and Sunni factions, perhaps like the Abadi government in Iraq. The US should also actively encourage and support moderate Shia and Sunni leaders to curtail sectarian violence. An international conference of such leaders to discuss ways of reducing violence would be a welcome first step and underscore Western support for moderate voices in the Muslim world. Finally, as Palestinian statehood remains a lightning rod issue, the US should exert greater pressure on Israel and PLO in the West Bank to end their conflict. A durable peace accord would remove a powerful lure extremist groups utilize to recruit new members in their fight against Israel and the West.
Neal Aponte, Ph.D.
Editor of Delano