Recent exchanges between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran seem to indicate both countries are inching toward a military confrontation. US foreign policy has in the past been disjointed and difficult to understand, especially regarding Iran. A country’s foreign policy should center on protecting and supporting its national interest.
Beyond its foreign policy, the US has, in the recent past, had a difficult time defining its internal values and interests. Swings in US political philosophy are normal but historically have been contained by degrees of difference and were also contained to domestic policy, not on foreign affairs. The old saying that political arguments ended at the border no longer hold true and have caused a major upheaval in diplomatic circles.
While US saber-rattling can be dismissed as a political maneuver by the President to feed his ego and build support in his base, Iran’s actions and reactions must be seen in a different light. The Iranian government is based on an unbending and violent ideology. Since its founding, Iran has banked on its military to impose its will on its citizens as well as export the Islamic revolution. Past US policy has done very little to stand in the way of Iran’s expanding hegemony. Since the days of President Jimmy Carter, the US, as well as the Western world, has done little to force Iran to face the consequences for its actions. In fact, the last administration went in the opposite direction by moving toward appeasement which resulted in increased funds for an ever-expanding terrorist network. Times appear to be changing for Iran as it goes from virtual omnipotence to an economic disaster with riots in the streets.
The Twitter war between US President Donald Trump and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani, while reminiscent of the exchanges between Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un of North Korea, are in fact more dangerous, not because of Trump but because of Iran. North Korea is a nation isolated from the world with a homogeneous population that views Kim as a God—he is in no immediate threat to the population. While Iran has a majority population that identifies as Iranian, there is a minority that has unique ethnic differences as well as religious differences. To make matters worse, Iran has a young population with no memories of the Shah or the Iran/Iraq war. This youthful population is relatively well-educated with access to the internet and knows how much the rest of the world is living. Today, this new generation is in the streets rioting because of a lack of government services and increasing government restrictions on daily life.
While acknowledging deficiencies, the Iranian government continues to murder and imprison its citizens. Over half of all executions in the world happen in Iran. In an era of women’s rights movements, young girls and women are being arrested and jailed for such crimes as dancing and removing the hijab (headscarf) in public. Now comes a new threat: the US openly supporting the rioters and opposing the regime.
The Mullahs in Tehran, while stuck in the past, are not stupid. They remember how they came to power as well as the overthrow of the Shah. In the beginning, students from the madrasahs (schools) led the demonstrations followed by the unemployed and disenfranchised. This is how all revolutions start, the educated and middle class with unfulfilled but increasing ambitions. The Mullahs know they must redirect the anger and, as all dictatorships do, they will find an external threat and appeal to nationalism to repeal the enemy. With the US openly supporting the demonstrators and having been called the Great Satan with almost daily chants of “Death to America,” the government will try and paint the demonstrators as American and Israeli agents.
US foreign policy has a history with movements in Iran, and it is not a good one. In the 2009 Green Revolution, with some hope of support, the youth protested the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and looked to the West for support. With a weak response from the Obama administration, the protests died out. Will this happen again today or is there a potential for a more dangerous outcome?
From the beginning, the Trump administration has made no secret of its desire for regime change in Iran. First, it threatened to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran Deal. With no action from Tehran, the US announcement to leave came as a shock. The immediate impact of the Iran Deal was to enrich the Iranian regime; the immediate result of the withdrawal was to impoverish it.
The US war on Iran will continue to be economical in hopes that like the Shah, the Mullahs will slip out in the night and leave the country to the people. This is a hope that will never be realized and will escalate into greater violence within Iran and has the potential to become external.
Should Iran move to directly or covertly attack US forces in the region, there will likely be an immediate retaliatory strike by the US. In Syria, Trump has shown his willingness to meet force with force. Iran has threatened to close off the Strait of Hormuz and, as a result, a critical route for global oil trade. Should they do so, (and yes, they are capable of it in the short run) the West will be drawn back to the fight. How far this will go is unknown. Much depends on how well positioned the US is within the protest movements and how quickly the Iranian people will or will not turn on their government.
The danger of an all-out war is real. One can only hope the Iranian government and its people move forward to return Iran to the world community. Albert Einstein once said: “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” The danger is real because we have failed to act to contain Iran’s ambitions and increased violence. I hope the Iranian people can save their country.
Paul Davis is a Senior Fellow at Soran University and a retired US Army military intelligence officer. He has been a consultant to the American intelligence community specializing in the Middle East with a concentration on Kurdish affairs. Currently, he is the President of the consulting firm JANUS Think in Washington DC.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24.
Editing by Karzan Sulaivany