By Professor Hossein Askari

Iran—America’s manufactured enemy

February 13, 2022 - 17:4

TEHRAN- Iran and America were the closest of allies before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, but they are now implacable enemies. How have such allies become such enemies for more than forty years?

It all started with the taking of U.S. embassy hostages in 1979. This was a time of fervent nationalism in Iran and of fear that the Shah would return to rule again as he had done in the 1953 CIA-MI6 engineered coup. While it was the seed of Iranian-U.S. enmity, it was further fueled by the government’s acceptance of the taking of hostages by students.  
The embassy hostage-taking was followed by 444 days of nightly reminders to Americans on American news networks. And every time Iran came up in the news, there were images of the hostages and chants of “death to America” to remind Americans of Iran’s transgression and its rhetoric.  Americans felt helpless and humiliated by Iran as the media and partisan politicians were beating the drums of hate and conflict. There would be a price to pay!
America imposed sanctions on Iran. But the U.S. went further. Before and after Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, the U.S. did little to dissuade him and might in fact have encouraged him. The United Nations was not active in condemning this most serious of transgressions under the UN charter. The U.S. and its European allies, along with Russia, supplied Saddam Hussein with all the weaponry he needed while putting an arms embargo on Iran. The U.S. provided Iraq with military intelligence. Iran, however, managed to overcome its many handicaps. As Iran was expelling the Iraqi invaders and threatening Iraq, the Europeans, with U.S. complicity, supplied Saddam Hussein with internationally banned chemical weapons. 

All-pervasive sanctions are tantamount to an act of war, as even trade embargoes have been historically viewed as such. Thus the war continued and lasted for over eight years. Over 1.5 million died on both sides and many more were injured, with thousands of gassed Iranians surviving on oxygen tanks. America showed little compassion for Iranian suffering and death, memories that will be hard to forget.  
Iran and Iranians learned a hard lesson. Shore up your defenses. International law serves only the powerful. Don’t trust the U.S., or for that matter the entire West and the United Nations. The chasm between Iran and the U.S. was growing, on the one hand, manufactured by the U.S. in its reluctance to turn over a new page and desire to continue to punish Iran, and on the other hand by Iran’s memory of its harsh treatment by the West and the need to shore up its defenses and support its regional allies.
Although the war between Iran and Iraq ended in August 1988, hostilities between the U.S. and Iran continued. America continued with its sanctions and Iran supported its regional allies. After Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Iran supported fleeing Kuwaitis and tried to improve relations with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. An Iranian emissary for rapprochement was spurned by the U.S. State Department and the Saudis reneged on promises made to a mediator that they had chosen along with Iran. Iran tried to attract American companies. It was close to having an important agreement with Conoco to develop a new oil field; Iran had also invited Bechtel to discuss a number of projects, including the giant Iranian gas field shared with Qatar. But President Clinton enacted ILSA (the Iran Libya Sanctions Act) in 1996, which limited any large investment in Iran and he closed a number of other sanction loopholes, including those on imports of Iranian refined oil. Iranian officials had thought that commerce might be the way to restore relations, but it was not to be.
U.S. bases and military might in the Persian Gulf region was threatening to Iran. But there was more to come. After 9/11 the United States invaded Afghanistan and later Iraq. Afghanistan provided Iran with another opening to bridge the chasm with the United States. Iran worked with its ally, Ahmad Shah Masoud, and the Northern Alliance, to support the U.S. invasion on the ground. The U.S. attacked the Taliban from the air while the Northern Alliance did the fighting on the ground.  Iran thought that this cooperation would open a more fruitful road to reconciliation with the U.S. While there was a ray of hope, once the U.S. conquered Afghanistan, it spurned Iran.
This was followed by the invasion of Iraq. By this time Iran was apprehensive about cooperating with the U.S. The speed with which the U.S. demolished Saddam Hussein and his forces cautioned the regime in Tehran. Moreover, Iran was now surrounded by U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. All this, along with the accumulated American rebuttals, politically and economically, boxed Iran in. Iran had to shore up its defenses and support regional allies—Assad in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Shia Muslims everywhere, especially in Iraq. These allies would give Iran offensive capabilities in dealing with what they perceived as a U.S. threat to the regime’s survival. In view of America’s past rebuttals and the need to shore up its Shia allies in Iraq, Iran supported Shia resistance in Iraq. Around the same time, under the watchful eyes of General Soleimani Iran played a big role in confronting and defeating ISIS. While in Iran’s own interest, such cooperation in support of the regime in Baghdad and its Shia allies, was also critical in the U.S. effort to defeat ISIS. General Soleimani’s tactical skill was even applauded by a U.S. general. Soleimani had become critical for Iran’s national defense and regional ambitions. While Soleimani had been seen as an ally in the early days in Afghanistan and in the fight against ISIS, he was increasingly seen as a danger to U.S. regional hegemony.

A principal factor fueling and prolonging Iran’s isolation has been anti-Iranian lobbying by Israel and its American surrogates and to a lesser extent by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and their corporate backers in the West. By this time, Iran realized that cooperation with the U.S. would not lead to bilateral benefits but that it should only work with the U.S. when this was directly in its own self-interest and survival. Iran set about a more concerted effort in ramping up its domestic arms industry, something that had already started in the waning years of the Iran-Iraq war. The most cost effective weaponry were missiles and drones. These were cheap and they offered Iran offensive, as well as defensive, capabilities.
At the same time, Iran had quietly ramped up its nuclear research—adding more and more centrifuges and higher levels of enrichment. Although Iran was a signatory to the NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons), it had not received all the peaceful assistance in nuclear technology that was promised under the treaty. Therefore Iran did not inform the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) of its nuclear activities, as was required. Having received little or no assistance for its nuclear program, under debilitating sanctions, isolated and surrounded by U.S. forces, Iranian officials felt that premature disclosure would result in an attack on their facilities.
After the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MKO) divulged Iran’s program in 2002, the question became was Iran working toward developing a bomb, nuclear breakout capability, or was it all peaceful? The U.S. ramped up sanctions on Iran even further. During the second Bush administration, financial sanctions took center stage, effectively cutting Iran off from the international financial system (SWIFT) and imposing serious penalties on any bank that engaged with Iran. Exports of anything that might help Iran’s nuclear program were also closely monitored. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE pressed the U.S. to undermine and contain Iran at every turn.
Iran’s economy was hobbled as never before. Iran had severe shortages of medicines and essential medical and industrial equipment as ordinary Iranians suffered. While sanctions took a toll, Iran’s economy was mismanaged, and in my view, domestic mismanagement was as damaging as sanctions.
Israeli and Saudi lobbying against Iran was ramped up. In the case of Israel, it lobbied its allies in the U.S. Congress and in the media to isolate Iran, increase sanctions, engage in covert activities inside Iran and adopt a policy of regime change as the only long-term acceptable solution. Some even feared that the end goal was to dismember Iran into four or five parts, all of them too weak to pose any problem for Israel, Arabs, and the U.S.
The Obama administration feared Iran’s ramped-up nuclear efforts but was unwilling to attack Iran as Israel and some Persian Gulf Arabs advocated. The U.S. secretly began to negotiate with Iran through Oman’s auspices. These discussions culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was also ratified by the UN Security Council. It was by no means a perfect agreement. It provided the most intrusive program of Iran’s nuclear activities for the U.S. and its allies, albeit with a sunset clause of ten years, the mothballing of Iran’s heavy water reactor, the handover of most of Iran’s enriched fuel (far from weapon-grade) and a limit on Iran’s enrichment program. For Iran, there was to be a lifting of sanctions—the unfreezing of Iranian assets, unobstructed Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), access to international financial markets, and the flow of imports (except certain nuclear and military goods) and exports of goods and services. Iran was naïve in one very important respect—America’s concessions were reversible whereas many of Iran’s concessions were irreversible.
Iran kept its end of the bargain. America appeared to also keep its end but American companies and institutions, and indeed companies from other countries, did not jump in and embrace the deal. Iranians blamed the U.S. authorities but some banks and companies did not trust the United States to keep its word about lifting primary and secondary sanctions, namely, depending on future developments, the U.S. might penalize entities that had engaged Iran. All in all, Iran got some sanction relief but not all that it had been promised and expected.
The incoming Trump administration threw everything overboard. President Trump had close relations with Prime Minister Netanyahu and rich Gulf Arabs, with Saudi Arabia the first country he visited. Trump demanded limitations on Iran’s missile and drone programs, instituted new sanctions on Iran, was complicit in Israel’s sabotage of Iranian facilities and murder of Iranian scientists, most notably Iran’s top nuclear physicist. Then America withdrew from the JCPOA. And most notoriously, the United States assassinated General Soleimani, with Israeli complicity, inside Iraq. To save face, Iran had to retaliate, which it did by firing missiles at a U.S. base. Iran could still choose to extract proportional revenge for a man that many Iranians, pro and against the regime in Tehran, saw as a national hero who devoted his life to the defense of Iran in its darkest hours.
President Biden set about restoring the JCPOA. Iran, having kept its end of the bargain for one year even after Trump withdrew, is willing to fall into line with the JCPOA if all sanctions—sanctions that were lifted at the JCPOA signing as well as others imposed by Trump—are lifted and if the U.S. provides guarantees that it will not again withdraw as long as Iran keeps its commitments. The U.S. has been unwilling to lift all these sanctions, cannot provide the guarantees that Iran seeks, and wants to discuss Iran’s missile program and regional activities in support of Iran’s allies, which the U.S. argues are against U.S. interests. Discussions are continuing in Vienna.
Although the U.S. was more popular in Iran than in any Arab country for years after the Revolution, Trump’s actions toward Iran and the suffering of average Iranians have irreparably damaged this relationship. So where do we find ourselves? How will Iran-U.S. relations evolve?
While Iranian students sowed the seed for this conflict, the U.S. has shown little compassion toward the Iranian people. Sanctions on top of more sanctions have impoverished ordinary Iranians. Sadly, some Iranian ex-pats living in the West have championed Iran’s isolation and even endorsed military action to overthrow the regime for their own selfish ends. A principal factor fueling and prolonging Iran’s isolation has been anti-Iranian lobbying by Israel and its American surrogates and to a lesser extent by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and their corporate backers in the West. This lobbying has turned the U.S. Congress so against Iran that it may take a generational turnaround to change U.S. policies. The propagation of anti-Iranian sentiments all over the U.S. media has “manufactured” Iran as enemy number one in the eyes of average Americans. The merciless Israeli and Arab lobbying has in turn boxed Iran in. Arab lobbying has made business relations more challenging, while Israeli lobbying has poisoned Iran’s political relations with the U.S. Iran feels threatened by U.S. forces and by Israeli adventurism that would in all likelihood be backed by the U.S. military. All-pervasive sanctions are tantamount to an act of war, as even trade embargoes have been historically viewed as such.
As Iran has been boxed in by the U.S., it has had little choice but to develop its military capabilities and alliances in the region to defend itself and to thwart would-be adversaries. At least in a conventional war, when it is over it is over. This adversarial relationship has gone on for over forty years with no end in sight. The future of Iran-U.S. relations is not bright, no matter what happens in the JCPOA negotiations in Vienna. U.S. presidents and other politicians do not dare oppose Israeli and Arab lobbies. The only ray of hope for better Iran-U.S. relations is for a strong U.S. President to tell Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in no uncertain terms to cease their interference in U.S. foreign policy and for the U.S. to adopt policies that represent its long-term national interest. A broad businesslike relations with Iran, which can be better achieved without the interference of other countries, would undoubtedly serve U.S. interests.

Hossein Askari is Iran Professor Emeritus of International Business and International Affairs

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