Iran has returned to the news with the world’s attention focused on Russia and Ukraine. Often the odd-man-out, Iran is not only scorned by many in the West but also scorned by its own neighbors. Why? Iran has a rich cultural and religious history illuminating a mindset that sets it at odds with the rest of the world. This article examines Iran’s history and the relationship between the United States and Iran leading up to today. As the two countries seem destined for a collision course, is there any way disaster can be averted?
Iran is back in the news. The summer of 2023 hasn’t provided many International Relations crises, and the vast majority of American news media focus remains on the conflict in Ukraine. Policy-wise, the United States seems only focused on Ukraine and continues to funnel billions of dollars into Ukraine’s faltering ‘counter-offensive.’ So it was notable when a news item appeared in late Summer that the United States had deployed approximately 3,000 marines into the Persian Gulf region and specifically mentioned Iran as the provocateur du jour. Then again, in early August, Iran made headlines by not immediately ruling out the possibility of releasing hostages in return for a sanctions relief action that would free up a few billion dollars that Iran can’t legally get its hands on.
As it stands, the United States and Iran do not have diplomatic relations. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) “…is estimated to have more than 190,000 active personnel, boasts its own ground forces, navy and air force, and oversees Iran’s strategic weapons” and is on the U.S. State Department list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. And despite a détente in the relationship between the U.S. and Iran during the Obama years (2008-2016), there has always been enmity between the two states. This essay seeks to set out the reasons behind this enmity by first examining the unique history of the country of Iran, specifically its Persian heritage dating back thousands of years and its Shi’a Islamic identity. There was a time when Iran and the United States were not only strategic partners but also enjoyed a relationship that went beyond mutual respect into friendship territory. The good times did not last, and with the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent hostage crisis, the relationship soured into becoming bitter enemies. This pattern of friend-then-foe reemerged in the subsequent decades, with Iran becoming an ally after 9/11 but then just as quickly a member of the ‘axis of evil.’ It happened again with the ill-fated nuclear agreement under Obama and then the tearing up of said agreement by Trump. The two countries appear intertwined and destined for deadly conflict if left to themselves. Much like a divorced couple that was once very much in love, Iran and the U.S. have a complicated history, and how history is written solely depends on whose point of view one looks through.
The United States is a relative infant on the world stage. As a result, it has tended to approach international relations with the bluntness of a toddler who is used to always getting his way. An awareness of the history of other nations is critical to engaging in diplomacy. Consequently, a failure to understand the rich history of Iran has led the United States to make foolish errors in judgment. Iran’s history is complicated and cannot be overlooked in diplomacy. As scholars Hussein Banai, Malcolm Byrne, and John Triman note in their 2022 study of Iranian history:
…Iranian nationhood and its narrative have two sources and currents-the largely polytheistic Persian history stretching back to Cyrus, and the story of Shi’a Islam that is rooted in the “Karbala Paradigm” of Imam Hussein.
It is necessary to look at each source for a deeper understanding.
This version of the national narrative held that there was a continuous Persian nation populated by an Aryan race with a specific geography, Iran (and beyond), speaking Persian, and with a distinct character and culture of greatness that transcended various non-Persians or interlopers.
In condensed form, the narrative holds that the Aryan people from southern and eastern Europe migrated south and into and eventually through modern-day Iran (into India, bringing Vedic literature). This occurred sometime around 2000 B.C.E. It is important that these people were not only civilized but, just as importantly, they were not Arab. Iranians are not Arabs. Most Americans don’t know this but would not understand or care if they did. But it is crucial to understand the Iranian mindset and culture to see that they do not consider themselves the same people as Iraqis, Saudis, or Palestinians. In their view, they come from a different people group, one with far more history and accomplishment.
Central to the Persian story is the rule of Cyrus the Great (600-530 BCE). Cyrus is a military hero, statesman, and lawgiver in the region’s history. He is described as a “…brilliant general who, via sword, cunning, and wisdom, in the sixth century BC created the Persian Empire, the largest empire known to man at that time.” Jews and Christians recognize Cyrus from the Bible as the ruler who let the exiles return to the promised land after his capture of the Babylonians. In the Bible, Cyrus is described as ‘God’s anointed,’ also understood as a messiah or savior (Isaiah 44-45) used by God to rescue His people and build the second temple.
The secular myth of Cyrus depicts him as an embodiment of Persian civilization. He is tolerant of other religions. He is a liberator of oppressed people. He is a fair and just lawgiver. He embodies the Zoroastrian understanding of the world as divided between good and evil, right and wrong: he is good and right. Iranians see themselves as the inheritors of this great power and responsibility. They are not desert nomads who happen to have settled down where oil is plentiful: They are the descendants of a royal line of world leaders, movers, and shakers. And they expect to be treated as such.
The second source of Iranian nationhood and its national narrative is that of Shi’a Islam. Islam is the second largest religion, estimated at 2 billion adherents, and is the fastest-growing religion globally. But there are two distinct sects within Islam: Sunni and Shi’a (or Shi’ite) Islam, and what makes Iran unique is that it is the largest predominant Shi’a Muslim country in the world (Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain have Shi’a majority populations as well). Even casual international observers note that Iran is the ‘odd-man-out’ even in its own neighborhood of the Persian Gulf. Iran’s neighbors, and seemingly potential allies against the West, are all Sunni majority countries and do not support Iran. While the West tends to see all Islam as one thing, the internal differences are stark and form the basis of Iran’s unique place in the world.
The story of Islam begins on the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi Arabia) with the prophet Mohammed in 610 C.E., when he began receiving revelations from Allah. These revelations would eventually be transcribed into the Quran, the holy book of Islam. Mohammed, his family, and his followers lived a life of submission to Allah and sought to liberate oppressed and poor individuals from bondage. As the movement grew, it expanded geographically as well. At the death of Mohammed in 632, the discord began.
As with any movement with a charismatic leader, the question of succession becomes contentious. When Mohammed died, most followers backed Abu Bakr as the next in charge (Caliph). Abu Bakr was Mohammed’s father-in-law. His daughter was one of Mohammed’s wives. Abu Bakr was old, wise, had been with Mohammed from the beginning, and was a logical choice based on custom and culture.
But Abu Bakr, despite being part of the inner circle, was not directly related to the prophet. Some thought the next Caliph should be Ali, the prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. Ali was younger, married to one of Mohammed’s daughters, and was a blood relative of the prophet himself. Strengthening Ali’s case was the fact that Mohammed had stated on several occasions (allegedly) that Ali was to be the successor. Ali was even one of the transcribers of the prophet’s visions into the Quran.
According to Shi’a Islam, Ali didn’t fight the injustice but continued to serve Abu Bakr and the subsequent Caliphs even though their claim to rule was suspect. The supporters of Ali, however, were not willing to let this injustice slide as they saw the Caliphs steering the new religion in the wrong direction. They supported Ali and, eventually, Ali’s son, Hussein (Hussayn), the Prophet’s own grandson, as the rightful ruler of the young Islam.
Ali became Caliph briefly, but Islam was beset with internal civil wars and uprisings that quickly led to his ouster. Ali sensed that he would be the target of an assassination, and according to Shi’a legend, he faced his impending death with all the grace and humility worthy of a man of such high esteem. He was assassinated while at prayer in 661 C.E., but the result was not the end of the Ali sect (Shi’a comes from Shi’ at ‘Ali meaning ‘partisans of Ali).
In 680, Ali’s son, Hussein, set off on the Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca required of all able Muslims). Along the way, while passing through the plain of Karbala, which is in modern-day Iraq just south of Baghdad, Hussein’s traveling party was attacked, and he was killed, his body desecrated, and his head removed. This event solidified the breach between Shi’a (Shiite) Islam (the part loyal to Ali and then Hussein) and Sunni Islam, which remains today. It also is a defining event for Shi’a Islam and has been termed the ‘Karbala Paradigm’ by scholars in an attempt to grasp how the event has informed and created a people.
“The Karbala paradigm, and which others such as R. Strothman (1953) have not inappropriately called by the name of the Christian parallel, the Passion,” is foundational to understanding Shi’a Islam and, consequently, Iran as a nation. What happened there was the ultimate injustice. Not only was Hussein murdered when he was rightfully supposed to be Caliph, but his body was also desecrated and beheaded, the ultimate humiliation for a Muslim. Pop psychologists might talk about someone having a persecution complex, meaning that the individual is convinced that everyone is out to inflict harm upon them. Iran and Shi’a Islam were born and bred with the belief that they are victims of horrific injustice. These injustices come from Sunni Islam, have recently come from the West, and will continue to come from others who are ‘not us.’ “It is the story of corrupt and oppressive tyranny repeatedly overcoming (in this world) the steadfast dedication to pure truth; hence its ever-present, latent, political potential to frame or clothe the contemporary discontents.”
Iran is a nation that embodies a belief that it is unique, a leader in civilization, and destined to be misunderstood, attacked, and persecuted because of its inherited righteousness. It has the inheritance of the mighty Persian Empire, along with the true faith of Islam. Iran doesn’t want a seat at the table; Iran believes it built the table in the first place. Iran is not looking for legitimacy among the nations of the world; it is following its Allah-ordained course as the only true hope for the nations of the world.
The United States would do well to recognize these same characteristics in itself. And while it may seem hopeless that two nations who consider themselves so inevitably ‘necessary’ would ever get along, there were times in recent history when the relationship was strong.
The Good Times
Iran and the United States will not agree on the supremacy of Persian culture. Nor are they going to join religious forces. What could possibly bring these two together? Money.
Iran does not just have the benefit of thousands of years of culture or just the benefit of being the one true expression of Islam. Iran has oil. And not just a little oil; anecdotally, Iran has approximately enough oil to last for over 230 years if it stops producing. It doesn’t take an economist or petroleum expert to know that oil equals money; this has been the glue that binds nations together. And so, for a better part of the early 20th Century, Iran enjoyed a positive relationship with Western powers, specifically Britain, because of mutual benefit from oil revenues. Of course, that mutual benefit was more beneficial for Britain than Iran, so Iranian nationalists dared to stand up to Britain.
In 1953, Mohammed Mossadeq, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, nationalized the then British-owned Anglo-Persian Oil Company with support from Iran’s government and supreme leader. Losing that much money was unacceptable to Britain (and the United States), so U.S. and British intelligence agencies helped elements in the Iranian military overthrow Iran’s prime minister and imposed an oil embargo on Iran. The coup brought back to power the Western-friendly monarchy (which was in power prior to the election of Mossadeq), headed by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
The Shah, as he was known in political circles, was a charismatic leader that sought to carve out Iran’s place in the post-World War Two era. He intentionally courted Western powers, revived the emphasis on the Persian royal heritage of Iran, and made no secret of his desire to partner with the United States in pursuit of joint interests. The United States, especially when Nixon came into office (1968-1974) was looking to the Shah and Iran to be its proxy in the Persian Gulf region to contain the communist threat that surrounded it. Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, led the charge to bring the Shah into the U.S. orbit. As one writer puts it,
But it was Kissinger who, in 1972, greatly deepened the relationship between Washington and Tehran. He was the one who began a policy of unconditional support for the shah as a way to steady American power in the Persian Gulf while the US extracted itself from Southeast Asia.
The Oil The Money and The Weapons
It may have seemed in the early 1970s that the United States and Iran were saying their vows and preparing to live happily ever after. But even an armchair marriage counselor might notice that ‘unconditional support’ is a red flag in relationships. The United States has an unconditional support relationship with Israel, so one with Iran seems odd. Some scholars argue that what was happening on the surface was that the United States, specifically Nixon and Kissinger, thought they were funding a proxy or puppet in the Shah who would do their bidding in the region. Instead, it can be argued that the Shah was playing the long game and milking the United States to build a world-leading regime.
What the shah wanted most of all were weapons…By 1976, Iran had become the largest purchaser of American weaponry and housed the largest contingent of US military advisers anywhere on the planet. By 1977, the historian Ervand Abrahamian notes, “the shah had the largest navy in the Persian Gulf, the largest air force in Western Asia, and the fifth-largest army in the whole world.” …thousands of modern tanks, hundreds of helicopters, F-4 and F-5 fighter jets, dozens of hovercraft, long-range artillery pieces, and Maverick missiles. The next year, the shah bought another $12 billion worth of equipment.
This was the high point in Iranian and U.S. relations. The U.S. was buying Iran’s oil, and the money Iran made went to purchasing American weaponry, the Soviet Union was shut out of the deal, and the U.S. saw Iran as the gateway to dealing with China. There were clear signs of trouble, but when the power brokers are making money, even the most obvious clues are overlooked. The United States was woefully ignorant of Iran’s Islamic heritage. The Shah also ignored it, choosing the modern glitz and glamour lifestyle over righteousness and justice. The consequences proved deadly.
The Great Divorce
Some relationships end bit by bit, a slow death of growing apart. But some explode in a glorious fireball of carnage. Perhaps it was because things were so good between the Shah’s Iran and the United States that the events of 1979 hit so hard. But there is no denying that the Iranian Revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis permanently ruptured the relationship.
As was noted earlier, Iran draws from two main sources for its national identity, the Persian dynasty and Shi’a Islam. The rule of the Shah was solely focused on the former. The Shah sought out Western acceptance. He invited foreign powers into Iran, shared national resources with foreign powers, and ultimately tried to modernize Iranian culture to look more like Western culture. He also did all of this while becoming incredibly wealthy and ignoring the plight of his people. He became the despot that Iranians were used to being oppressed by, and he was one of their own.
Iranians fought back, as they always have done, but this time it was against their own despotic ruler. The Shah was overthrown from power in 1979 and subsequently run out of the country. The exiled cleric Ayatollah Kohmenei, a hard-line Shi’a cleric, returned to Iran and seized power. This event would have a rippling effect for decades to come.
The overthrow of the Shah and the triumph of the Iranian Revolution was one of the seminal events of the latter half of the twentieth century. From the moment of Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Tehran on February 1, 1979, relations between the United States and Iran began to deteriorate.
To say the United States was unprepared for the revolution would be a gross understatement. Consider the following anecdote:
In the mid-1990’s, President Jimmy Carter’s CIA director, Stansfield Turner, was asked about reactions in the Carter administration to the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, specifically about Ayatollah Khomeini, who would become its supreme leader. Turner recalled a meeting in which the question was asked, “What’s an ayatollah?” Turner remembered telling the president, “Damned if I know, but I’ll find out and get back to you.” Such was the ignorance, surprise, and dismay with which Iran’s Islamic Revolution was greeted in the highest levels of official Washington.
The United States, which had willingly sold billions of dollars in weaponry to the Shah of Iran, also had no idea about Islam in general or the specific history of Iran in particular. The Shah intentionally hid ‘that part’ of Iran well. Still, the failure to know would be laughable if it weren’t deadly because the revolution was not just an internal conflict within Iran. The revolution came to America’s doorstep on November 4, 1979, when armed militants entered the United States embassy in Tehran and took fifty-two employees hostage.
But that is history told from one point of view. From a different point of view, the egregious offense was not the taking of hostages on November 4th but the decision of Jimmy Carter’s administration to let the deposed Shah of Iran into the United States for medical treatment on October 21st. The decision to allow the Shah to enter the United States will continue to be analyzed internally. From the official perspective, it was Jimmy Carter listening to Henry Kissinger, David Rockefeller, and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and choosing to uphold and fight for the ideals of America and welcome a friend of the nation to be admitted for life-saving medical treatment.
From the Iranian perspective (which was now the perspective of Islamic revolutionaries), it was a direct betrayal of the people of Iran. Any trust that may have formed between the new Iranian regime and the United States was destroyed completely by this decision. It is not hyperbole to recognize that, for the Shi’a Muslim Iranians, this betrayal evoked the Karbala narrative. Again, a hostile, foreign power had usurped the rights of the Iranians to hold their exiled leader accountable and had chosen sides against them. There was no hope for reconciliation now.
From this perspective, the taking of the hostages at the United States embassy on November 4, 1979, was not an act of wanton violence but the direct result of the U.S.’s decision to side with the Shah and the natural progression of the revolutionaries ridding Iran of the foreign interlopers. The hostages were released 444 days later, but the damage was done. Americans are not used to losing or even being challenged. The ordeal ended the Presidency of Jimmy Carter and set America on a new international path of strength first interventionism under Ronald Reagan. Both Iran and the United States felt a line had been crossed. Reconciliation was no longer an option.
Viewing the admittance of the Shah into the United States and the subsequent hostage-taking as the divorce point in the relationship between Iran and the United States, what follows is the fighting of betrayed lovers. Some relationships end, and the parties move on. Others, oftentimes those that were extremely passionate, continue with as much anger and hate as there was love and acceptance. Iran and the United States could never go their own way after the great divorce. They fought and continue to fight it out on the world stage.
The War with Iraq
Americans are all too familiar with Saddam Hussein and Iraq. That knowledge, though, usually begins in the early 1990s when Saddam launched an invasion of Kuwait. But a decade before, Saddam launched an invasion of Iran. Saddam Hussein was a military dictator of the Baathist Party, “…a radical, secular, modernizing party mixing pan-arabism and socialism.” Nevertheless, Iraq had a Shi’a majority population but was ruled by the minority Sunni. Saddam feared Iran was fueling Shi’a revolt, and after the revolution in Iran, he did not want to take any chances. Another factor compelling Saddam to war with Iran was support from the United States. After all, what better way to punish Iran than having their hated neighbor take them out?
According to the Council on Foreign Relations,
The United States supported secular Iraq with economic aid, training, and dual-use technology until the war ended in 1988, even after the CIA found evidence that Iraqi forces used chemical weapons against Iranians. An estimated one million Iranians and 250,000–500,000 Iraqis died in the conflict.
Iran was under no illusions that it was just their cantankerous neighbor that they were fighting. Supreme Leader Khamenei (who followed Khomenei and assumed the role in 1989) described it as ‘not a war between two countries, two armies; it was a war between an unwritten, global coalition against one nation.’ This harkens back to the ‘Karbala Paradigm’ of Shi’a Islam discussed previously: it is the world against Iran.
The irony should not be lost, especially since it is an integral part of the American international experience, that the United States supported Iraq against Iran while Iran was fighting with the weaponry the Shah had purchased directly from the United States less than a decade before. It should also be noted that the United States was indirectly arming Iraq, monitoring its development and use of chemical weapons, and watching happily as over a million Iranians were killed. Of course, as history shows, these same chemical weapons and the same ‘ability’ of Saddam Hussein to produce them led to the 2003 United States invasion of Iraq.
But the United States’ relationship with Iran is the focus of this essay. And while the United States supported Iraq, Iran did strike some blows against American interests during the war. The deadliest was the 1983 bombing in Beirut, Lebanon.
Two trucks loaded with explosives drove into barracks housing American and French service members of the Multinational Force in Lebanon. The attack killed 241 U.S. military personnel—the highest single-day death toll for the U.S. Armed Forces since the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War. For the Marines, it was the largest loss of life since D-Day. Islamic Jihad, widely believed to be a front for Hezbollah (funded by Iran), claimed responsibility for the attack. The bombing led the State Department to designate Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1984.
Unbelievably, despite Iran being declared a state-sponsor of terrorism and the United States government slamming Iran with sanctions, including an arms embargo, some in the highest positions in the Reagan administration decided that maybe working with Iran could be beneficial. The Reagan administration desperately wanted to help the Contra Rebels overthrow the Sandinista socialist government in Nicaragua. They couldn’t do it openly because Congress had cut off the funding. Then someone (Israel) had an idea involving Iran.
“In March of 1984, members of Hezbollah, the fundamentalist Shiite (Shi’a) group…kidnapped seven Americans- including William Buckley, the CIA chief of station in Beirut, Lebanon.” The administration, or at least some members, saw an opportunity. After being approached by an arms dealer, the administration began to forge a plan to sell weapons to Iran, which desperately needed them for use in the war against Iraq (which the US was funding) in exchange for releasing the hostages. This money could then be secretly routed to the Contras in Nicaragua. It seemed to some to be a win/win/win. The hostages would be released, and Iran would be rearmed, prolonging the Iran-Iraq war and depleting both nations. The money directed to the Contras would help overthrow the Sandinistas, a left-wing radical group threatening American corporate interests and national security being so close to the United States. The only problem was that it was all illegal.
As it came to be known (ironically for present purposes), the Iran-Contra Affair highlights the odd relationship between Iran and the United States. It is as if the divorced couple still liked to go on sordid dalliances amid publicly thrashing each other. It worked, and the hostages were released. And the conspirators eventually escaped punishment (except for Oliver North) thanks to pardons from George H.W. Bush (Vice President during the scandal) on Christmas Eve 1992. This dichotomy of public hatred and private handshaking would play out again in the days after 9/11.
The Axis of Evil
It is not hyperbole to say that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, completely changed the American view of the world. Not since Pearl Harbor had an attack of that magnitude occurred on American soil. In the days immediately following, the United States received messages of goodwill from nations around the world, including Iran. Iranians held candlelight vigils in Tehran to show support. Most importantly for the Bush Administration, Iran answered the phone when they called.
Rather quickly after the attack, it was publicly proclaimed that Osama Bin Laden was responsible. Osama Bin Laden had found refuge in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. President George W. Bush’s administration established a back channel with Iran to help coordinate the defeat of the Taliban, a Sunni Islamic sect. In the aftermath of the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the United States and Iran even collaborated on the Bonn Agreement regarding state-building and the repatriation of Afghan refugees.
Then, less than three months later, the President of the United States, George W. Bush, delivered the State of the Union address (January 2002) and stated:
Iran aggressively pursues these weapons (weapons of mass destruction) and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom…States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.
The United States needed and received Iran’s help in toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan, then turned around and declared that Iran was a sponsor of terrorism and part of an ‘axis of evil.’ The phrase carries a religious connotation that was not lost on the Iranians. After this, the two seemed unlikely ever to work together again. But this is Iran, and as history has shown, the relationship between the United States and Iran is anything but predictable.
In 2006, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent President George W. Bush an eighteen-page letter—the first letter from an Iranian leader to a U.S. one since 1979. Ahmadinejad sought to ease U.S.-Iran nuclear tensions, but Iran took no steps to slow its uranium enrichment program, which it claimed was for civilian energy production. Separately, the U.S. Congress approved the Iran Freedom Support Act in September to fund Iranian civil society and promote democracy. Despite these positive developments, it wasn’t until the administration of Barak Obama that any substantial progress was made.
During President Obama’s last term (2012-2016), diplomacy between the United States and Iran reached unprecedented levels, and, against all odds, a compromise on the nuclear issue was reached. Both the diplomacy that led to the deal and the deal itself flew in the face of conventional wisdom in the West…. with the aid of its allies in the P5 +1, the United States negotiated over the course of twenty months a historic deal that simultaneously evaded two potential disasters: a war with Iran and Tehran obtaining a nuclear weapons option.
Iran, the P5+1 (P5 are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: U.S., U.K., China, Russia, and France. The plus one is Germany), and the European Union reached an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, named the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In return for sanctions relief, Iran agreed to undertake a series of steps, including dismantling and redesigning its nuclear reactor in Arak, allowing more intrusive verification mechanisms, and limiting uranium enrichment for at least fifteen years. The deal increased Iran’s “breakout time” for developing enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon from a few weeks to at least one year.
A deal had been made. The United States and Iran were once again working together. In exchange for lifting economic sanctions, Iran agreed to international monitoring and limitations on its nuclear program. It certainly appeared as if the impossible had happened: reconciliation. “Something remarkable had happened. The ‘Great Satan’ and the ‘foremost terror sponsor in the world’ weren’t acting like sworn enemies anymore.” But returning to the paradigm of a passionate love affair evolving into a marriage and exploding in a brutal divorce followed by hatred and enmity, when the couple announces that they have gotten back together, the friends and family hold an intervention.
Israel is one player in this dramatic relationship that has made brief appearances but has been behind the scenes the entire time, influencing the ebb and flow of the relationship. Like a man who cannot break away from his mother or a woman who can never forget her first love, the United States of America is beholden in thought, word, and deed to the Nation of Israel. Israel did not mince words about how it felt about the 2015 deal:
Furiously denouncing the accord to limit Iran’s nuclear program on Tuesday as a “historic mistake,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel would not be bound by the agreement and warned of negative repercussions in a region already riven with rivalries and armed conflict…Mr. Netanyahu is now gearing up for the next fight: to lobby Congress to reject the deal and ultimately override any presidential veto. But that is likely to lead to further confrontation between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama.
But Netanyahu didn’t have to wait long to get his way. In November 2016, Donald Trump was elected president, and nothing could have made Israel happier.
It wasn’t surprising that Donald Trump announced that the United States was pulling out of the JCPOA and would instead mount a sanctions campaign to place “maximum pressure” on Iran. Many arms control experts and European allies condemned the move, while many Republican lawmakers, Israel, and Saudi Arabia applauded it. Iran responded by boosting uranium enrichment in defiance of the agreement’s terms.
It also isn’t a mystery why Trump did what he did. He had campaigned on ‘undoing’ Obama’s legacy. He had clearly stated he would rip up what he called the worst deal in history. And Trump’s full-throated support of Israel helped him win the White House. The fallout from Trump’s actions was also not surprising. Iran returned to its nuclear program.
The 2015 JCPOA increased Iran’s breakout time to at least one year. In response to President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement in 2018, Iran built up its nuclear program and now has a breakout time of a month or less. In the absence of any deal, breakout time could continue to shrink to a matter of days.
Under the deal, it would take Iran one full year to develop a nuclear weapon upon deciding to do so, and now (2023) it is down to days. The ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions aren’t stopping the money flow either. Iran established a clandestine banking and finance system to handle tens of billions of dollars in annual trade banned under U.S.-led sanctions, enabling Tehran to endure the economic siege, according to Western diplomats, intelligence officials, and documents. The question must be asked: Why would Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia want this to happen?
As Iran moves closer to the nuclear threshold —without robust verification arrangements— the pressure grows for a preemptive strike against its nuclear facilities. Israel has made no secret of its willingness to conduct such a strike, and the Biden administration’s firm commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons suggests that, at a certain point, the United States would also be prepared to use force to stop Iran.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is also a ‘wild card’ in this relationship. Saudi Arabia, as noted, applauded the Trump administration’s decision to abandon the JCPOA. Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shi’a) have had their own tumultuous relationship historically and recently. But then, in 2023, Saudi Arabia reopened diplomatic relations with Iran under the auspices of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Countries). It is unlikely that Saudi Arabia is just hedging its bets. It seems more likely that The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is positioning itself as the intermediary, the peace broker between the United States and Iran. The question will be whether this role is being sought as a true mediator of peace or as another of the Kingdom’s recent ‘soft power’ moves (purchasing professional golf, purchasing soccer stars) to gain influence on the world’s stage and be seen as a major power with which to be reckoned.
The Impending War
The leadership of the United States and Israel destroyed the peace agreement with Iran and have been preparing for a military strike against Iran. The Biden administration is bogged down with the conflict in Ukraine and has been slow to re-energize negotiations with Iran. And while some diplomats and policymakers see a return to the 2015 agreement as the best possible outcome in the waning days of the Biden presidency, Congress and even the Biden Administration itself are preparing the ground for military action. It is highly likely that if the Republican nominee for president in 2024 wins the White House, Israel will be green-lighted to carry out military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. The evidence for this appears at the beginning of this essay with Iran’s reappearance in the news of August 2023:
More than 3,000 US military personnel have arrived in the Red Sea on board two warships, part of a beefed-up response from the United States after alleged seizures of several civilian ships by Iran, the US Navy said.
Analysis and Recommendations
The United States refuses to learn any lessons from past failures. The United States intervened militarily in Afghanistan (Iran’s neighbor to the East) after 9/11. Taliban defeated, Taliban returned, and the situation is worse than it was. In 2003, the U.S. intervened militarily in Iraq (Iran’s neighbor to the West). Saddam Hussein is gone, but the country fell apart, and the situation is worse than it was. The analysis is simple: Israel and the conservative coalition in the United States want to intervene militarily against Iran.
Based on this analysis, the recommendations are as follows:
*The United States and partner nations (P5+1, EU) should try renegotiating the 2015 JCPOA using the original agreement as a framework to address the current situation.
*In 2023, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran agreed to resume diplomatic relations. The OIC has been working to facilitate these relations. The OIC should alert the world community to the expected results of Western military intervention in Iran.
*Iran should make every public effort to show its willingness to abide by the parameters of a newly negotiated JCPOA, even pre-emptively self-monitoring or allowing outside monitors in.
*The United Kingdom, France, Germany, and other allies (NATO) must publicly stand up to the United States and Israel and condemn using military force in Iran.
*The electorate in the United States should seek leaders dedicated to diplomacy and peace.
*The special relationship between the United States and Israel must be publicly re-evaluated and debated.
The nation of Iran has a rich heritage that is both secular and sacred. They are the inheritors of the Persian empires of the past, and they are the sole Shi’a Muslim majority nation. They continue to stand in defiance of world powers that have come and gone. From their perspective, they have survived betrayal in the past and will survive it now and in the future. They are not afraid of war. An attack would be foolish and only lead to more of the same. We must continue to work for peace while there is still daylight.
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Banai, Hussein, Malcolm Byrne, and John Tirman. Republics of Myth: National Narratives and the US-Iran Conflict. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022.
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Boyett, Jason. 12 Major World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity’s Most Influential Faiths. 1st edition. Zephyros Press, 2016.
Council on Foreign Relations. “U.S. Relations With Iran, 1953–2022.” Accessed August 14, 2023. https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-relations-iran-1953-2022.
Dando-Collins, Stephen. Cyrus The Great. 1st edition. Nashville: Turner, 2020.
Einhorn, Robert. “Reviving the JCPOA Is the Better Alternative — but Can It Be Made Sustainable?,” n.d.
Fischer, Michael M. J. Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. 2nd edition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.
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Karsh, Efraim, and Inari Rautsi. Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography. First Edition. Diane Books Publishing Company, 1991.
Maloney, Suzanne. Iran’s Long Reach: Iran as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World. Illustrated edition. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2008.
Milani, Abbas. The Shah. Reprint edition. Basingstoke: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012.
“Pardons Granted by President George H. W. Bush (1989-1993),” United States Department of Justice. January 12, 2015. https://www.justice.gov/pardon/pardons-granted-president-george-h-w-bush-1989-1993.
Parsi, Trita. Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy. 1st edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017.
Prothero, Stephen. God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World. Reprint edition. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011.
Talley, Ian. “WSJ News Exclusive | Clandestine Finance System Helped Iran Withstand Sanctions Crush, Documents Show.” Wall Street Journal, March 18, 2022, sec. World. https://www.wsj.com/articles/clandestine-finance-system-helped-iran-withstand-sanctions-crush-documents-show-11647609741.
“Thousands of US Troops Arrive in Red Sea amid Ratcheting Iran Tensions.” Accessed August 15, 2023. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/8/7/thousands-of-us-troops-arrive-in-red-sea-amid-ratcheting-iran-tensions.
United States Department of State. “Foreign Terrorist Organizations.” Accessed August 14, 2023. https://www.state.gov/foreign-terrorist-organizations/.
Walsh, Lawrence E. Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up. First Edition. New York: W W Norton & Co Inc, 1997.
Wright, Robin. editor. The Iran Primer: Power, Politics, and U.S. Policy. Washington, D.C: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2010.
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 Al Jazeera, “Thousands of US Troops Arrive in Red Sea amid Ratcheting Iran Tensions,” 2023, 1.
 BBC. “Profile,” 2020, 1.
 US State Department, “Foreign Terrorist Organizations,” 2023, 1.
 Hussein Banai, Malcolm Byrne, and John Tirman, Republics of Myth: National Narratives and the US-Iran Conflict (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2022), 24.
 Banai, Malcolm Byrne, and John Tirman, Republics of Myth: National Narratives and the US-Iran Conflict 34.
 Stephen Dando-Collins, Cyrus The Great, 1st edition (Nashville: Turner, 2020), 1.
 Jason Boyett, 12 Major World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity’s Most Influential Faiths. (Berkely, CA: Zephyros Press, 2016), 81.
 Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World, Reprint edition (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011), 29.
 Banai, Byrne, and Tirman, Republics of Myth, 34.
Michael M. J. Fischer, Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. 2nd edition. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 12.
 Fischer, Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution, 13.
 Council on Foreign Relations, “U.S. Relations With Iran, 1953–2022.” 1.
 Greg Grandin, “How One Man Laid the Groundwork for Today’s Crisis in the Middle East” The Nation. September 28, 2015, 1.
 Roham Alvandi, Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War. 1st edition. (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 50.
 Grandin, “How One Man Laid the Groundwork for Today’s Crisis in the Middle East,” 1.
 Abbas Milani, The Shah, Reprint edition (Basingstoke: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2012), 438.
 James G. Blight, janet M. Lang, Hussein Banai, Malcolm Byrne, John Tirman, and Bruce Riedel. Becoming Enemies: U.S.-Iran Relations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1979–1988. Edition Unstated. (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012), 12.
 Blight et al., Becoming Enemies: U.S.-Iran Relations and the Iran-Iraq War, 1979–1988, 55.
 “Jimmy Carter and the 1979 Decision to Admit the Shah into the United States | American Diplomacy Est 1996,” 1.
 Efraim Karsh and Inari Rautsi, Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography, First Edition (Diane Books Publishing Company, 1991), 12.
 Council on Foreign Relations, “U.S. Relations With Iran, 1953–2022,” Council on Foreign Relations, 1, accessed August 14, 2023, https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-relations-iran-1953-2022.
 Suzanne Maloney, Iran’s Long Reach: Iran as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World, Illustrated edition (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2008), 15.
 Frank M. Benis, U.S. Marines in Lebanon, 1982-1984 (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014), 3.
 Council on Foreign Relations, “U.S. Relations With Iran, 1953–2022,” 1.
 Lawrence Walsh, Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up (New York: W W Norton & Co Inc, 1997), 4.
 United States Department of Justice, “Pardons Granted by President George H. W. Bush (1989-1993),” January 12, 2015.
 Council on Foreign Relations, “U.S. Relations With Iran, 1953–2022,” 1.
 “President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address | Jan. 29, 2002 (Washingtonpost.Com)
 Council on Foreign Relations, “U.S. Relations With Iran, 1953–2022,” 1.
 Trita Parsi, Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy, 1st edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017), 8.
 Council on Foreign Relations, “U.S. Relations With Iran, 1953–2022,” 1.
 Trita Parsi, Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy, 7.
 Isabel. Kershner, “Iran Deal Denounced by Netanyahu as ‘Historic Mistake.’” The New York Times, July 14, 2015.
 Council on Foreign Relations, “U.S. Relations With Iran, 1953–2022,” 1.
 BBC News. “Three Reasons behind Trump Ditching Iran Deal.” May 8, 2018.
 Robert Einhorn, “Reviving the JCPOA Is the Better Alternative — but Can It Be Made Sustainable?” (Brookings Institute: Foreign Policy. 2022), 5.
 Ian Talley, “WSJ News Exclusive | Clandestine Finance System Helped Iran Withstand Sanctions Crush, Documents Show,” 2022, 1.
 Einhorn, “Reviving the JCPOA Is the Better Alternative — but Can It Be Made Sustainable?,” 6.
 Einhorn, 3.
Al Jazeera, “Thousands of US Troops Arrive in Red Sea amid Ratcheting Iran Tensions,” August, 2023.