BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
Tensions between Iran and the United States–along with its regional allies, Israel and the Sunni Arab states (as led by Saudi Arabia)–are mounting. As this occurs, Iran’s benefactors in China and Russia pull Tehran closer to them. More often than not, the world truly does appear to be separated by an ideological dividing line defined by the democracies of the West and the autocracies of the East. The question of how best to handle Iran since the Islamic revolution took hold in that country in 1979 has dogged American statesmen for decades.
A Brief History
At first, former President Jimmy Carter, mortified by the brutal excesses of the very pro-American Shāh, loosely supported the wishes of the protesting Iranian people, who sought to have Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran from his exile in France. For his part, Khomeini played Western audiences well from his perch in Paris, claiming to be a democrat-in-waiting. Like Vladimir Lenin coaxing the aid of the desperate German Empire during the First World War, Khomeini portrayed himself, his movement, and his struggle as one of human rights and democracy versus the tyranny of autocracy as represented by the Shāh.
Carter’s naïveté was astounding. In resisting calls from the Shāh’s supporters in Iran’s security apparatus to crackdown on the youthful protesters in Iran, Carter set the stage for what would become the United States’ most vexing foreign policy problem in the region. Once in power, the Grand Ayatollah embarked on a killing spree against purported enemies that would have made Lenin blush. After he purged those whom he suspected of being disloyal and opposed to his Islamic revolution, the Grand Ayatollah and his radical Islamists turned their ire upon the United States.
Almost from the start of the Islamic Republic of Iran, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism were key socio-political drivers. Chants of “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!”–what Iranian propagandists refer to as “Big Satan” and “Little Satan,” respectively–became routine. The new regime of Iran viewed the United States as its greatest ideological threat and began fighting against it almost from its inception. This resulted in the terrible Iran Hostage Crisis which lasted for four-hundred days. Since that time, a state of cold war has existed between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Beginning in the 1980s, Iran started exporting its revolution–just as Lenin had done within a few short years of having taken over Russia–to the surrounding region. Namely, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps elements found itself influencing Hezbollah, a fellow Shiite terror organization fighting in the multi-sided civil war in Beirut. It was here, in 1983, under the direction of Iran, that Hezbollah targeted the U.S. Marine Corps barracks that resulted in the deaths of 241 Marines. It was the single-greatest loss of Marines since the heady days of the Pacific Theater of the Second World War.
During the 1980s was also when Iran started looking into nuclear weapons. This was during the time that the nominally U.S.-backed Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein initiated a brutal war of aggression against neighboring Iran. The Americans provided intelligence, funds, and even chemical weapons for Saddam’s military. Saddam wanted to capture critical territory that would have allowed him more access to vital waterways through which oil transported. This would have benefited the United States because, despite Saddam himself being a brutal dictator in the Stalinist mold (right down to his mustache), at the time, the Baathists were viewed as being less threatening than the rabidly Islamist and totalitarian Iranians.
The Reagan Administration was correct in this assumption.
Throughout the 1980s, Iran was embroiled in a terrible war with Iraq that did not result in the defeat of Iran. Instead, it was a slow-bleeding conflict that lasted nearly a decade; destabilized the region; left Saddam’s Iraq broken and weak (leading directly to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait which precipitated Desert Storm in 1991); and only steeled the resolve of Iran’s mad mullahs. Having survived the Western-backed fury of Iraq, the Iranians assiduously instituted their geostrategic goals of reestablishing the Safavid Dynasty which lasted from 1501-1736 A.D.
In order to achieve these aims, then, Iran would have to extend its influence beyond its present borders–moving across the arc of the Shia Crescent, the area in which Shiite Muslim populations resided in the Greater Middle East–Iran would be able to exert its will, threaten its regional rivals, and increase its overall power. Although, first, Iran would have to rebuff America’s overwhelming reach and influence in the area. And, one way for Tehran to accomplish these pernicious objectives would be to threaten Israel, whom they viewed as an extension of American power and influence in the region.
Nuclear weapons are a key component to the Iranian strategy. Having long studied U.S. military policy toward “Rogue Regimes,” such as Iran, Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, the Iranians have assessed that so long as they posses nuclear weapons (however nascent their arsenal may be), the Americans will be disinclined to use military force to change their totalitarian regime. At the same time, the possession of a nuclear weapons arsenal would weaken Israel’s position while at the same time harming the status of their Sunni Arab rivals.
No, We Should Not Side With Iran
There has been a strange trend among many Western pundits to argue that the United States would be better off aligning with the Iranians rather than with the Sunni Arabs (or, by extension, the Israelis). These pundits, of which Tucker Carlson is a part of, insist that the Iranian regime is less bloody-minded than their Sunni counterparts. After all, the Sunni extremists have killed more than 3,000 Americans (on 9/11) and have caused U.S. policymakers more headaches than have the Iranians.
Of course, few understand that Iran plays the game differently than their hard-headed Sunni rivals. Iran is ethnically Persian and religious Shiite Muslim–making the country a minority in the region. Yet, Iran’s history stretches back to antiquity and theirs is a history marked by aggression, strategic competence, and a willingness to fight. So, just because Iran has not directly attacked the American people or the United States the way that the Sunni extremists of al Qaeda, the Islamic State, etc. have done, that does not mean that Iranian Islamic extremism is any better.
Fact is, since they have the backing of state power, the Iranians are more dangerous in the long-run. Not only have they extended their reach from Afghanistan through Iraq to Syria and Lebanon; not only has Tehran destabilized the situations in Syria and Yemen, resulting in the deaths of millions of innocents and the displacement of many more, but so too has Iran proliferated its dangerous brand of high-tech terrorism around the world. Notably, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah agents operate with near-impunity in Latin America–and have for decades.
In fact, in 2009, there was serious concern among U.S. policymakers that Iran might decide to place intermediate range ballistic missiles in Venezuela, in order to directly threaten the United States the way that they believe the United States directly threatens them. This threat has never, thankfully, materialized. But, Iran has been committed to worldwide revolution since its founding, as evidenced above. Playing nice with Iran will not ameliorate this circumstance anymore than negotiating with the Soviet Union disabused them of their revolutionary activities in the Third World during the Cold War.
Such is the nature of revolutionary states.
The Obama Administration shared the view that Iran could be reasoned with. Former President Obama embraced a realpolitik perspective on the matter. Believing that it was necessary for the United States to remove itself from the quicksands of Mideast geopolitics, Obama fancied the creation of balance-of-power between Israel and Iran. He and his aides inartfully reasoned that, since Israel possessed nuclear weapons, they could craft a nuclear deal with Tehran that effectively paved the pathway for an Iranian bomb in a decade–all the meanwhile integrating Iran into the world economy, in the vainglorious hope that Iran would moderate its revolutionary zeal if it could be opened to free trade.
This is the same thinking that dominated the presidential administrations from Richard M. Nixon to Barack Obama regarding Communist China. Eamonn Fingleton referred to this as “Convergence Theory” and posited his own counter-thesis to it. Assessing Red China’s relationship with the West since the 1970s, Fingleton believed that China captured U.S. and Western corporations and engaged in “reverse convergence,” wherein the vanguards of Westernization in China–our corporations–basically became conduits for Chinese influence back in the West. As I said, revolutionary regimes do not die from free trade.
Quite the contrary.
Therefore, Obama’s assumption that a viable balance-of-power between Israel and Iran could have been crafted by playing nice with the mad mullahs was infantile. Within months of what can only be construed as a giveaway from the Obama Administration to the mullahs of Iran, even as the West was totally complying with the agreement, Iran began testing missiles that were banned under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Meanwhile, Iran grew more flagrant with its military brinkmanship in the region–extending its reach to Syria and Yemen, while increasing its threats to tiny Israel.
Since his election in 2016, President Donald Trump has sought to reverse these trends by beefing up America’s alliances with the Sunni Arab states and Israel. These efforts have been complicated, though, by the persistent hemming-and-hawing of ignorant American political leaders who are more interested in humiliating either Israel or Saudi Arabia for perceived abuses. Yet, such actions by America’s feckless elite only serve to ensure that Iran’s power continues growing unchecked.
Oddly enough, there are those in the West who not only believe Iran to be more reasonable than our traditional allies in the region; who not only believe we should allow for Iran to achieve nuclear parity with the Israelis, but who believe our allies in the area are more dangerous than Iran’s revolutionary government.
Certainly, Saudi Arabia has a history of supporting Wahabbist and Salafist Sunni extremism (think al Qaeda). But, since 2003, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has consistently demonstrated its resolve in destroying terrorism. What’s more, since the rise of Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) as ruler of Saudi Arabia, the country has become a bulwark against both Sunni extremism as well as Iranian revanchism. Israel, a small, thriving Jewish democracy surrounded by Islamic states that have a history of seeking their total destruction, has at times been perceived of overreacting. And, since Israel uses U.S. military equipment and is closely aligned with Washington, the United States is often blamed for whatever overreach Israel is accused of.
Oh well. As the only democracy in the region with a Western bent, Americans who believe we could easily distance ourselves from Israel and allow for Iran to achieve nuclear weapons status in the region are painfully misinformed. Far from bringing balance and stability to the region, it would only prompt Israel to take aggressive action today that it might not be able to accomplish. Should Israel take such action in an attempt to head off Iranian nuclear weapons capability, and should they fail to achieve their aims, it is likely that Iran would be more emboldened, prompting a greater American intervention (which is something no one wants at present).
Meanwhile, should Iran achieve true nuclear weapons status, the Sunni states–namely Saudi Arabia–would acquire nuclear weapons of their own from Pakistan. And, while Saudi Arabia may be an ally of the United States with a friendly leader, no one should want the sclerotic autocracies of the Sunni Arab world to have nuclear weapons of their own.
As Iran wages a shadow war against the United States, many analysts have started claiming that Tehran is not behind the recent spate of attacks. This is absurd. It is not a false flag attack perpetrated by the Saudis to goad the Americans into direct confrontation with Iran, as some have suggested. Nor is it an Israeli plot to get the more powerful Americans to rid them of their archenemy in the region. Iran is a revolutionary state with a history of attacking Western–even American–assets and citizens.
While Iran does not seek a direct conflict with the United States, they do seek to undermine and humiliate American power as a means of exhibiting themselves as the “strong horse” of the region–thereby weakening American influence and by putting their rivals in the Sunni Arab community of states and Israel on the defensive. The notion that a) Iran is more rational and less threatening than our reputed allies in the region is absurd and that b) Iran would never be stupid enough as to risk the ire of the United States by increasing their hostile profile is equally crackpot.
Iran very much wants to be made into the regional powerhouse. In order to do that, they must undermine and usurp the United States. Therefore, they are using all measures short of war in an attempt to achieve their strategic objectives. Now is not the time for America to turn on its traditional allies.
This all gets back to the beginning of the piece, in which I posited the fact that both Russia and China (and several other autocracies) are standing beside Iran (just as they have done with the Nicolas Maduro regime in Venezuela). In this context, then, working with Iran as some in the West have posited, will only serve to ensure that American influence in this geostrategic region is erased. The more potent Iran becomes, the more expansive its reach, the weaker that Israel and the Sunni Arab states will be made. As this occurs, the more dominant Iran will then encourage the Chinese, Russians, and any other anti-American regime to become more invovled in the region.
Having access to the region’s oil–and having the Mideast mostly devoid of U.S. influence–is a key strategic goal of China. Meanwhile, Russia, a major oil-producing state, has long striven to gain top-dog status among the world’s oil producers. By having an Iranian-dominated Mideast in which the Sunni Arab states are subordinated to Iranian will (however begrudgingly) and a Mideast in which Israel is either totally destroyed or themselves subordinated to the Sino-Russian-Iranian axis, would mean that Russia could better compete with American oil and natural gas producers as well as have greater influence on the global price of oil.
Remember, Russia is a petro-economy. The moment the global price of oil dropped from its history highs in 2014, their economy contracted, political instability increased, and Vladimir Putin’s military modernization program stalled–thereby rebuking Putin’s attempt to rehabilitate the Russian Empire in Eastern Europe. A more powerful Iran, then, would serve the interests of both China and Russia while weakening the United States significantly.
Washington cannot ignore the great geostrategic strides that Iran has made in recent years. And, as Iran becomes more hostile, it is essential that the Trump Administration not be swayed by the calls to kowtow to Iran.
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