Iran: The great Islamic Republic, a state that has defied the West, the guardian of the Islamic world, the helper of the Arab world, and the saviour of Palestine. Or is it? Ever since Iran’s “Islamic” revolution in 1979, the relationship between the West – the US in particular – and the Gulf state has been a seemingly tense one, overrun with rhetoric, constant condemnations of ideology and human rights abuses from both sides, and a barrage of one-sided sanctions.
Many dramatised this relationship as a prediction that – sooner or later – as was the situation with Iraq and Afghanistan, the US would wage a war on Iran dragging the two nations into direct armed conflict. This prophecy has gained popularity since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Trump surrounds himself with officials and advisors whose views are alarmingly anti-Iran, his administration has putting Iran “on notice” after its recent testing of its ballistic missiles.
Throughout the 20th century, Iran and the US became ever more intertwined, especially as American foreign policy focused on Iran’s neighbours. Regionally important and rich in oil, Iran’s course – and the US’ policy towards it – changed when Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in France to take control of the country from the Western-backed Shah.
The facade of tensions
Despite Trump’s fresh rhetoric against Iran and the fact that many members of his administration are anti-Iran, he cannot get his way without it aligning with the aim of the US in general. Trump must get the backing of his government before taking action. There is layer upon layer of authority, which can be encouraged to toe the line through endless lobbying and legal challenges. A recent example of this is the failure of Trump’s travel ban, which was halted by federal court judges.
Contrary to popular belief, Iran has proven itself extremely helpful to US interests in the Middle East, mainly because it acts as a counterbalance to its neighbouring Arab Gulf states. In classic “divide and rule” style, the US needs multiple players of near-equal strength that constantly challenge each other and are ever ready to confront one another.
Iran is a major player in the Middle East, particularly when it comes to keeping its Saudi rivals in check. It is also the only Shia power amongst a region of Sunni-majority nations. It plays an active role in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
In the era of the “War on Terror”, Iran has in fact cooperated with many of the US’ interests in the Middle East, as well as further afield in Asia. It openly supported the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the toppling of Tehran’s archenemy, Saddam Hussein.
It was even more enthusiastic in its support for the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan to push out the Taliban, opening its airspace for the US and providing tactical assistance. It was even rewarded, American soldiers were not the first to enter Kabul in 2001; soldiers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were.
One would be wrong to think that the US is inherently cautious of Iran due to its state ideology and human rights records. The US has had cosier relationships with countless tyrants and dictators in the Middle East and beyond. In fact, there is recent evidence that the two governments have had a more intimate relationship than was previously thought. Last year it was revealed that the US and Khomeini had extensive contact with one another a few weeks before the revolution in early 1979. In striking contrast to Khomeini’s rants about America being “the Great Satan”, the CIA documents revealed his messages of assurance that he had no animosity to them or the West, but rather sought to build relations and even asked the US to influence the Shah’s soldiers to side with him.
The full depth of their links is still unknown but revelations such as this confirm long-held rumours that the US – under the Carter administration – helped Khomeini replace the Shah. Thus began a new era in the Middle East: Iran was successfully made a new firebrand and agitator in the region.
The great distraction
Through constant media bombardment and endless rhetoric, the world has been fooled into believing that Iran is an inherent enemy of the West that intends to wage a holy war against “the Great Satan” but nothing can be further from the truth. Do tensions exist between Iran and the US? Perhaps. But does either side intend to wage war on the other? Definitely not.
The option is, of course, always there.
Despite the apparent tensions between the two, the fact is that a relatively strong Iran is necessary to maintain the interests of the US and the consequent power balance with Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies such as Turkey. This being said, America will take measures to ensure Iran does not become too strong a regional power.
Amidst the anti-Iran rhetoric coming from the Trump administration, the tensions are mostly superficial. In fact, relations between the US and Iran are set to improve, as can be seen by the nuclear deal agreed back in 2015, along with the consequent lifting of economic sanctions and the provision of a substantial amount of financial aid, while Saudi Arabia will be further neglected.
If anything, the US is more likely to increase its influence in already war-torn Syria and pursue conflicts in new arenas such as Pakistan, which is more of a threat to its ambitions than Iran ever could be. Iran, however, is a mere distraction from the real conflicts that are looming in the region, and is certainly no Iraq or Afghanistan.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.