Donald Trump’s incendiary attack on Iran last Friday stands out as his most important action to date as US president. Whilst his decision to decertify the landmark nuclear accord of 2015 was expected, it was Trump’s concerted effort at projecting the Islamic Republic as darkly as possible that has raised eyebrows.
Trump’s stark depiction of Iran fits into the reductive “good and evil” narrative which he first set out back in May. In diplomatic terms, this is the boldest attack yet by any US president on the Islamic Republic. Inevitably it will have profound consequences.
This article looks at the nature of Iran-US relations and Trump’s determination to bring tensions to a head. The focus of analysis is not the nuclear accord, or even Iran’s regional posture, but the underlying issues in Iran-US relations.
The contention is that what unfolds in the next three years will be crucial in Iran-US relations, and may even partially settle the enmity. Either the US grudgingly accepts Iran’s complex role in the region, or conversely Iran adapts its policies, if not its overall approach, to grudgingly embrace a status quo role.
In keeping with his “America first” mantra, Donald Trump set out a list of American grievances against Iran starting from the American hostage crisis of 1979-1980 to alleged Iranian attacks on US forces in Iraq. In diplomatic terms, this is unoriginal stuff, not least because the Iranians have a long list of grievances of their own which stretch back much further than 1979.
Starting with the Anglo-American engineered coup of August 1953 which overthrew Iran’s first democratically-elected government, to American support for Iraq in the long-running Iran-Iraq War and America’s special relationship with Israel, Iran too has much to complain about.
But Trump’s speech went beyond diplomatic grandstanding to betray a level of hostility, underpinned by multiple distortions and downright untruths, not shown by any US president toward Iran since the Iranian revolution of 1979.
From fully embracing the Israeli and Saudi narrative on Iran, to simplifying the Islamic Republic as a “corrupt dictatorship” and continually referring to it as the “regime”, Trump’s rhetorical flourish was boundless. Moreover, his provocative and calculated gesture of naming what Iranians refer to as the Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf, was a clear indication that his invective embraces the Iranian nation-state as a whole, not just the country’s ruling system. It is worth noting that Iranians from all political backgrounds are sensitive to any attempts at changing the name of the Persian Gulf.
Grandstanding and gesture politics aside, Trump has staked out an interesting position by out-matching Iranian rulers in the rhetorical game. He is right to point out that the worldview of Iran’s rulers is shaped by the slogans of “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”. In the case of the latter Iran has been more or less true to its word by pursuing policies which are deeply inimical to the Jewish state.
But in the case of the US, despite what Trump appears to believe, Iran’s rulers have gone out of their way to avoid conflict. Trump’s aggressive posture places Iran’s rulers in a difficult position inasmuch as it throws down the ideological gauntlet at them and exposes the gap in their rhetoric and actions.
Road to war?
Despite Trump’s aggressive posturing, and his apparent determination to destroy the nuclear accord notwithstanding, Iran and the USA are not heading toward a full-scale war. The prospect for war peaked three decades ago when the US destroyed a quarter of the Iranian navy in April 1988 in the closing stages of the Iran-Iraq War. There was another major spike in tensions, with a potential to spark a limited inter-state conflict, a year later when pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon hanged a member of the US marines in retaliation for the Israeli abduction of Hezbollah leader Abdel-Karim Obeid.
One of the key reasons behind the Islamic Republic’s hostility toward the US is the deeply-held belief in Tehran that the ultimate US policy on Iran is the overthrow of its government. The so-called “regime change” policy is periodically floated by US leaders and officials to intimidate the Iranians. It was most recently suggested by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a public congressional hearing.
The US quest for regime change in Iran – quite apart from being hopelessly unrealistic – speaks to Washington’s profound misunderstanding of the Islamic Republic. Even America’s foremost veteran strategist, Henry Kissinger, displays this misunderstanding by his quip that Iran must decide “whether it is a nation or a cause”.
The Iranians don’t recognise a contradiction between expounding revolutionary values whilst at the same time pursuing the national interest by conventional means. In fact, they see it as a strength and a game changer. Thus, regionally Iran pursues clear-eyed strategic objectives in the framework of an ideologically-defined “Axis of Resistance”, whilst more broadly Iran uses the full spectrum of diplomatic, intelligence and propaganda tools to advance its interests on the global stage.
Even relatively sophisticated US analysis on Iran takes as its starting point the utility of exploiting a putative divide between the Iranian people and their government. No serious attention is given to the possibility that this divide (even if we assume it exists) may not be exploitable in a strategic context, not least because the Iranians will inevitably rally around their government in the event of a serious confrontation with the US.
In the months and years ahead, as Iran-US tensions build up, the Islamic Republic will skilfully alternate from revolutionary to status quo power with a view to containing concerted US attempts at blunting Iran’s regional strategic momentum.
Donald Trump is used to winning. In this case, he hasn’t fully reckoned with the wily and resourceful nature of Iran’s rulers who are more than his match.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.