Iran has been an enduring constant in U.S. foreign policy since the fall of the Iranian monarchy and its replacement by an Islamic fundamentalist regime three decades ago.
Once a key American ally in the Middle East, Iran is now a staunch and unflinching adversary.
The adversarial relationship between the United States and Iran is the subject of David Crist’s illuminating book, The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran (The Penguin Press).
At a time when tensions in the Middle East are rising, due in part to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its strategic alignment with Hezbollah, Hamas and the embattled government of President Bashar Assad of Syria, this volume is particularly topical.
Forty years ago, Iran was regarded by Washington as a reliable partner, a proxy in the battle to contain the Soviet Union. But with the downfall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, the United States suddenly found itself facing a new, uncertain future.
The first tangible sign that the status quo had been rendered obsolete was the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. The Iranian foreign minister, a moderate, wanted to end the standoff, but Iran’s radical spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, disagreed. To Khomeini, the takeover was a golden opportunity to consolidate his power and rally the public behind the Islamists at the expense of liberals and nationalists in the revolutionary coalition, suggests Crist.
The seizure of the American Embassy was clearly a turning point in the United States’ bilateral relations with Iran, prompting the U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, to sever diplomatic ties with Tehran and enunciate the Carter Doctrine, which stated that the Persian Gulf area, with its vast reserves of oil, was vital to U.S. national interests and therefore worth defending. From that point onward, as Crist observes, the United States plotted to overthrow the hostile Iranian regime.
To no one’s surprise, Iranian leaders accused the United States of complicity in Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980. But as Crist correctly points out, Iraq’s aggression proved to be a godsend to Iran. Iranians rallied around the Islamic regime, diverting attention away from Iran’s slide into tyranny. (Israel should take this factor into account before launching a pre-emptive strike on Iran in a bid to disable or destroy its ominously-developing nuclear program).
The paranoia touched off in Iran by Iraq’s invasion was, in fact, well-founded. The United States, regarding Iraq as the lesser of two evils, tilted against Iran and began supplying Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship with financial, intelligence and arms assistance, even though it was officially neutral in the Iran-Iraq War.
Some American officials, notably Paul Wolfowitz in the State Department and Richard Perle in the Defence Department, opposed the pro-Iraqi tilt, arguing in vain that Baghdad poised a greater danger to U.S. interests.
Iran’s growing role in Lebanon, following Israel’s ill-conceived invasion in 1982, did not escape the attention of the United States. With Iranian diplomats and agents assiduously cultivating the Shiite community, Iran’s influence increased significantly, thereby changing the balance of power in Lebanon, much to the detriment of Sunni Muslims and Maronite Christians.
Under the presidency of Ronald Reagan, U.S. policy on Iran shifted. Reagan’s national security adviser, Bud McFarlane, called for détente rather than containment, a policy that culminated with the Iran-Contra scandal.
As Crist succinctly explains, the scandal was fuelled by two separate but interlocking issues – the Reagan administration’s decision to funnel weapons to both pro-American guerrillas in Nicaragua’s civil war and the Islamic regime in Iran. By supplying Iran with military equipment, a venture in which Israel was deeply involved, the United States hoped to achieve two objectives: win the release of American hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon and renew relations with Tehran.
Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, was also interested in striking up a rapprochement with Iran, believing Iran could serve as a buffer against Iraq and the Soviet Union. Iran, weakened by the nine-year war with Iraq, encouraged the Americans, but mutual suspicions remained.
During the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraq was perceived as the enemy in Washington, the United States maintained regular though indirect contact with Iran through Swiss intermediaries.
With Iraq’s defeat in that war, Iran approached the United States with a startling proposal, suggesting that the four basic issues that divided them – terrorism, the Arab-Israeli dispute, weapons of mass destruction and human rights – should be examined by a joint working group. The Americans, however, were not interested, says Crist.
The election of Mohammad Khatami as Iranian president in 1997 encouraged the United States to develop a policy of engagement with Iran, but it never gained traction. In 2002, in a dramatic break with that policy, president George W. Bush singled out Iran, Iraq and North Korea as constituting “an axis of evil.”
Stepping back from the brink of an armed confrontation with Iran, the United States announced it was prepared to normalize relations with Tehran if it scrapped its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, supported an Arab-Israeli peace process and ended its support of U.S.-designated terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas. This initiative, too, came to naught.
On May 4, 2003, a Swiss diplomat delivered an astounding two-page fax to the U.S. State Department calling for a resolution of Iranian-American enmity. Iran agreed to full transparency with respect to its nuclear program and agreed to halt its support of Hamas and take steps that would result in the demilitarization of Hezbollah.
In exchange, Iran wanted the United States to stop trying to change its political system, recognize Iran’s “legitimate security interests” in the Mideast and issue a statement decoupling Iran from the “axis of evil.”
Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state, dismissed the offer on behalf of the Bush administration, but three years later, she publicly proclaimed that a normalization of relations would be possible if Iran suspended all uranium enrichment. The Iranian government rejected the proposal, with the upshot that the United States convinced the United Nations to impose economic sanctions on Iran.
In his memoirs, Bush wrote, “I regret that I ended my presidency with the Iranian issue unresolved.”
Recognizing that Iran would be one of his prime security challenges, the current American president, Barack Obama, began his term of office in 2009 with a call for dialogue with the Iranian regime. Iran did not respond in kind, prompting Obama to say, “Faced with an extended hand, Iran’s leaders have shown only a clenched fist.”
Not surprisingly, the Iranians reacted coolly to Obama’s reelection, accusing him of having imposed “unprecedented sanctions” on Iran.
Last month, in a further sign that not all is well between the United States and Iran, Iranian aircraft fired shots at an American surveillance drone flying in international airspace, in the first such incident of its kind.
More than 30 years after breaking formal relations with Tehran, the United States and Iran remain on a dangerous collision course.