The recent and violent protests which have recently erupted (and subsequently died away) in Iran have raised a series of questions within the US Empire. Namely, do the Iranian people, on aggregate, want regime change and, if so, should the USA help them achieve it? The answer most mainstream American policy analysts seem to have come to is a resounding, “Yes.” In this paper we shall endeavor, first to garner a basic understanding of the fundamental nature of Iran, secondly to determine a understanding of US foreign policy and its orientation to Iran and thirdly and lastly to posit some potential lines of action which may better both countries without needlessly increasing enmity therebetween.
Understanding Iran & Its Geo-political Relationships
Called Persia until 1935, Iran transitioned into a Islamic state in 1979 after the overthrow of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The driving force behind the coup, which dispensed with over 2500 years of dynastic Persian rule, was Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, a devout, Shia conservative leader who became known in western media more simply as Ayatollah Khomeini or Imam Khomeini (his title in post-revolutionary Iran). Ayatollah (Sign of Allah) is a highly prestigious title bestowed upon Usuli (the dominant school of the Twelver Shia Tradition) Muslim clerics who have achieved mastery in Quranic recitation, law and philosophy. Imam is a similar title but is only bestowed or used upon those who are a supreme religious and scholarly authority and as such is the highest possible situation, theologically speaking, in Shia Islam (so much so that its usage required theological reform). Under the regime of Khomeini, Iran became a theocracy wherein the Ayatollah was the supreme leader whose will in the temporal realm was subject only to the Assembly of Experts (AOE) comprised of 86 Islamic clerics. This blend of Republicanism with Theocratic authoritarianism laid the groundwork for the political modalities and traditions which still largely characterize the country to this day.
US Iranian relations became strained in 1979 when radicals seized a US embassy in Tehran, holding workers there hostage until 1981 (444 days). The hostage-takers were members of a group called Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line. The Imam to whom their name refers is Khomeini, who was unaware that the situation was going to take place but decided to support the act as a potent gesture of Iranian opposition to the West. The US shut down all diplomatic relations with Iran in the month of April, 1980, shortly before the resolution of the Imam’s Line hostage situation.
US/Iranian relations only further deteriorated from there, with Iran shortly thereafter engaging in a long and bloody war with Iraq which was, at the time, backed by Atlantacist power. Iraq and Iran had, at this point, a long and storied history of enmity, fueled primarily by differences in theological doctrine; Iraq being largely Sunni whereas Iran maintained a predominately Shiite (Shia) population. Tensions between Iraq and Iran were further debilitated by both nation’s declaring ownership over the Shatt al-Arab Waterway, which formed the border between Iraq and Iran and has remained a strategic key point given its connection to both the Euphrates and Tigres Rivers; it is also highly navigable, further increasing its value. The dispute was thus: Iran claimed the middle of the river, Iraq claimed the whole of the Eastern Bank (effectively claiming the whole waterway) and neither would accept the claim of the other. Animosity between both nations had also increased due to Iranian assistance to Kurdish rebels fighting in northern Iraq. Iranian Islamist propaganda was also a issue of grave concern for the autocratic-secularist, Saddam Hussein (then-leader of Iraq), as he feared that it would ignite a revolt among the more fervent Shia minority.
In 1980, Iraq attacked Iran beginning a lengthy and costly armed conflict. During this time the Hussein regime was backed by the US Empire. US satellite imagery detected that Iran was plotting a tactical maneuver which exploited a Iraqi weak-point and US intelligence swiftly relayed to Hussein the information which they had obtained. The Iraqi military had, since 1983, become infamous for its use of chemical weapons against its enemies, namely, the colorless, odorless nerve agent, Sarin (GB) which was originally developed in 1930s Germany as a pesticide (though Hitler refused to use it for military purposes). Though the Reagan Administration knew that giving Hussein information on Iranian military movements would result in the use of chemical weapons, Reagan decided that this was a acceptable price to pay to advance the Iraqi war effort. Now declassified CIA documentation confirms that US war-planners justified this action by noting that the Soviet Union had utilized chemical weapons in Afghanistan and had suffered very minor international repercussions; default US assumption was that, should usage of such weapons become widely known, international outrage would be mild and easily muted. One of the declassified CIA documents dating 1984 reads: “[Iraq had] begun using nerve agents on the Al Basrah front and likely will be able to employ it in militarily significant quantities by late this fall.” This kind of policy was peculiar for the CIA and the State Department, as they viewed Hussein as “anathema” and his officials as “thugs.” Yet no matter how low their view of Hussein the view of the current Iranian regime was even lower. According to Air Force Col. Rick Francona, after it came to light that the Iranians were gearing up to exploit a gaping hole in Iraqi defense which would have allowed them to take the strategically significant city of Basrah and thus win the war, President Reagan reportedly scribbled a note to SecDef Frank C. Carlucci, “An Iranian victory is unacceptable.” Iraqi Sarin attacks swiftly followed. Due the Sarin assaults, the Iraqis were able to hold Basrah and push back the Iranians to a considerable extent, retaking much lost ground.
1987 Iran accepts UN resolution to end hostilities with Iraq. The Iraq/Iran war ended formally upon 1988 in a stalemate with neither side making marked gains; however, both sustained heavy casualties, specifically Iran, and expended tremendous amounts of capital (Iran: 500,000 dead, Iraq: 150,000 dead). The massive debt accumulated by the Iraqis would be one of the principal levers which would move Saddam’s war machine into Kuwait and spark the Gulf War.
On the 3rd of June, 1989, Imam Khomeini passed away, throwing the country into disarray and uncertainty. Massive crowds wailed in the streets. Though painted a vile tyrant by western media, he was widely loved and respected within Iran; his death was widely mourned. After the death of Imam Khomeini, the ideological backbone of the new Islamic government, two contenders for supreme leadership emerged, Montazeri, the rightfully appointed successor, and Khamenei, a fundamentalist challenger. The two men represented starkly contrasting political vectors for the country with Montazeri adopting a “moderate” stance which championed republicanism and constitutional governance wherein the religious authorities were bound by the same rules as the rest of the populace. Montazerian republicanism also stood for economic liberalism and Western outreach, namely for the purposes of establishing trade with Western markets. Despite their seemingly neo-liberal tendencies, the Montazerians were staunchly conservative when it came to social policy; Khamenei, in contrast, favored a pragmatic theocracy which stood far more in line with Khomeini’s vision. Khamenei’s supporters were simply called “conservatives” and called for religious authority to always come before any and all other sources of authority, even the Iranian constitution. More importantly – as concerns geo-strategy – the conservatives also believed that a clash with Western powers was inevitable and should be prepared for with all due vigor. Like the Montazerians, the conservatives also supported economic liberalization, insofar as such practice did not impinge upon Islamic social norms and practice.
Behind the scenes, the Revolutionary Guard (a military institution similar to the Roman Praetorian Guard) silently allied themselves with Khamenei and his conservative coalition. The Revolutionary Guard were, at this point in time, 125,000 strong and exceedingly influential which lent Khamenei a considerable amount of social sway.
Then, in 1997, another faction emerged, the Iranian Reformists, led by Hojjat ol-Eslam Mohammad Khatami. Despite championing many liberal reforms they were ultimately beaten back by conservative forces.
Nationwide elections began in 2003. By 2004 the conservatives and Islamic hardliners re-seized control over the electoral institutions of the country, culminating in the election of Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad. The same year Abdullah II, then King of Jordan declared in a interview with Al-Arabiya that Shia Muslims all across the middle east were “more loyal to Iran” than “the countries they are living in.” The King went on to describe this constellation of Iran sympathetic Shi’ites as a “Shia Crescent” which stretched from Syria to Iran down to Saudi Arabia.
“If it was a Shia-led Iraq that had a special relationship with Iran, and you look at that relationship with Syria and with Hezbollah-Lebanon, then we have this new crescent that appears that would be very destabilizing for the Gulf countries and actually for the whole region.” –Abdullah II of Jordan, Hardball, NBC News.
In 2009, Mahmud Ahmadi-Nejad (also spelled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) was re-elected. The victory spurred a nationwide firestorm with many alleging that he was only able to garner the victory through electoral fraud.
In 2012, economic mismanagement spurred on massive protests though the countries political framework remained relatively stable.
2013 saw the rise of a new president, Dr. Hasan Fereidun Ruhani, a moderate conservative Islamic cleric. Ruhani unveiled a ambitious plan for societal reform which largely went unrealized due to the embattled nature of the Iranian political landscape.
2015, Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known more commonly as the Iran Nuclear Deal, or more simply, the Iran Deal. This deal, spearheaded by the so-called P5+1 (or E3+3 in Europe), the five permanent member-countries of the UN Sec Council (China, France, Russia, UK and USA + Germany) was a international agreement pertinent to the Iranian nuclear program. Under the JCPOA, Iran agreed to remove all medium enriched uranium and slash low-uranium stockpiles by 98%. Other impositions on the Iranian nuclear program were made as well and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was tasked with ensuring that Iran kept to the deal. In exchange for JCPOA compliance, Iran was granted freedom from USA, UN Sec-Con and EU sanctions. The deal was primarily designed to reduce the “breakout capacity” of Iran. The deal, though seemingly disadvantageous to Iran, proved to be a marked boon as it de-isolated the long marginalized mountain-nation and opened up a number of promising new vistas in the areas of trade, energy and future-weapons acquisition. Despite the unwavering commitment to Iranian power and self-determinancy displayed by the “hard-liners” such as Supreme Leader Khamenei and his IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp), they nevertheless supported President Rouhani’s reintegrationalist and international diplomatic efforts (Iran is always strongest when it’s religious authorities and elected officials work together towards coherent and achievable strategic ends).
2010-2016 saw a shift in Iranian policy which sought to extricate itself from sanctions imposed upon it by the United States and the U.N. 2016, November 8, 2:30 AM, Donald J. Trump is elected President of the United States and ushers in new era of foreign policy, one which is decidedly more Iran-critical (and more Islam-critical in general) than his predecessor. Trump cites Iran’s “malign activities” as being a continued state sponsor of terror groups such as Hezbollah and harshly criticized the Obama-era Iran Deal. One a speech given on the Oct 17, President Trump makes clear his policy objectives concerning Iran and its nuclear program, stating, “Today I am announcing our strategy, along with several major steps we are taking to confront the Iranian Regime’s hostile actions and to ensure that Iran never – and I mean never – acquires a nuclear weapon.”
2017, Hassan Rouhani won reelection to the presidency, garnering 57.1% of the vote. Uncertainty struck the country the same year when, on Dec 28, 2017, massive protests erupted in Mashhad, Iran’s 2nd most heavily populated city. The initial (ostensible) reason for the protests centered around the ineffectual economic policies of the Rouhani regime and declining living and working conditions within the country (a media trend was to blame the high price of eggs and foodstuffs more generally). This public outcry quickly transmogrified into a resentment towards the theocratic ruling elites, principally their ring-leader, Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Things quickly turned violent; protesters turned into rioters and attacked police officers; starting fires and chanting. Rumors began emerging that the US Empire had a had in the affair but these allegations have not, as yet, been substantiated. Additionally reports emerged that the rioters chanted things such as “Death to Hezbollah” they also held signs which read “get out of Syria and Take Care of US!”
Though not exhaustive, this summarizes a brisk modern history of the country. Now that we have a basic understanding a general ‘feel’ of the modern character of the country we shall turn our attention to the modern strategic modalities and capabilities of Iran and its interplay with the United States of America, Russia, discuss its proxy war with Israel and various other political players.
[continued in part 2 wherein we shall go into more detail concerning the modern policy trajectories and policy implementations and idealizations of Iran]
Key notes concerning Iran
- Total Iranian Dominion: 1,648,195 sq km (19th largest country in the world by landmass); irrigated landmass, 95,530 sq km (approximately)
- Border countries: Afghanistan 921 km, Armenia 44 km, Azerbaijan 689 km, Iraq 1,599 km, Pakistan 959 km, Turkey 534 km, Turkmenistan 1,148 km
- Population dispensation: Iranian settlements are primarily concentrated in the north, northwestern and western areas surrounding the Zagros and Elburz mountain ranges.
- Devoid of maritime power
- Natural land fortress (the walls of Iran)
- Semi-arid climate, rough terrain, mountainous, spotted with deserts
- High lands house majority population.
- Low lands are treacherous and difficult to traverse.
- Resources: petroleum, natural gas, coal, chromium, copper, iron ore, lead, manganese, zinc, sulfur
- Majority Shi’ite (member of the “Shia Crescent”)
- Strongly favors Shia regimes and minorities populaces across the middle east over Sunni conglomerations.
- Primary languages: Persian (official), Azeri Turkic and Turkic dialects, Kurdish, Gilaki, Mazandarani, Luri, Balochi, Arabic
- Considered state-sponsor of terrorism by USA
Iranian Strategic Imperative
- Bolster military
- Maintain control of the Zagros & Elburz mountains and Mesopotamia.
- Maintain control of mountains east of Dasht-e Kavir & Dasht-e Lut to maintain frontiers against Pakistan & Afghanistan.
- Maintain security surrounding the Caucasus to defend land from Russo-Turkish threats.
- Secure Western Coast of Persian Gulf.
- Mitigate ethnic conflagration and work towards either separatism or further inter-ethnic cohesion.
- Bolster economy to mitigate population dissent
- Win the proxy war with Israel.
- Extricate country from US, UN, EU control
CIA, The World Fact-Book: Iran
Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist, R. al-Khomeini
A HISTORY OF MODERN IRAN, Ervand Abrahamian
CDC: Facts About Sarin
PubChem: SARIN Compound Summary
Iranian Protests Offer Opportunity For A Real U.S. Reset In The Middle East
Human Right’s Watch: Iran
Middle East Institute: Rouhani’s Corruption Problem
The Shia Crescent and Middle East Geopolitics
Protesters in Iran Qom city shout death ‘Hezbollah,’ ‘Shame on Khamenei’
- Situation report on the Iran-Iraq war, noting that each side is preparing for chemical weapons attacks (July 29, 1982)
- Top secret memo documenting chemical weapons use by Iraq, and discussing Iran’s likely reactions (Nov. 4, 1983)
- Memo to the director of Central Intelligence predicting that Iraq will use nerve agents against Iran (Feb. 24, 1984)
- Intelligence assessment of Iraq’s chemical weapons program (January 1985)
- CIA predicts widespread use of mustard agents and use of nerve agents by late summer (March 13, 1984)
- CIA confirms Iraq used nerve agent (March 23, 1984)
- CIA considers the consequences for chemical weapons proliferation now that Iraq has used mustard and nerve agent (Sept. 6, 1984)