Written by Darius Wainwright.
Between 1945 and 1979, US policymakers placed a great importance on ties with Iran. Vehemently opposed to Soviet-inspired communism, the Shah, Reza Pahlavi, was a crucial ally in the Cold War in the Middle East. Successive US Presidents, from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Jimmy Carter, pledged significant military and economic support to the Iranian regime. Such arrangements, however, changed in the aftermath of the Shah’s January 1979 toppling by a popular coup. In the monarch’s place now stood an Islamic Republic, whose members and followers were hostile towards American involvement in the Middle Eastern country. Since the Iranian Revolution, a series of unsavoury events have soured US-Iran relations. November 1979 saw figures close to Iran’s then Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, storm the US Embassy in Tehran and take 52 hostages. US-Iran ties have deteriorated further since the turn of the century, with the Iranians refusing to heed American calls to halt its nuclear programme.
…since achieving office, Donald Trump has adhered to conventional GOP thinking by seeking to antagonise Iran
Since the 1979 Revolution, White House administrations have had to deal with the conundrum of how to approach Iran. Democratic Presidents have sought to nullify Iran by keeping the country close. Inspired by the 1997 election of the Iranian reformist Mohammad Khatami as President, the Clinton administration spent most of its second term seeking to engage with Iran on cultural terms. Educational and sporting exchanges were arranged, and Khatami urged Americans to visit Iran’s tourist attractions. Under Barack Obama, US-Iran political ties were further strengthened. In April 2015, Obama and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, were instrumental in persuading Iranian officials to halt their nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of American-led economic sanctions that had been in place since 1979.
Republican Presidents, in contrast, have tended to be less willing to engage with the Middle Eastern country. Ronald Reagan sought to distance himself from Iranian affairs. His only real interaction with Iran, albeit alleged and mired in controversy, was during what later became known as the Iran-Contra Affair. By selling military weaponry to the Iranians, Reagan and his administration officials hoped to free hostages held by the Iranian backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, while also using the funds to support US-backed rebels in Nicaragua. George W. Bush also sought to demonise and isolate the Iranian regime globally. During his 2002 State of the Union Address, Bush claimed that Iran was a pivotal member of what he termed the ‘axis of evil’, a series of countries which allegedly sponsored terrorism and desired nuclear weaponry.
It is therefore unsurprising that, since achieving office, Donald Trump has adhered to conventional GOP thinking by seeking to antagonise Iran. Trump has used rallies and press releases to refer to Iran as an ‘enemy’ of the United States and a state sponsor of terror. He has derided the Iranian government for its support of Houthi rebels in the Yemeni Civil War, its association with Hezbollah and for backing the divisive Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Dubbing the 2015 nuclear agreement as the ‘worst deal ever’, Trump has argued that it reflects the fact that Iranians are supposedly better negotiators than their American counterparts.
In the past week, moreover, the incumbent US President has used a tour of the Middle East to escalate his attempts to marginalise the Iranian government. In talks with the Saudi King Salman last Monday, Trump pledged to provide Iran’s regional rival with 110 billion US dollars of military aid. The US President urged the monarch to use this agreement to bolster Saudi Arabia’s presence in the Persian Gulf, especially in Yemen, countering Iran’s significant influence in the process. Trump’s subsequent visit to Israel saw the US President escalate US-Iranian tensions further. In discussions with the Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump claimed that he hoped the mutual fear of Iran would compel the Jewish state to work with its Arab neighbours to combat this threat.
Such antagonistic, inflammatory diplomacy is unlikely to yield long-term success. Trump’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia will escalate the ever-worsening conflict in Yemen. It is also highly unlikely that Israel and its Arab neighbours, sworn enemies since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, will work together without tension. With regards to Iran, international isolation is something many of its citizens and government figures do not desire. As shown by the results of the recent Presidential Election, 57.13% of Iranian voters opted for the incumbent President Hassan Rouhani. Since achieving office in 2013, Rouhani has been instrumental in persuading elements of the Islamic clergy, who hold most of the political power in Iran, to agree to the terms of the nuclear deal. Upon his re-election, the Iranian President pledged to further engage with western business and governments, in a bid to bolster Iran’s failing economy.
Of course, it is unlikely that US-Iran ties will return to the level seen before 1979, at least while the Islamic Republic still prevails. Yet the traditional Republican approach to the Middle Eastern country, which Trump seems eager to emulate, will not only worsen bilateral ties, but also destabilise a region that the US have been desperate to shore up since the Cold War.
Darius Wainwright is a graduate of the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics and International Relations. In 2014, he enrolled in the Department of History at the University of Reading to pursue postgraduate study. His MA dissertation analysed British foreign policy towards Iran in the 1970s. The thesis considered issues such as representation, culture, propaganda, and oil diplomacy. Provisionally entitled, ‘Supremacy through Culture and Propaganda: Soft Power, the ‘Special Relationship’ and Iran, 1953-58’, his PhD project expands on his MA research. It examines both Britain and the United States’ use of propaganda and cultural diplomacy to strengthen ties with Iran between 1953 and 1958. He tweets @HistoryDarius. Image Credit: CC/ Wikimedia Commons.