In 1951, a large majority of the Iranian parliament nominated Mohammad Mosaddegh as the nation’s new Prime Minister. His nomination was accepted by Iran’s king (referred to as a Shah), Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. As Prime Minister, Mosaddegh sought a progressive secular agenda within Iran’s democratic political system: he introduced workers’ protections, created new public services, advocated for further democratic reforms, and fought for the rights of women. Most controversially, though, he nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), the company through which the British controlled the nation’s oil resources, in order to prevent foreign domination and ensure that Iran had full control over its own wealth.
The UK was not a fan of this move. British intelligence convinced the CIA that the removal of Mosaddegh was an imperative both to secure Iranian oil for the West and to prevent Iran from turning to the Soviets- largely a false concern. In 1953, the CIA and British M16 launched Operation Ajax, which recently declassified documents from the CIA describe as a “military coup that overthrew [Mosaddegh] and his… cabinet… carried out under CIA direction as an act of U.S. foreign policy, conceived and approved at the highest levels of government.” Iranian democracy collapsed, the Shah and his new appointees took full power, and the AIOC changed its name to what it’s known as today: BP.
Though Iran’s new government instituted a handful of progressive modernizing reforms, it was essentially a dictatorship seeking to suppress public frustration. It worked, until it didn’t. In 1979, a popular movement under the reactionary theocratic leadership of Ruhollah Khomeini successfully overthrew the government, along with holding Americans at the US embassy hostage in a tense standoff for over a year. Though the various groups constituting the movement, from leftist student groups to conservative Islamists, disagreed about what they wanted Iran to be and which parts of Western modernization were objectionable, all of them opposed the Shah, who was seen as a corrupt autocrat who served as a puppet to Western powers. Following a brief power struggle, Khomeini took control of Iran as Supreme Leader, launching the current Iranian government.
Western powers sought any way they could to take down this new anti-Western theocracy. In 1980, Iraq took advantage of the turbulence in Iran to invade the country, seeking to replace it as the dominant power in the Middle East. The US, the UK, France, West Germany, Saudi Arabia, and even the Soviet Union all lined up to support the brutal warfare of Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein. Hundreds of thousands died, if one includes the genocidal Al-Anfal campaign that Saddam undertook against Iraqi Kurds. Years later, in 2014, the New York Times would drop the bombshell story that there were indeed weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq- they were chemical weapons left over from the Iran-Iraq War, and were “designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies.”
During the war, Iran began its strategy of providing support to ideologically sympathetic terrorist organizations in order to build support among regional proxy groups such as Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad Organization. In 1983, the latter group bombed the US embassy in Lebanon, killing 63 and wounding another 120.
In 1988, just a few months before the war would end, the US Navy would accidentally misidentify an Iranian passenger plane as a military fighter jet and shoot it down while it was still in Iranian territory. Iran Air Flight 655 was destroyed, killing 290 civilians, including 66 children.
Understandably, relations between the US and Iran remained unfriendly even after the war ended and Iran began to rebuild its power in the region. Iranian hostility towards the United States was not blind, however. After 9/11, many al Qaeda operatives fled across the border from Afghanistan to Iran. Rather than providing them protection or even celebrating them, Iran rounded them up, made copies of their passports, and detained or expelled them. Through the UN, Iran then gave the copies of the passports to the US in order to help them identify the terrorists, and also allowed US officials to interrogate some of the ones being detained. James Dobbins, Chief Negotiator on Afghanistan for the Bush administration at the time, said that the Iranians were “comprehensively helpful.”
While Iran cooperated with the US in their invasion of Afghanistan, post-9/11 efforts to thaw relations generally fizzled out with little success. The Iranians instead decided to go their own way, utilizing the vacuums in regional power produced by the Iraq War to extend their political reach into Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and more. Indeed, the Iraq War provided such an opening for Iran to grow in influence that a recent report commissioned by the US Army itself stated that “an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor” of the conflict.
While they were already foes for reasons I’ve described before, this set up the currently-ongoing cold war between Iran and the region’s other major player, Saudi Arabia. Because the Saudis are long-standing close allies of the US, this raised tensions further. The issue of an Iranian nuclear weapons program lingered heavily on the minds of every party involved. Indeed, it so worried America and Israel that they jointly launched one of the most successful cyberattacks ever conducted on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
But after years of such high tension under the reign of the hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranian voters elected the more moderate Hassan Rouhani in 2013. Though the Iranian presidency is a position with limited power- the Supreme Leader makes the final decisions- this softening of Iran’s positions allowed for the negotiation of a highly successful nuclear deal with the Obama administration.
Despite Iran’s full compliance with the agreement, the Trump administration announced that it planned to cease compliance with the agreement. Breaking with European allies, the Trump administration has begun rapidly ratcheting up sanctions and pointing guns in Iran’s direction.
On May 21st, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo posted a Tweet accusing Iran of “40 years of unprovoked aggression.”
Understanding this history is vital to understanding the absurdity of current US policy towards Iran. One need not believe that the Iranian government is in any sense innocent or benevolent to recognize that they are not irrational fanatics hell-bent on destruction, but a rational geopolitical power trying to simultaneously expand regional influence and defend itself against further Western attack. But you wouldn’t know this from the rhetoric of the current administration, which has embraced the most radical elements of the American foreign policy establishment and is seemingly doing everything it possibly can to steer us into a gruesome, entirely unnecessary war. As we will see, this militancy can be traced back towards the ambitions of one man: John Bolton.
Why Are We Here?
The current US conflict with Iran can be essentially boiled down into two contentious issues- the Iranian nuclear program and Iran’s aggressive expansion of its influence across the region.
Iran first started its nuclear program with the goal of civilian energy production with the help of Western powers while the Shah was still in control of the nation. The program continued even after the 1979 revolution, however, with the new Iranian government recognizing not only the potential of nuclear energy, but also that developing a nuclear weapon could serve as a deterrent against any further aggression, giving the nation a uniquely powerful card to play in the region. Iran seeks development of a nuclear weapon for the same reason that North Korea does: to ensure against external attack through mutually-assured destruction.
This prospect terrified the West almost immediately. The authoritative US publication Jane’s Defense Weekly reported in 1984 that the Iranians were working on a nuclear bomb that was “likely to be ready within two years.” In the following three decades, US and Israeli intelligence officials have been almost constantly issuing warnings and raising alarms about an imminent Iranian nuclear weapon that never seemed to actually come.
But though the fearmongering surrounding Iran’s nuclear program was highly exaggerated, it remained true that Iran was working on the development of a nuclear weapon alongside its nuclear energy program, however slowly. For this reason, Obama and Rouhani, along with the other world’s leading powers, came together for an agreement with Iran (the JCPOA) which effectively put a stop to Iran’s weapon program and provided unprecedented access to international inspectors to ensure compliance. In exchange, some of the strict sanctions against Iran would be relieved- a much-needed concession meant to help the struggling Iranian economy.
The point of the agreement was solely to deal with the nuclear weapons issue, and it was successful in that regard- the International Atomic Energy Agency responsible for enforcement has consistently found that Iran is following the deal. Once this plan was successful, the original negotiators hoped, it would open the door for more comprehensive agreements with Iran to address other issues- namely, Iran’s support for proxy forces around the Middle East in order to expand its power and regional hegemony.
This is the second issue: Iran maintains a network of paramilitary proxies like Hezbollah which they use to advance their interests, many of which are involved in terrorism, and these proxies do play a destabilizing role in the region. Less commented on, of course, is that the same also applies to our ally Saudi Arabia, who maintains its own expansionist strategy via a global network of propaganda institutions, support for terrorist and separatist groups in Iran, and recently support for rebel organizations in Syria (including militant jihadists like the al-Qaeda spin-off al-Nusra). In their bid for regional hegemony, both parties play a role in actively upsetting Middle Eastern politics.
The Trump administration, however, looked at the situation surrounding the Iran deal backwards. In their mind, the success of the JCPOA was not a step towards dealing with Iranian regional power, but a contributing factor to that very problem. They claimed that the money going back into the Iranian economy as a result of the deal’s limited sanction relief was being “used to fund terrorism, promote global instability, fund nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and enrich its leaders.” In other words, they declared the deal a failure for not addressing the proxy issue, something it was never designed to do. So rather than building on existing victories to address these issues with another deal, the Trump administration announced it would “withdraw” from (read: violate) the agreement and start from scratch, taking a number of punitive actions against Iran in a campaign of “maximum pressure.” The most commonly cited justification for this campaign is to bring Iran “back to the table” and secure another deal. As we’ll see later, this doesn’t seem to be the case.
First came the re-implementation of our sanctions. Our more level-headed allies in Europe, however, wanted to keep the deal afloat despite US withdrawal, and thus used a number of mechanisms to try and maintain economic sanction relief benefits and encourage Iran not to walk away from the table entirely. This was a smart move, as the Iranian government was already frustrated before our new sanctions: Rouhani overpromised to the people how much sanction relief would help, and it hasn’t benefited their economy as much as most thought it would (note that this means, if anything, it was Iran who’s gotten the short end of the deal, despite Trump’s insistence otherwise).
But in April the US decided to crack down on these efforts as well, announcing it would punish allies who don’t abide by our sanctions. Our goal, according to Pompeo, is to “bring Iran’s oil exports to zero,” thereby destroying their economy. The US move to stop issuing waivers allowing Iran to export their excess uranium reserves has further put the Iranians in a tough position, as the deal also places limits on how much uranium they’re allowed to have in reserve. Faced with either breaking the deal by exceeding the amount of uranium reserves they’re allowed to have or breaking the deal by exporting reserves, the Iranians have threatened to exceed their limits. This led to the rather comical turn of events in which the State Department has had to publicly argue that Iran should still comply by the same deal which we ourselves have long since stopped complying with.
But economic warfare isn’t the only thing happening here: the real danger lies in our saber-rattling. In April, the White House designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, the first time that the designation has ever been applied to part of a state military. The designation does little to actually strengthen the US position against the IRGC- two former State Department counterterrorism experts labelled the move “throwing the nearest piece of furniture at Iran”- but it will likely have another effect. Jason Rezaian, the journalist who was literally kidnapped by the Iranian government at one point, has argued that the move is a bad decision in part because it means randomly designating thousands of Iranians as terrorists- military service in Iran is mandatory, and Iranians get no choice as to which branch they’re enlisted in. This, however, may be the point- designating part of an entire generation of Iranians as terrorists is a sure-fire way to make reestablishing diplomatic relations with Iran more difficult. Geopolitical analyst Emily Hawthorne noted: “…a future U.S. government, if they want to negotiate with Iran or negotiate with the Iranian military in any way, they’re going to have to take the IRGC off of this list. Otherwise, they would be technically negotiating with a terrorist organization.”
That was just the beginning. In May, the United States claimed it had received intelligence suggesting the Iranians were planning something, and thus sent warships outside of Iranian waters, claiming that they were “not seeking war with the Iranian regime” but positioning themselves to respond to a potential attack (what one might call The Simpsons Strategy). The US embassy in Iraq was evacuated and a travel advisory was sent out urging Americans against visiting due to the supposed threats posed by the Iranians.
The same month, two Saudi oil tankers were attacked in UAE waters. Though the Iranians denied responsibility, the United States placed the blame squarely on them. Two weeks later, the US announced it was sending 1,500 more troops to the Middle East.
In June, during an official state visit to Iran by the Japanese, two Japanese ships were attacked in the Gulf of Oman, near Iran. The Iranians naturally denied responsibility and condemned the attack, but the United States confidently declared that it had proof the Iranians did it this time: a grainy drone video showing people who bear resemblance to the Iranian Navy allegedly removing an unexploded mine from the side of one of the boats.
We don’t know for sure who attacked the boats in either case, but the idea that the Iranians would attack Japanese ships while they are entertaining a visit from the Japanese and are facing a United States increasingly ramping up its presence and looking for an excuse to fight seems odd, to say the least. And that’s before you take into account that the operator of one of the ships attacked contradicts US claims that the attack was from a mine at all, claiming that the holes in the hull were well above the waterline and that his “crew said that the ship was attacked by a flying object.”
Without diving into any ridiculous conspiracizing, it is certainly worth noting the oddity of the US story here. At risk of sounding paranoid, it is also worth noting that accusations of ship attacks pointed at US adversaries which were later determined to be inaccurate served as the pretense for both the Spanish-American War and escalation of the Vietnam War- wars which many were already itching to start.
The greatest escalation yet happened earlier this week. Several days after the US said they were sending 1,000 more troops to the Middle East, Iran announced that they had shot down a US drone which they claimed was in their airspace, while the US claims it was in international waters. In response, the Trump administration approved and started an operation to strike Iranian military targets, until President Trump called it off at the last minute. Trump claims the attack would have killed roughly 150 people, and in a rare state of lucidity acknowledged exactly how disproportionate of a response it would have been to the destruction of an expensive piece of hardware.
These events raise even greater questions. What happened to make Donald Trump- a man who has openly praised war crimes- the person who stops a military attack? Why does the US seem so dedicated to starting a war with Iran? These questions have a fairly straightforward answer in the form of a name: John Bolton.
The Most Dangerous Man in America
John Bolton worked his way up through USAID, the Justice Department, and the State Department during the Reagan and HW Bush administrations until he became a well-known name in conservative diplomacy. He has always been among the most hardcore neoconservative hawks, seeking to use US military power to unilaterally shape the world in our image. Throughout his career, he has called for the overthrow of at least eight governments collectively accounting for 3% of the world population. In 1994, he famously argued that “…there is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world- that’s the United States- when it suits our interest and when we can get others to go along.” This position didn't stop him from moving from being an Undersecretary of State to the US Ambassador to the UN during the W Bush administration, a presidency which he actively helped to shape the foreign policy of.
In 2018, John Bolton became National Security Advisor to Donald Trump, the most powerful position of his life. From the start, he hung a copy of Trump’s Executive Order withdrawing from the JCPOA on his office wall. While many have questioned if the Trump administration even has a coherent Iran strategy, Bolton has clearly and consistently stated what he wants: regime change.
Bolton’s animosity towards Iran is older than some of the people who will be voting in the 2020 election. In 2002, he claimed that Cuba and Iran were working together to develop biological weapons. When a State Department intelligence analyst told him that they didn’t have evidence of this, Bolton yelled at him, threatened to fire him, tried to have him moved, and cut his supervisor off from daily briefings. Though he didn’t name names, a British diplomat that same year said that the feeling of some in the Bush administration could be summarized as such: “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.” A former Senior national security official who worked with Bolton recently commented: “…Bolton has had this anal focus on Iran for twenty years. I don’t know why.” Bolton responded that it was simply because of his concern about nuclear weapons- a response not easily conducive to his opposition to the deal which effectively prevented their proliferation.
In his new position, Bolton has less competition for the President’s ear than ever before: the Trump administration has left countless important government leadership roles empty, leaving the jobs to temporary fillers or no one at all. Even now, more than halfway through Trump’s first term, 30% of top posts at the State Department and 21% of top posts at the Pentagon are unfilled. The United States has had an acting Secretary of Defense since the beginning of this year, and he has recently announced he is stepping down and withdrawing as the nominee. The two people with Trump’s ear on foreign policy at the moment are Bolton and Pompeo. Pompeo, who in 2017 pushed to give the CIA the authority to launch drone strikes in Afghanistan without Pentagon approval, is the dove among the two.
Trump, whose own nationalist instincts draw him away from the level of neoconservative interventionism Bolton pushes for, has himself said: “I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing.” Shockingly, this is an accurate assessment- Donald Trump is the sane one on Iran.
A full-scale war with Iran would be an unmitigated disaster. The United States hasn’t faced off against one of the world’s top 20 military powers in a full-scale war since perhaps the Gulf War, and Iran is far stronger today than Iraq was then. Not only that, but Iran’s proxy forces would almost certainly get involved, turning it from a conventional war which the US military is well-equipped for to an asymmetrical one far harder to win.
In fact, we have a good idea of how it would go: in 2002, the US launched a war game known as the Millennium Challenge 2002 to test military tactics against an unnamed Middle Eastern adversary which was widely understood to be a stand-in for Iran. Lieutenant General Paul K. Van Riper, put in charge of the Iranian forces, decided that, rather than play it according to the textbook and let his forces be crushed, he would utilize an unusual asymmetric strategy to try and defeat the US. Avoiding communications methods which could be easily surveilled and utilizing surprise attacks and suicide bombings, Lt. Gen. Van Riper’s Iranian Navy destroyed the simulated US Navy. He was so successful, in fact, that the war game had to be reset, and he was told to follow traditional strategy. Thus, the military spent a quarter-billion dollars proving that it could beat the Iranian Navy as long as they behaved exactly like we wanted them to.
Does the US have the military strength to potentially defeat Iran? Certainly. But it would not be done in “two strikes: the first strike and the last strike,” like Senator Tom Cotton recently commented. It would cost trillions of dollars and countless thousands of lives over many, many years.
Indeed, even if we did defeat Iran, there is no real option for the regime change Bolton desires. The standard American answer to this dilemma has been the People’s Mujahedin of Iran (MEK), a terrorist organization in-exile who seeks to replace the Iranian government. The MEK has lots of friends in the US government (along with Saudi Arabia and Israel). The problem? Because the MEK sided with Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War, they are extremely unpopular in Iran. Indeed, even among Iranian-Americans, who are moderately supportive of regime change in Iran as a whole, support for the US backing the MEK is at 6% (with 50% opposed). The only other option would be reinstatement of Reza Pahlavi, the remaining claimant to the former Iranian monarchy, who is less unpopular but still lacks the organized support necessary to make any serious claim for power.
In any case, even most Iranians who dislike the Iranian government can be reasonably expected to side with it over a US invasion given the history involved, almost guaranteeing that any militarily-imposed regime collapse would lead to a massively destabilizing power vacuum in the region. While such a vacuum allowed for anyone who felt like it to loot Iraqi military weapons caches during the Iraq War (thus providing arms for the following insurgency), a vacuum in Iran would be far more dangerous, as a government collapse means no one to protect Iranian nuclear labs from looting. If you thought opportunistic militants grabbing metric tons of explosives in Baghdad was bad, wait until they grab the precursors to a nuclear weapon in Arak.
To John Bolton, none of this matters. Several years ago, he spoke at an MEK event and promised them that “before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!” Maybe he’s a little behind schedule, but earlier this year he took advantage of the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution to tell the Supreme Leader of Iran that “I don’t think you’ll have many more anniversaries to enjoy.” He has since helped craft potential draft plans to deploy 120,000 US troops for war- much smaller than would be needed for a full-scale invasion of Iran, but he’s just getting started!
Bolton shouldn’t receive all of the credit for getting us here. The American intelligence community has been furious at Iran since the 1983 Lebanon embassy bombing, and an entire legion of conservative commentators and politicians who told us the Iraq War would go great have spent their full careers since framing Iran as an existential threat. Additionally, all too often both the media and the ostensibly dovish forces in American politics have happily gone along with these dominant narratives. Adam Schiff, Democratic Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has said that “there’s no question that Iran is behind the [ship] attacks,” despite the fact that, well, there are actually lots of questions.
But no one individual has done more to draw the United States into war with Iran than John Bolton has. The same man who helped write the rules of the War on Terror is back again to tell us that we’re in danger once more, that our enemies are bloodthirsty and cannot be reasoned with, and that our victory will be as easily achieved as it will be glorious.
This is not true. Iran is not a sadistic time bomb looking for any opportunity to obliterate the West. Iran is a country of 83 million people with a complex national history that, whether Americans would like to admit or not, we have not played a good role in. In the same way that we remember the hostage crisis of 1979 and the embassy bombing of 1983, the Iranians remember having their democracy destroyed in 1953, they remember the indignities of foreign-backed dictatorship, and they remember one of the most brutal wars of the 20th century throughout the 1980’s. They look around them today, and they see the same government involved in all of that sending troops to surround their border and drones and ships to surround their waters while major officials call for their government to be overthrown once more. With a US government unwavering in its desire to provoke Iran regardless of their behavior (as signaled by the tearing up of the nuclear deal), escalation is a guarantee. And that may just be the point.
The only humane and sensible option is to attempt to salvage the JCPOA, remove our newly-deployed forces, and engage in immediate, direct diplomatic engagement with Iran to deescalate tensions and attempt to reestablish a working relationship. The alternative to this is war in which the most incompetent and sadistic administration in modern US history will burn mountains of tax dollars to lead a generation of young people into a slaughterhouse which will decimate a nation more populated than the entire American Northeast for no reason. In fact, for less than no reason, as such a war would most likely make us less safe, worsen humanitarian conditions and degrade civil liberties, and waste our economic resources to the detriment of everyone except those at the top of the military-industrial complex. When John Bolton comes to your door asking for war, there is only one answer: no!