America, Iran and ‘impotent imperialism’

America's stand-off with Iran shows that no one is calling the shots in the Middle East today, though all sides are firing them.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Who or what is driving the America-Iran stand-off, which culminated this week in American accusations – subsequently watered down – that Iranian forces have been providing bombs to Iraqi insurgents with which to blow up Coalition soldiers? One view is that America is demonising Iran as part of a grand plan to invade, topple the mullahs and continue its re-conquest of the Middle East. Another view is that Iran is plotting to take control of events in post-war Iraq and to make its influence felt across the volatile region, possibly even planning to ‘wipe out Israel and Islamicise the world’ (1).

These all-encompassing explanations of recent events – which easily turn into full-blown conspiracy theories about American wars of conquest or Iranian ‘Islamofascist colonisation’ – give the impression of deliberate strategies behind the actions of both sides. In fact, the most striking thing about the America-Iran stand-off is that it seems reactive rather than deliberative. The real engine to the crisis is America’s loss of control and influence in the Middle East, which means that it increasingly finds itself being swept along by events. The tensions with Iran show that no one is really calling the shots in the Middle East now, though all sides are firing them.

The origin of the war of words between America and Iran lies not in any political programme in either Washington or Tehran, but in the bloody mess that is post-war Iraq. To the extent that Iran is assuming a more prominent role in the Middle East, seeking to spread its influence and rattle some of its neighbours, it was the Coalition’s routing of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq that facilitated it. In the latter part of the twentieth century, Iran and Iraq were the two great balancing powers of the Middle East, the divide between them roughly representing a split along Cold War lines. The removal of Ba’athist Iraq from the equation has freed Iran to assert its power in a more upfront way.

America has clashed with Iran many times over the past 30 years, after the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran dealt a severe body blow to American power in the Middle East. The Iranian Islamists toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had been installed as ruler of Iran in 1953 in a coup backed by the CIA and MI6, which deposed of the democratically elected prime minister, Dr Mohammad Mossadeq. From 1953 to 1979, the Shah was a loyal US ally in the Middle East. In the words of US foreign policy officials, he maintained an ‘island of stability’ (2). Iran during that time was America’s main customer for hi-tech military hardware and its second-largest provider of fairly inexpensive oil. It may seem strange to us now, but it was also Israel’s most valuable ally in an otherwise hostile Muslim world. Indeed, from the 1950s to the late 1970s Iran and Israel were the twin pillars of American influence in the Middle East. As then US secretary of state Henry Kissinger said in the 70s, the Shah supported the US on ‘virtually every major foreign policy issue’, and in return the US gave him ‘everything he wanted’ (3).

The Islamic revolution changed all that, and America’s response was swift and unforgiving. It imposed draconian economic sanctions on Ayatollah Khomeini’s new regime and denounced it as a ‘rogue state’. The Iranian hostage crisis, during which Iran held captive 66 American diplomats and citizens for 444 days between late 1979 and 1981, was especially humiliating for US officials, and is widely believed to have contributed to President Jimmy Carter’s loss of the presidential election in 1980. During this period, America used Iraq to ‘contain’ Iran. It encouraged and backed Saddam’s regime during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988.

However, things were not as clear-cut as they may have appeared. Keen to avoid either Iran or Iraq emerging from the war as the dominant regional power, America also duplicitously armed the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war. Referred to as a policy of ‘counterbalancing interventionism’, the aim of arming both sides at different times was to prevent either side from coming out as a heavyweight power in the region. One consequence of such counterbalance arming was the creation of a bloody stalemate and prolonged trench warfare between Iran and Iraq through the 1980s, which claimed tens of thousands of lives. The West considered such a loss of life a small price to pay for preventing either Iran or Iraq from decisively winning the conflict and assuming too much power in the Middle East (4).

In the 1990s, following the end of the Cold War, America took on a much more directly interventionist role in the Middle East. With the Gulf War against Saddam’s Iraq, it asserted its global dominance following the demise of the Soviet Union. In this period, even as America bombed and partitioned Iraq, US foreign policy circles remained singularly concerned with maintaining some kind of balance between Iraq and Iran, so that neither power would become dominant. Debates in Washington about dealing with Saddam’s Iraq sometimes even focused on how to ensure that his regime was weakened but not to such an extent that ‘Iran might take advantage’ (5).

Today’s stand-off between America and Iran is the product of two things: the removal of Ba’athist Iraq from the equation, and the demise of American primacy in the Middle East since the first Gulf War. With the old Iraq out of the picture – that is, with the removal of Iran’s traditional ‘counterbalance’ – Iran has more leeway to influence regional events in its favour. This has been enhanced further by the earlier Western removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan. As one commentator argues: ‘Washington’s destruction of the Taliban regime and its toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq served to destroy Tehran’s main strategic competitors…. Iran now was free to step up its influence throughout the region, in Iraq, in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories.’ (6)

Thus Iran, a Shia regime, is supporting Shia parties and allegedly some Shia militias in the ‘new Iraq’, keen to ensure that its formerly hostile nextdoor state is now overseen by Iran-friendly forces. The current prime minister of Iraq, Ibrahim Jaafari, is a former beneficiary of Iranian exile and training. Iran can also be seen asserting its newfound role in its continuing support for and arming of Hezbollah during the Israel-Lebanon war last summer, and in its support for Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

As well as taking advantage of the demise of Ba’athist Iraq, Iranian forces are in some ways filling the gap left by the decline of American influence in the Middle East. Even leading Washington hawks now recognise that America’s ability to drive and determine events in the Middle East is much reduced. Richard Haass, president of the prestigious and conservative Council on Foreign Relations and a former State Department official, now believes ‘we are looking at a messier, a much more complicated, a much more troubled Middle East, where the capacity of the US to shape affairs is much-reduced’ (7). With the old Iraq removed, and America less able to act decisively in the Middle East, Iran is opportunistically using various proxies – Shias in Iraq, Hezbollah, Hamas – to assert some influence on Middle Eastern developments. It is not, as some have bizarrely claimed, that Iran is drawing up an Islamo-programme to spread its exhausted revolution as far afield as Israel; rather, it is reacting to the unravelling of the Middle Eastern framework and the absence of clear American influence.

America’s declining impact in the Middle East – its inability to call the shots in the way it used to through proxies during the Cold War and with direct intervention after the end of the Cold War – is clear in its current demonisation of Iran. Strikingly, it has been unable to win many allies to its anti-Iran campaigning; instead most Western politicians call for talks rather than sabre-rattling over Iran. And where America’s relationship with Iran over the past 50 years has been about securing its own best interests, from its sponsorship of the loyal Shah to its ‘containment’ of the Islamic revolution, today its stance on Iran is incoherent, changeable and goes against its own interests.

If you trace how America has made Iran the big issue of international affairs over the past five years, you will see that it has constantly been triggered by crises in the wars on terror and Iraq. President Bush labelled Iran part of an ‘axis of evil’ in his State of the Union address in 2002. This was not the start of a carefully elaborated plot to pave the way for future war with Iranians. Rather it was an on-the-hoof response to stalemate in the war on terror. More recently Bush officials have upped the ante against Iran as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated. Their accusations of nuke-building and bomb-smuggling against the Iranians over the past two years have increased in direct proportion to the emergence of newer and more bloody crises in Iraq, from daily suicide bombings to the controversial fallout from Saddam’s trial and execution. The latest accusations that Iranian officials have been arming Iraqi insurgents look like a desperate attempt to pin the blame for the post-war suicidal violence in Iraq on someone.

America’s current Iranian policy runs counter to its own interests, and is potentially explosive. The use of the ‘axis of evil’ tag in 2002 took both Iranians and leading US officials by surprise. In his contribution to the interesting book Inventing the Axis of Evil, Ervand Abrahamian points out ‘how arbitrary this trinity was’: ‘Consensus held that three countries sounded better than two.’ The sudden demonisation of Iran will have come like a ‘bolt out of the blue sky…for the average Iranian’, argues Abrahamian, who had seen ‘relations between Iran and America gradually but markedly improve in the course of the previous five years’. It was a bolt for some of Bush’s own colleagues, too. As Abrahamian notes, ‘Colin Powell [then secretary of state] and the State Department had not been consulted about the speech’, and feared that it would ‘undermine their long-standing policy of rapprochement with Iranian reformers’ (8).

The administration’s unrooted, unthinking policy on Iran has actually made things more difficult for America in the Middle East. It has also become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Where Iran initially sided with America in the ‘war on terror’, encouraging the Northern Alliance to take on the Taliban, the subsequent fingerpointing at Iran has entrenched anti-American feeling and suspicion in Iranian circles. This is most clearly personified in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, elected on an American-critical ticket in 2005.

Impotence and incoherence, reaction rather than vision, are driving the America-Iran tensions. It is a new ‘impotent imperialism’, as we have labelled it on spiked, that has given rise to the current war of words, as America’s declining influence in the Middle East means that other powers can seek to influence events directly and its incoherent foreign policies only inflame tensions and entrench antagonisms. Given the out-of-control nature of the current America-Iran stand-off, it is hard to see where it will end – though there is the potential for it to get a lot uglier.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

(1) The war against the west, Melanie Phillips, 15 February 2007

(2) Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth About North Korea, Iran and Syria, Ervand Abrahamian et al, The New Press, 2004

(3) Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth About North Korea, Iran and Syria, Ervand Abrahamian et al, The New Press, 2004

(4) US Foreign Policy Toward the Iran/Iraq War, Counterpunch, 14 December 2002

(5) Target Iraq’s Republican Guard, Middle East Quarterly, December 1996

(6) Middle East: An end to US primacy?, BBC News, 4 February 2007

(7) Middle East: An end to US primacy?, BBC News, 4 February 2007

(8) Inventing the Axis of Evil: The Truth About North Korea, Iran and Syria, Ervand Abrahamian et al, The New Press, 2004

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