The Iran Problem is American Made
And we need to fully grasp the root causes of the problem before we can begin to resolve it.
As the May 12th deadline approaches for Trump to extend sanctions waivers on Iran, thereby staying in the Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015, a full survey of the situation is needed.
Iran has become a regional power in the Middle East, a menace in the eyes of Israelis and Saudis alike and worthy of demonization. By propping up Bashar al Assad in Syria, training and funding Shia militias in Iraq, and arming Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iran has drastically increased its regional influence in the past decade. And this is before discussing its long-term relationship with Hezbollah in Lebanon and its off-and-on relationship with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This series of relationships has led many to push back on Iranian influence and actions, a push that has quickly subsumed the seemingly doomed nuclear agreement. While Iran should rightly be checked for its regional interference, the West needs to properly understand the root causes of Iranian actions before taking action.
When fully considering Iran and its role in the Middle East, one needs to begin with the legacy of the Iranian revolution in 1979. After protests evolved into a full-blown revolution that ousted the shah, the Iranian people established an Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini. Successfully ousting a despotic shah that had been put in power by a US designed coup, the fledgling state took a decidedly anti-American stance, denouncing US meddling in the region and promising to export its revolution to countries throughout the Muslim world.
What followed was a near complete diplomatic and economic shutoff from the rest of the world. In the 80s, Iran experienced a near decade-long war with Iraq, in which a chemical-weapon-using Saddam Hussein was the beneficiary of US backing. In sum, since its founding as an Islamic Republic, Iran has experienced nearly 30 years of diplomatic isolation, almost a decade long war fought largely on its soil, and over a quarter century of economic sanctions in some form or another.
To those in Tehran looking outward, the newfound regional confidence is simply making up for lost time. To most Iranians, their country is an aggrieved regional power, victim of years of unfair treatment by the majority of the world and surrounded by unfriendly neighbors with vastly superior military capabilities. Their actions betray not a country aggressively meddling in other countries’ conflicts, but one that is providing a counterbalance to other regional forces that would happily tip the scales in the opposite direction.
This perception is shared by very few of Iran’s neighbors. To countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s actions show an antagonist looking to expand its influence in the region by either instigating new conflicts or escalating existing ones. They see designs of a crescent of Middle East capitals under Iranian influence, stretching from Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut to Sana’a.
This gulf in perception has driven the demonization of Iran in the West and is now threatening to sink the JCPOA, the single best check on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and an agreement that is by almost all measures working very well.
The dishonesty in this demonization masks the fact that Iran is simply playing the cards that the US has dealt it. Following two decades that included economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and nearly ten years of war on its soil, Iran watched as the US thoroughly broke Iraq with the invasion of 2003. Fearing what a power vacuum in Iraq would mean for its own security, Iran did what any rational actor would do and began training and funding Shia militias to both increase its influence in the country and to establish some modicum of stability. When the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, naturally Iran stepped in to save the lone, friendly head of state in the region. And when the Houthi’s began making gains in Yemen’s civil war, of course Iran jumped at the opportunity to bog down its rival Saudi Arabia, a rival that spends more than 7X as much on its military, in a disastrous conflict on its border.
It’s within this context that the nuclear deal exists and should be analyzed. While there is some debate on how close Iran has ever been to a nuclear weapon, we can agree that they have indeed pursued increased nuclear capacity in the past. It was this pursuit that led to the agreement signed in 2015 by the P5+1 countries, the 5 permanent UN Security Council members and Germany, and Iran. By moving towards a nuclear weapon, Iran was able to bring the various world powers to the table to negotiate an easing of sanctions, thereby improving its economic situation and slowly pulling itself out of isolation.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its regional actions are problematic and should be addressed by both regional and international actors. However, while being connected, the two issues are not as intertwined as the West and Iran’s rivals would portend. It’s tempting to argue that the easing of sanctions allowed Iran to increase its funding of regional proxies, but it’s difficult to say they would have stayed out of conflicts like Yemen’s when the return on investment has been so high. Iran’s regional actions should be curbed. However, nixing the nuclear deal won’t do that and it shouldn’t be incorporated into a larger strategy for doing so.
Much of the discussion around Iran hasn’t been completely honest. In order to properly address the problems surrounding Iran and its actions, we need to be more forthright in our analysis of the root causes.
We need to reconcile with the fact that much of the Iran problem is American-made.