Transformation in Iran-US relationship
By Brig Asif Haroon Raja
In the aftermath of 2nd World War and start of super power rivalry in the form of cold war, the US saw Iran as a counterweight against Soviet expansionism and a source of stability in oil-rich Persian Gulf. CIA and MI-6 jointly engineered a coup in 1953 to oust elected PM Mohammad Mossadegh since he had tried to nationalize Iran’s oil industry and brought US friendly Reza Shah Pahlavi to power. The US helped Shah in modernizing the country and its armed forces as well as in setting up dreaded intelligence agency known as Savaks in 1957. Iran’s military turned into a formidable force to reckon with in Middle East and Shah. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a religious leader was exiled to Turkey in 1964 after he criticized Shah’s relationship with USA. In 1978, turmoil swept Iran which allowed Imam Khomeini to return home and seize power in March 1979.
Iran-US antagonism started peaking in the aftermath of Islamic revolution in Iran, followed by seizure of American Embassy in Tehran by student militants in November 1979 and holding 52 Americans hostage for next 444 days. An American rescue operation ended in a disaster, which further bolstered Khomeini’s image in Iran and Islamic world. Hostages were released as a result of secret agreement under which the US secretly sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to bankroll a secret war in Central America against Contras. While Iran dubbed USA as the Great Satan, the US named Iran as evil. In order to punish Iran, Iraq under Saddam Hussain was instigated to declare war against its neighbor Iran in 1980. The dual hidden objective was to smother fledgling Islamic power as well as to rein-in ambitious Saddam wanting to emerge as the leader of the Arab world after Egypt signed peace treaty with Israel.
Besides the war with Iraq, Iran got involved in Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s where it supported its advance guard Hezbollah. The US military and CIA exited from Lebanon in 1983 as a consequence to two deadly bombing attacks on US Embassy and CIA HQ in Beirut, allegedly undertaken by Hezbollah. Throughout the 1990s, Iran and its creation Hezbollah were blamed for sponsoring terrorism around the world. Iran was also accused of providing critical support to Hamas suicide bombers against Israel. Bill Clinton imposed oil and trade sanctions on Iran in 1995. A slight improvement in Iran-US relations took place in 1997 after reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected president and he waved an olive branch. Some penalties were lifted. However, their relations dipped low after 9/11 when George W. Bush included Iran with Iraq and North Korea in his ‘axis of evil’ and rebuffed Khatami’s offer of ‘grand bargain’ after he learnt about Iran’s nuclear program.
The US and Israeli leadership started breathing fire when Iran laid the foundation of its nuclear program in 2002 and procured as well as indigenously manufactured array of ballistic missiles capable of striking Israel. Iran was accused of arming Iraqi Shiites and tasking them to kill American troops occupying Iraq. Matters worsened when former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005 and he questioned the authenticity of Holocaust saying that it was a myth. He further raised the blood pressure of Israeli leaders by threatening to wipe out Israel from the face of the world. Despite CIA’s full backup support to reformists and destabilization of Zahidan and Siestan provinces with the help of Jundullah group under Abdol Malik Regi based in Balochistan, Ahmadinejad won the second term in 2009 and he became more rigid on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program.
The US in league with the UN and EU began applying diplomatic, political, economic and military pressures on Iran to isolate it and to force it to abandon its nuclear program allegedly geared towards making a nuclear bomb. Four-fold crippling penalties included freezing of foreign currency accounts in western banks to the tune of over $7 billion. These pressures were backed by propaganda and covert wars to affect regime change. CIA kept pumping in millions of dollars to discredit the ruling regime and to promote moderate Reformists. Efforts were made to win over Centrists as well. In 2012, Iran was blacklisted from international banking network and embargo was applied on oil exports. These steps radically brought down Iran’s oil production and severely hurt its economy and resulted in high inflation. Riyal dipped to 40,000 Riyal to a dollar.
Provoked by Ahmadinejad’s jingoistic and vitriolic statements and concerned by Iran’s fast growing military and nuclear prowess, together with Tehran’s support to its arch rivals Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and Assad regime in Syria, Israel started ringing alarm bells and describing Iran as an existential threat to its security. It kept poisoning the ears of USA and western countries and asked them to stop Iran from pursuing its nuclear program or else nip the evil in the bud. When the US dithered due to its neck deep involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, Israel threatened to strike Iran’s nuclear sites unilaterally. While Netanyahu maintained that Israel reserved the right to protect itself from nuclear Iran, and claimed that nuclear armed Iran would dramatically increase terrorism by giving terrorists a nuclear umbrella, he didn’t specify as to what damage nuclear armed Israel posed to its neighbors. To exert pressure on Iran, Israel asked USA to approve sale of advanced refueling aircraft and GBU bunker busting bombs. Idea was to convey to Iran that its underground nuclear sites would not be safe from GBUs.
Despite heavy economic bleeding, Iran refused to cow down and stood its ground. It maintained its stance that the nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and it has the right to develop it. In the face of looming dangers, Ahmadinejad threatened that if attacked, Strait of Hormuz would be blocked. His aggressive policies were fully supported by people of Iran. Things came to a pass when the internal situation of Syria spun out of control in the wake of use of chemical weapons allegedly by Syrian forces and the US supported by France and UK deciding to intervene militarily. Iran and Russia stood behind Assad regime. With so many powerful actors involved in the Syrian muddle, a war of bigger dimension in the volatile region of Middle East seemed imminent.
While Syria became the battleground for proxy wars of Saudi Arabia and Iran, noted analysts opined that the US was paving its way to strike Iran after dismantling Syria. The explosive situation cooled down as a result of Russian President Putin’s wise counsel. An agreement was signed with USA in which Assad agreed to open its chemical weapons stocks for international inspection and subsequent destruction in return for US-NATO putting off strikes. Diplomacy prevailed upon use of force, thus adding a feather in Putin and Obama’s caps. While Assad breathed a sigh of relief, the military contractors in USA, France and Britain as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar that had extended full support to the NATO’s intended offensive plan felt thoroughly disappointed. Obama’s preference to Muslim Brotherhood over Hosni Mubarak in Egypt until Morsi was overthrown by Egyptian military on July 3, 2013 had already disconcerted King Abdullah. Obama’s volte face in Syria further angered him and he decided to forgo Saudi seat in the UNSC, terming it was a dead horse.
While the hawks were still trying to absorb the shock effects of US u-turn on Syria, interim nuclear agreement signed in Geneva between Iran and P5+1 on November 24, 2013 came as a bolt from the blue. The deal which came about as a result of secret talks between US and Iranian officials in Oman since last March has the potential to dramatically change the geo-strategic landscape of Middle East in particular and neighboring regions in general. Israel is incensed since it feels that temporary freeze may delay but will not block Iran’s resolve to manufacture a nuclear bomb. Israel with its over 200 nuclear warheads has the temerity to demand complete shutdown of Iran’s enrichment program, dismantlement of 19000 centrifuges and uprooting of heavy water reactor at Arak. Saudi Arabia is upset for not being kept informed. Some Gulf countries with Shia minorities and Bahrain with Shia majority are disconcerted over the development. They apprehend that the US patronage may enable Iran to not only regain its envied position in Middle East and in the process hinder growing Saudi-Qatari influence in the region, but also embolden it to export Shiaism. A Saudi analyst expressed his frustration saying that the US uses allies ‘like prostitutes’ and then dump them. The US Congress under the influence of Israel is unhappy and is still insisting on imposition of more sanctions.
While retaining the right to uranium enrichment, Iran will cap its nuclear enrichment up to 5% for next six months and will allow IAEA to inspect nuclear sites. The US in return will defreeze Iran’s bank accounts in western countries and gradually remove sanctions. The deal can falter in case the US feels that Tehran is breaching the interim agreement, or Iran feels that the US is not giving sufficient relief. Spoilers however will continue to thwart the deal. In case the deal collapses, and Iran races ahead to manufacture the bomb, Obama will face the consequences of failure. But if the deal materializes into a final pact, it will add another feather in the hat of Obama. Whatever may be the outcome of the interim deal, what is satisfying is that the situation that had boiled to a bursting point has been cooled down and chances are that it will not trigger again.