Over recent years many Iranians in the big cities confided quietly to the opinion pollsters that they feel an empathy with the West. It was not reciprocated. Frankly, most people in the West have no in-depth opinion about Iran. If they think about it for more than a couple of minutes they go along with their government’s line.
A majority of Western and Arab leaders supported the American position as taken by successive presidents: Iran was probably trying to make a bomb. (To its credit US intelligence never concurred with its presidents, and privately some Western leaders would acknowledge this.)
Then came the Obama-initiated nuclear deal with Iran negotiating with the Americans, the Europeans, Russians and Chinese. It was one of President Barack Obama’s most singular achievements. At the end Obama was gracious enough to phone President Vladimir Putin to thank him for Russian support.
The Iranian public were truly happy about the deal. But President Donald Trump has all but sabotaged their benign feelings. His private war against the Obama deal has become red hot. He appears determined to scrap it and thus return to years of bitter antagonism, besides giving succour to Iran’s nuclear weapons’ lobby. Now he has extended his wrath to Iran’s non-nuclear rocket program, even though they would be useless against Western targets.
Trump knows no Iranian history. When the Iranian revolution happened in 1979, the Shah was overthrown and the fundamentalist Islamic Shi’a regime of Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, one of the first things the new regime did was to close down the Shah’s nuclear weapons’ research program. (Ironically, it had had technical help from the US.) It was only after Iraq attacked Iran that the program was resuscitated.
Underneath the Iranian skin of anyone over 40 lies the memory of the Iran-Iraq war. Whatever warm feelings the Iranian man and woman in the street might have for the West today can easily be undercut by any suggestion that the US and UK in particular might be reverting to those confrontational days when they covertly aided with sophisticated weapons President Saddam Hussein’s eight-year war with Iran. (It lasted from 1980 until 1988.) The Reagan Administration escorted Kuwaiti oil tankers through the Persian Gulf to Iraq. It also initiated an arms embargo against Iran.
It was a terrible war, more akin to the trench warfare of World War 1 than any other, with opposing troops bogged down for years on end, fighting over a few hundred metres of ground. Iraq used chemical weapons on a large scale. The death toll was horrendous- estimates range from 170,000 to 750,000.
For its part, Iran refused to use chemical weapons in retaliation. Its present-day Supreme Ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has made a point of reminding us of this, explaining that using such a weapon of mass destruction would have gone against Islamic teaching. At the same time he has long pointed out that this is the key reason for Iran not building nuclear weapons.
It is this war that has determined the larger part if not most of Iran’s foreign policy. “What Gulf Arab officials term ‘Iran meddling in Arab affairs’ is to Iran an essential part of an ‘aggressive defence’ of its national security”, write professors Ariane Tabatabai of Georgetown University and Annie Samuel of the University Tennessee in a recent article in Harvard’s quarterly, “International Security”.
The authors concede that in certain areas Iran’s policies- in the Syrian war, for example- are disruptive, if not destructive. But they argue that Iran’s activities have as their primary aim not destabilization but Iran’s survival.
The history of the Iran-Iraq war determines the mind-set of Iranian leaders today. It makes them feel that Iran will always have to go it alone, or at least maintain the ability to do so. Iran fears an Israeli attack. The Israeli government during the last tense months of the nuclear negotiations made it clear that it was considering one.
Iran also wants to be sure that in post-Saddam Iraq the majority Shi’a population will always be in the ascendant. Saddam was not religious but he always made sure that the minority Sunnis had the upper hand.
Despite all, in the fight against ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria and the Taliban in Afghanistan Iran has been de facto on the side of the Western coalition. Is this a sideshow signifying nothing? Is this an anomaly? Could it be a sign of Iranian flexibility that could be pursued positively by the US and its allies?
Trump and those Western leaders who are preoccupied by Iranian foreign and military policy need a big rethink about where to go next with Iran. If the West wants peace in the Middle East and Afghanistan Iran is too important to be alienated.