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Policy Summary:
While not as omnipresent as it often has been, the issue of conflict with Iran should loom large in the context of the 2020 election. Indeed, it’s important to consider just how much more serious this issue has grown in the last four years. A central premise of Trump’s 2016 campaign was exiting the 2015 JCPOA— perhaps the single biggest foreign policy achievement of the Obama administration. Beginning on May 8, 2018, Trump made good on this threat, officially withdrawing from the agreement. Tensions with Iran have grown steadily since. The start of 2020 saw the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani at Baghdad International Airport, a major escalation of the conflict. Most recently, on September 19, 2020, the United States unilaterally attempted to reimpose all pre-JCPOA UN sanctions on Iran. (This includes a conventional arms embargo on Iran, among other prohibitions). While the efficacy of these sanctions are somewhat limited by the sheer exhaustion of sanctions already placed on Iran, coupled with the international community’s opposition to the sanctions, the United States still wields considerable power to hassle other countries and companies that do attempt to do business with Iran.

Any discussion of American-Iranian diplomacy must take into account the long and contentious history of relations between the two countries. In 1953, a CIA-backed coup overthrew the popularly elected Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddeq, primarily over American and British objections to his nationalization of the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later, British Petroleum). Mosaddeq was replaced by Shah Reza Pahlavi, whose often-brutal reign was financially and militarily supported by the United States until he was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Though less well-remembered (at least in the United States), American efforts to destabilize Iran were amplified after the Islamic Revolution and concurrent hostage crisis. September 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq War, which began after Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. The war, ultimately the longest conventional war of the 20th century, was brutal for both sides, but particularly Iran. Although the United States played the two countries off each other during the war (Henry Kissinger famously said: “it’s a pity both sides can’t lose”), US sympathies were definitively with Saddam, and the US assisted him with targeting, weapons sales, and other logistical support. Perhaps most egregiously, in 1988, the United States missile cruiser Vincennes, stationed in the Persian Gulf, shot down Iranian Air Flight 655, killing all 290 passengers aboard. And finally, lest it be forgotten—it was widely believed that an American overthrow of Iran would be the sequel to the American invasion of Iraq. Iran was listed, along with Iraq and North Korea, in Bush’s famous “Axis of Evil” speech, and it is likely only the quagmire in Iraq that prevented the Bush Administration from taking this second step.

Today Iran is  a regional power, and heavily isolated by America and its regional allies (particularly Israel and the Arab Gulf States). Predictably, because of American withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran has stopped complying with the terms of the agreement and has begun to expand its enriched uranium stockpile. 

Analysis:

Trump appears to have little understanding of or interest in how his actions will destabilize the Greater Middle East. Despite implicit and explicit promises to end American involvement in the region, with regards to Iran he has dramatically escalated the potential for mass conflict. While Trump’s opinions may often be unformed and fickle, he continues to be advised by a number of long-time Iran hawks, like Mike Pompeo.

It hardly bears restating, but it should be emphasized that even a regional war would be devastating to all parties involved, particularly to Iranian citizens and other civilians in the region. The odds of a large-scale ground war and invasion—as with Iraq—seem low, but the prospect of a devastating air war, with serious Iranian resistance, remains quite possible. It is worth bearing in mind that at least several hundred thousand Iraqis died as a result of the American-led invasion in 2003, and the body count may well exceed one million.

It should also be noted that despite its weaknesses from years of sanctions and isolation, Iran remains a strong country with a multi-millennia history. Iran is not in the position Iraq was in in 2003 (and arguably, Iran’s position has been strengthened by the US destruction of Iraq). Iran would be quite capable of mounting a major defense, directly and through proxies, like Hezbollah.

Finally—aside from making it extremely difficult, logistically, for a hypothetical Biden administration to re-enter the Iran deal, the Trump administration has created the possibly more severe problem of utterly shredding American credibility vis-à-vis international treaties. Why should Iran (or North Korea, or Venezuela, etc.) sign any treaty with an American administration if the next one can rip it up? Trump and those surrounding him evidently care little about this in the pursuit of their own agenda.

As tensions remain extremely high, and particularly as the election approaches, it is also worth noting that for decades Iran has been portrayed as an aggressor in US media and by the vast majority of Republicans and Democrats. However even a cursory reading of regional history shows that Iran has far more often been the victim of geopolitical machinations by America and Western powers. All in all, Iran has reacted as a rational state actor, while the absurdity of the Trump administration’s approach has increasingly demonstrated that the United States is acting as a rogue state; and the long trail that has led to this moment was paved by a bipartisan consensus in Washington. It is imperative that those looking for change through the US domestic political process remember this.

Resistance Resources:

  • https://ploughshares.org — “For over 39 years Ploughshares Fund has supported the most effective people and organizations in the world to reduce and eventually eliminate the dangers posed by nuclear weapons.”
  • https://www.codepink.org — “CODEPINK is a women-led grassroots organization working to end U.S. wars and militarism, support peace and human rights initiatives, and redirect our tax dollars into healthcare, education, green jobs and other life-affirming programs.”
  • https://aboutfaceveterans.org — “We are Post-9/11 service members and veterans organizing to end a foreign policy of permanent war and the use of military weapons, tactics, and values in communities across the country.”
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