The Iran complex: why history matters

A sense of enduring history and more recent experience of bitter conflict inform Iran's nuclear stance. To understand this could be a way to avoid war.

The United States navy currently has two aircraft-carrier battle-groups on station in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, led by the USS Abraham Lincoln and the USS Carl Vinson. Both deployments are said by official sources to be "routine", and it is true that there are often two battle-groups in the region during a changeover. In the present circumstances, however, both have just joined the fleet and are likely to be on station for several months (see "The thirty-year war: past, present, future", 20 January 2012).

The group led by the Abraham Lincoln has transited the Strait of Hormuz into the Persian Gulf without incident. There is concern that impending Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) naval exercises could add to tensions. At present, though, the American deployments look for the moment to be more a case of preparing for uncertainties in the wake of possible Israeli action rather than setting the scene for direct US action against Iran.

This assessment is supported by the visit to Israel of the new chair of the US chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey. At a press conference there, he argued for greater engagement between Israel and Iran, not least on regional issues ("U.S.Military Chief in Israel Amid Iran Tensions", Defense News/AFP, 20 January 2012).

These developments notwithstanding, many in Israel do want military action against Iranian nuclear sites; and many American neo-conservatives and others on the political right scorn Barack Obama as a weak and flawed president unable to deal with Iran or its growing influence in Baghdad.

For many in Israel and for hawks in Washington, a nuclear-armed Iran would be an existential threat. Their approach, however, tends to ignore or dismiss attitudes within Iran - including those that inform the nuclear ambitions not just among senior regime figures but more broadly across Iranian society. It may be helpful to look at this angle more broadly, not least in terms of what compromises might be possible to avoid a dangerous war.

The traces of history

An appropriate starting-point is Iran's sense of history and place in the world. The former includes a continuous Persian statehood spanning many dynasties, including the Parthian and Sassanid, across four millennia. A key component of this awareness is Persia's cultural independence when the country was controlled by the Mongols and its ability to avoid falling under the sway of the neighbouring Ottomans.

The latter includes a conviction that for several thousand years, Iran - with the Indus valley and Mongol empires to the east and Babylon, Greece, Rome and Egypt to the west - has been at the world's civilisational centre. Even today this is a country of nearly 80 million people in a region of great geopolitical significance whose desire for modernity on its own terms is admixed with the singular religious dimension of Shi’a Islam.

Iran's experience since the late 19th century is to a great degree seen in tension with this earlier history. The country was never directly colonised by the Europeans, and its modernising path was launched from within by the constitutional revolution of 1905-07. But the sustained tussle between the British and the Russians in the imperial era, lasting into the second world war and beyond, has left a lasting impression of the dangers of external interference and threats to national integrity.

The monarchical regime of Reza Shah Pahlavi installed in 1925 (and passed to his son in 1941) was by the early 1950s increasingly viewed as a creature of the British and Americans, whose role in Iran was understood as motivated by the desire to control the country's oil resources. The ousting of the nationalistic prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 with the aid of MI6 and the CIA, and the Shah's authoritarian rule and pro-western stance in the following years, implanted this impression further in the minds of millions of Iranians. Such sentiments helped to fuel the revolution of 1978-79.

A consequence of this history is that in Iranian political culture there is a distinct combination of self-confidence and insecurity. If the former is rooted in that long history, the latter is a response to this recent experience. The challenge represented by this complex psychology is nowhere more acutely present than in the nuclear issue. In particular, for very many Iranians (far beyond regime insiders) the country's civil- nuclear power programme has become a key symbol of modernity which and one that will not lightly be discarded - even in a post-Fukishima environment where nuclear power is in retreat.

Many uncertainties surround Iran's nuclear-weapons ambitions, including whether the aim is eventually to actually have a deterrent or else maintain a "virtual" capability. Iran's sense of insecurity may mean both that the latter is non-negotiable (at least for now) but that former is - given the financial costs and the technical difficulties - a "development too far". This itself could allow some room for compromise.

Beyond this general context lies an important specific factor relating to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. This force was at the forefront of defending the revolution against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi invasion in 1980, the spark of an eight-year war that cost the lives of over half a million Iranians, mostly young men, in one of the most brutal static wars since the western front in 1914-18.

Since the early 1990s, the IRGC has been transformed - and as its economic activities have increased, its status as the guardian of the revolution has declined. Many in Iran see it as both powerful yet also as having "gone soft"; and some in the upper echelons of the Revolutionary Guard see a violent confrontation, especially with Israel, as a way of restoring a sense of purpose and not a little prestige.

The cost of distrust

Two related elements must here be taken into account. The first is that many of the most senior leaders in the modern-day Revolutionary Guard were in the 1980s young soldiers and paramilitaries, and retain vivid memories of the Iran-Iraq war (much as the American military leadership practising "shock and awe" in the early 1990s against Iraq had experienced the trauma of Vietnam). The second, particularly relevant in current circumstances, is how the Iran-Iraq war ended in early 1988.

By that time the Iranians, after eight years of bitter conflict, were slowly gaining the ascendancy. But the more they did, the more the United States came down on the side of the Iraqis. This tilt reached an extraordinary peak in March-April 1988, and was exemplified in two incidents. The first was the Saddam regime's chemical-weapon assault on the Kurdish town of Halabja on 16 March which killed more than 3,000 people, an event which received less attention than it deserved and was surrounded by unjustified rumour as to its source - in great part because the Reagan administration's hostility to Iran and indulgence of Iraq at the time shaped its response.

The second came at the end of a protracted "tanker war" involving both Iraq and Iran, when in April the US navy engaged in a series of actions against its small Iranian counterpart. Operation Praying Mantis involved the destruction of the Iranian frigate Sahand (and severe damage to a second, Sabalan), the pulverising of three armed speedboats, and the disabling of two oil platforms; the whole operation greatly weakened the Iranian navy.

The US navy could cite Iranian "provocations" - but in Iranian eyes the attacks were a clear demonstration of Washington "taking sides" with Iraq in order to prevent an Iran-Iraq ceasefire that might otherwise be reached on Iranian terms. In any event, the ceasefire that resulted involved Iran - which had been invaded in 1980 - making painful compromises. The wounds were intensified by the USS Vincennes's shooting down in mid-1988 of an Iranian airbus, in which all 290 civilian passengers and crew were killed.

Such events, albeit though more than two decades ago, remain prominent in Iran's political memory - especially among Revolutionary Guard forces in the current leadership. They reinforce an enduring distrust of the United States and specific antagonism towards the US navy.

In itself this distrust and the experiences it draws on do not make war inevitable or even more likely - and the very destruction of Iranian ships and facilities in 1988 is a stark reminder of the US's superior military forces in the region. Such influences, however, do underpin Iran's search for a nuclear-deterrent force and do erect real obstacles to the kind of trust-building that is essential to a peaceful compromise.


About the author

Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international-security editor, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His books include Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on twitter at: @ProfPRogers

A lecture by Paul Rogers on sustainable security, delivered to the Quaker yearly meeting on 3 August 2011, provides an overview of the analysis that underpins his openDemocracy column. It is available in two parts and can be accessed from here