The story of US hostility towards Iran is famous and dramatic: the revolution that overthrew the US-friendly, anti-Soviet Shah in 1979; the humiliating detention of over fifty diplomats and other US citizens for 444 days in 1979-81; the impotent failure of a mission to rescue them; the controversial alliances with Israel and Saudi Arabia; the hawkishness of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. Less well known is the view from Tehran itself.
Iran is a country of 81 million people with an enduring sense of history. And it’s quite some history, going right back to the Elam culture 5,000 years ago and the even more notable Persia of Cyrus the Great, a mere 2,500 years ago. Despite the younger generation’s liking for western lifestyles, including those of the US society, we should not forget that Iran can date its dynamic history ten times as far back as the US and its relatively recent 1776 declaration of independence.
That issue of independence, though, does loom large, not least with the nineteenth-century history of Russian involvement in the country. The Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911 brought in a legislature, but Russian and British influence in the second world war still rankles, though not as much as the US-UK-fomented coup that brought down an elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, when he had the temerity to seek control of Iran’s oil in 1953. If it comes to the crunch, a US president all too easily seen as little more than a caricature will not counter Iran’s deeply ingrained sense of being a truly significant state with a powerful history, whatever the strength of his military.
National pride and historic grudges aside, other nations stand to gain from the current tensions. Israel and Saudi Arabia both hope to see some kind of action that greatly limits Iran’s military potential, particularly when it comes to its nuclear ambitions and its wide-ranging ballistic missile programme. That is why, with the US, they oppose the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, originally between Iran, the US, UK, Russia, China, France, Germany and the EU: it was Trump’s withdrawal from that agreement that precipitated the current crisis.
Israeli politicians across the spectrum hold that it would be disastrous to lose the regional monopoly on nuclear weapons that their country has held for fifty years. It is also widely agreed that Tehran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon and its huge arsenal of short-range missiles is the greatest immediate security concern. Policy has hardened further with a steady move to the political right over the past quarter-century.
Saudi worries date back to the 1979 Iranian revolution and Iran’s claim that strict Shi’a Islam is the true way forward. That led the Saudis to establish proselytising for their own ultra-conservative Sunni doctrine, Wahhabism, especially through thousands of madrasas across the Middle East, South Asia and beyond. It also saw them embark on a huge spending spree for their military, which, even now, can do little without the US and UK.
Iran has its own geopolitical points of contention with the US and its allies: it is determined to maximise influence in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. The threat of war serves other Iranian interests too, however. One enduring legacy of the 1979 revolution has been the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has been described as Iran’s own military-industrial complex. Its power and influence extend throughout Iran’s economy and society. It has not only 150,000 active personnel but also the 90,000-strong Basij paramilitary militia. This ‘guardian of the revolution’ also has numerous economic interests, including a major engineering and construction corporation. The Revolutionary Guards also control the Quds Force operating abroad, especially in Libya, patrols the Strait of Hormuz and has considerable paramilitary influence in Iraq. Iran’s theocratic leadership remains close to the corps and regards it as a guardian of its own position, but many Iranians are suspicious and even fearful of its power and penetration of society.
When Trump recently labelled the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organisation, he helped the corps bolster its position in Iran. For its leadership this has been a welcome change after its influence has declined under the relatively moderate government of President Rouhani. If Trump is so bitterly opposed to it while wanting regime change, then from its own perspective it must be playing a key role.
The Western European members of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear accord have been tardy in their opposition to Trump’s unilateral withdrawal; many Iranians are suspicious of the sheer economic and political clout of the Revolutionary Guards; and their economy is in deep trouble, made worse by US sanctions. Human rights abuses are considerable, the theocracy retains overall power and maladministration endures. Even so, any thought that this means Iran will come apart if there is a military conflict is as risky as was the view that the Taliban had been defeated in a matter of weeks in late 2001 or that it took just three weeks to terminate the Saddam Hussein regime and bring peace to Iraq in 2003.