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Iran vs the United States - again

About the author

Fred Halliday (1946-2010) was most recently Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats / Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies (ICREA) research professor at the Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals (Barcelona Institute for International Studies / IBEI). He was from 1985-2008 professor of international relations at the London School of Economics (LSE), and subsequently professor emeritus there

Fred Halliday's many books include Political Journeys: The openDemocracy Essays (Saqi, 2011); Caamaño in London: the Exile of a Latin American Revolutionary (Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2010); Shocked and Awed: How the War on Terror and Jihad Have Changed the English Language (IB Tauris, 2010); 100 Myths about the Middle East (Saqi, 2005); The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 2005); Two Hours That Shook the World: September 11, 2001 - Causes and Consequences (Saqi, 2001); Nation and Religion in the Middle East (Saqi, 2000); and Revolutions and World Politics: The Rise and Fall of the Sixth Great Power (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999)

The events of the past few weeks, culminating in the decision on 4 February 2006 of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to report Iran to the United Nations Security Council over Tehran's nuclear-research programmes, can leave few people in doubt that a major crisis is brewing between the United States and Iran.

In one sense, this confrontation has been growing since the Iranian revolution of 1978-79 – along with the Cuban (1959) and Vietnamese (1975) revolutions, the US's greatest defeat during the cold war – and the source of still undiluted mutual resentment.

The Iranian-US confrontation has already been through several dramatic chapters, notably:

  • the oil-fuelled overthrow of Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953
  • Iranians' seizure of fifty-four American diplomatic staff in 1979 (leading to a hostage crisis that lasted 444 days
  • the Iranian-Lebanese Shi'a campaign that drove the American forces out of Lebanon in 1983-84
  • the US intervention on the side of Iraq in the late, 1987-88 phase, of the Iran-Iraq war
  • the rise of Hizbollah in Lebanon, leading to the departure (almost an expulsion) of Israeli forces in July 2000.

Baghdad fallout

All of this is now accentuated by the situation in Iraq after the United States-led regime change in 2003 and subsequent insurgency. To a degree that US politicians, journalists and generals seem unable to see, Washington is, in effect, unwittingly preparing the ground for an Iranian takeover of Iraq. Indeed, the very focus on a Sunni insurgent-US confrontation – a real enough war – tends to overlay something that is much more important and long-term: the rivalry across "west Asia" (the entire region from Afghanistan to Lebanon) between Iran and the United States.

Here, too-obvious analogies with Vietnam and other US interventions break down. The key thing in Iraq is that the very measures the US is taking to make it possible to "redeploy" (a euphemism for inglorious departure) serve to reinforce Tehran's power: elections, which confirm the pro-Iranian Shi'a parties in power, and "institution-building" whereby Iran's influence in the armed forces, policy, intelligence and administration is strengthened.

These events constitute the necessary background to what may otherwise appear quite separate issues: the confrontation over nuclear technology and weapons between Iran and the west, and the new radicalisation of the Iranian regime.

Nuclear weapons, and issues of testing, enrichment and proliferation have their own independent development, but – as in the cold war – they cannot be separated from broader issues of political rivalry, prestige and crisis management. The reason Iran wants a nuclear capability, or at least to be in the position of "nuclear ambiguity" that Israel and (before 1994) South Africa had, is not to launch the missiles against its foes the day after it acquires them, but to strengthen its political and diplomatic hand across west Asia. Iran wants, in a phrase, to be the "indispensable regional power" – in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, the Caucasus and much of central Asia, as well as in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

More specifically, there is a direct link between western alarm about Iran's nuclear programmes and the situation in Iraq: with Iran gaining ground in Iraq, the west (especially the United States) has resorted to exerting pressure over Iran's nuclear programmes. Equally, the complete collapse of any meaningful Arab-Israeli peace process, evident long before the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections, gives Iran greater leverage in this crisis. So the more Iran advances politically in the Arab world to the west, and, not to be forgotten, the more US and Nato policy runs into deeper trouble in Afghanistan, as it most certainly is, the more pressure on Iran over nuclear weapons is essential for political and strategic reasons.

Also in openDemocracy on the internal politics and external relationships of Iran, and the prospects for democracy in the country:

Ardashir Tehrani, "Iran's presidential coup"
(June 2005)

Emadeddin Baghi, "Iran's new era: nine lessons for reformers"
(August 2005)

Nazila Fathi, "The politics of illusion in Iran" (August 2005)

Trita Parsi, "The Iran-Israel cold war" (October 2005)

Nasrin Alavi, "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's fear" (November 2005)

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Tehran spring

The strategic consequences for Iran of the events in Iraq and their impact across west Asia are compounded by the tenor of the new regime in Iran that came to power with the election in June 2005 of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Far from tempering their rhetoric, or international aspirations, revolutions tend after a couple of decades to enter a phase, a radicalising paroxysm, whereby elements in the revolutionary elite seek to return to first principles, including confrontation with the outside world.

This Ahmadinejad has most certainly done, replete with appeals to Iranian nationalism, populist (when not vulgar) abuse of Iran's enemies, and a facile resort to themes that are latent in Iranian history but which do little to resolve Iran's problems, such as economic self-sufficiency.

The casual denial of the shoah is part of this resort to demagogy, an example of what Iranians contemptuously refer to as hizb-i bad (the "party of the wind"), the use of any nationalist or populist theme that may serve to win short-term support. In Ahmadinejad's case it is not possible to suppress the fact that – as someone who was himself, as a member of the security forces of the Islamic Republic in the 1980s, responsible for mass killings by the state – he has a direct, complicit interest in the denial of the even more large-scale state killings of Iran's historic ally, Germany.

The indications are not good: for Iran, for Iraq or for the broader situation in west Asia. US policy towards the broader region is a shambles – a failure in Iraq, despised by most of the Arab and Muslim world, and marked by increased incoherence and challenge at home. No one in Washington is prepared to take two necessary, and possible, political initiatives: opening a serious dialogue with Iran, and going all out for the establishment of a viable, contiguous, Palestinian state.

The former was rejected by the Bush administration in spring 2003, when the Iranians made a serious attempt to reach a comprehensive deal with Washington; the latter has been once again sidetracked, this time by the vacuous and misleading promises of Ariel Sharon and (now) his stand-in successor Ehud Olmert.

Much is made of the supposed instability or vulnerability of the Iranian regime. Iranian exiles, from monarchists to Islamo-Stalinists, are trading their wares in Washington. The reality is that this regime is as strong as it ever has been, not least with oil prices above $60 a barrel. For all the chicanery of the Ahmadinejad election, masses of people, including many veterans of the Iranian left, voted for him. He strikes a note of Iranian nationalism and defiance that has a strong popular resonance, even as he works to suppress the gains by liberals, human-rights workers and reformers in Iran over the past decade.

One of his great allies in this project is George W Bush's confrontational rhetoric and wishful thinking about regime change. More drama seems sure to follow.




Fred Halliday is professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, and visiting professor at CIDOB, Barcelona. His books include Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (IB Tauris, 2003) and 100 Myths About the Middle East (Saqi, 2005).

Fred Halliday's "global politics" column on openDemocracy surveys the national histories, geopolitical currents, and dominant ideas across the world. The series includes two that are especially relevant to an understanding of modern Iran:

"America and Arabia after Saddam" (May 2004):

"There is no doubt as to which country heads the list of those who think they have won in the current climate (of post-regime-change Iraq). This is the country which has had for 3,000 years a hegemonic political and cultural relationship with Iraq; which commands some cultural if not political respect from 60% of the Iraqi population; and which has fought two inter-state wars with Iraq in recent decades – both the devastating 1980-88 conflict in which it lost a million people, and the less recognised but still decisive border and subversion war of 1969-75."

"Iran's revolutionary spasm" (July 2005):

"Iran's new president will operate in a context where considerations of national prestige, regional influence and bargaining power are unavoidable. In this, as in its whole modern history of nationalism and revolution, Iran reflects the global context in which it finds itself. A country whose first revolution exactly a century ago surprised the world as much as did the contemporaneous one in Russia, has once again staked its claim to be a focus of international attention. We can only hope that its new leaders, and its old foes, will check their illusions against reality."


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