Today’s world of soundbite-reporting, rather than profound exploring of what happens in the Middle East, has contributed to the West’s lack of understanding about Iran. Often, surface-level perception of this complex region throws off policymakers, political leaders and the public alike. Misunderstandings are dangerous and can lead to ominous miscalculations, specifically when dealing with Iran.
What does one need to know about Iran to deal with its government properly while keeping peace and stability? The answer includes a number of factors, among them:
- Iran’s history, including the 1979 Islamic Revolution;
- Iran’s demographics, politics, economics and sociocultural and religious attributes;
- Iran’s relationship with its neighbors, Russia, Israel and Western powers;
- Iran’s military structure and capabilities; and
- The Iranian regime’s goals, agendas and aspirations.
Of course, other contemporary factors and configurations within the Middle East region, and Western and Russian involvement in them, strongly affect the behavior of the Iranian regime. These factors go far beyond the oversimplified caricatures of regional competition boiling down to “Iran versus Saudi Arabia,” or Shi’ism versus hardline Sunnism/Wahhabism, respectively.
Various U.S. administrations have viewed Iran differently, and U.S. foreign policy has led to intense reactions in the region. For example, when the Obama administration forged the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies were enraged. They felt that by lifting economic sanctions against Iran, the nuclear deal handed Iran the assets and means to finance its regional agendas — which the Sunni belt views as sheer mischief to undermine and destabilize Sunni interests and agendas.
As much as Saudi Arabia was furious with the Obama administration for making the nuclear deal, Iran today is equally furious with the Trump administration for withdrawing from it.
Most importantly, the United States and its Western allies must have the political will to deal with Iran peacefully, diplomatically and with the understanding that military actions will not advance long-term normalization of relations. Conversely, the Iranian regime must embrace the same political will to deal with the United States and the West through peaceful and diplomatic means — but that’s easier said than done.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the United States and Iran have seen each other as enemies. The revolution triggered the attack on the U.S. embassy in Tehran and a 444-day hostage crisis. Nearly 40 years of mutual animosity, distrust and broken diplomatic relations have rendered these hostile attitudes on both sides as status quo. No one dared to make gestures to break the status quo until the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China agreed to take a chance and engage Iran in nuclear negotiations — the talks that resulted in the JCPOA.
Iran’s nuclear program is one of many issues that have negatively affected Iranian-Western relations; Western powers, Israel and the West’s Sunni allies in the Middle East are alarmed by the thought of a nuclear-powered Iran.
Yet, if President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump defends indicted GOP congressman House to vote Thursday on holding Bannon in contempt Youngkin calls for investigation into Loudoun County School Board amid sexual assault allegations MORE wants to understand Iran and how to approach its leaders, he needs to know that Iran’s grievances pertaining to the United States go much further back than his decision to withdraw from the JCPOA (though the withdrawal gives Iran yet another reason to distrust the United States).
For example, Iranians will never forget two incidents in history: On Aug. 19, 1953, the CIA overthrew democratically-elected, secular Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, derailing Iran’s democratization. Then, on July 3, 1988, the U.S. Navy’s USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 in the Persian Gulf, killing 290 passengers and crew members.
Conversely, the U.S. cannot forget that on Oct. 23, 1983, Iran’s terrorist militia, the Lebanese Hezbollah, murdered 241 U.S. Marines in the Beirut barracks suicide truck bombing. In addition, Iran has supported militias targeting U.S. troops in Middle Eastern conflict zones, and the regime’s Republican Guard Forces harass U.S. naval assets patrolling in the Persian Gulf. Iran’s verbal threats against Israel are alarming to the United States, though it would be equally dangerous to regional stability and security should Israel decide to attack Iran militarily.
One thing is clear in the current U.S.-Iran political climate: neither side is able to decode the other in terms of intentions, agendas and will to act — meaning, do words equal the will to act on them? President Trump set the precedent for a “seesaw” policy of name-calling a leader and harshly criticizing a given country, and then conveying his willingness to communicate with the same leader and/or even to meet, as in the case of North Korea. Iran's President Hassan Rouhani recently rejected President Trump’s suggestion of a meeting.
It may be President Trump’s style of leadership and communication, but sending mixed signals does not achieve understanding, consistency and clarity about White House foreign policy. The president’s advisers, diplomats at home and abroad, members of Congress, the U.S. military, and the media and public struggle to figure out what President Trump wants, what he intends to do, and how to read between the lines of his tweets.
For all these reasons, Iran is taking precautions by engaging in military exercises — and Israel has warned Iran of military retaliation if Iran closes strategic sea lanes, as it has threatened to do. Thus, we see that words alone can mobilize militaries and put countries on high alert.
The United States needs to convey foreign policy with clarity, consistency and seriousness, especially with high-stakes situations such as U.S.-Iran relations. Game-playing in these contexts could lead to costly mistakes and opportunities lost for productive diplomacy. The status quo only empowers the hardliners in both countries, prolonging distrust and hostility.
The United States and Iran must be cognizant of the political sensitivities that each side harbors in their relations. Equally important is making assurances about meeting security requirements. Conflict resolution must be the clear and resolute will of both sides. Otherwise, blowing smoke could lead to rising smoke from bombed out buildings. It is not in anyone’s interest to reach that level of crisis.
Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Naval War College. She previously served as assistant professor of political science at American University in Cairo, and as director of the international studies program at Arcadia University. She specializes in international relations, political economy, comparative politics with regional expertise in Middle East and North Africa and South Asia, and Islamic studies. She is proficient in Arabic and Urdu.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.]