Trump’s destabilising gestures in the Middle East are an alarm call to us all, asserts Chris Bambery
Donald Trump seems set to reignite the US’s decades long vendetta with Iran after imposing fresh sanctions following an Iranian missile test, labelling the Islamic Republic “terrorist state number one.” That view chimes with that of Israeli premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was expressing similar views to Theresa May on a visit to Downing Street this week, warning of Tehran’s “extraordinary aggression.”
It seems to signal the end for hopes of a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran following the nuclear deal signed off by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, one of his few foreign policy scores.
Why does Iran stir up such hatred in American ruling circles? Claims it is “terrorist state number one” are wide of the mark; it ignores the US’s claim on that title. True, Iran has backed the Palestinians to a greater degree than any Arab states, but its links with Hamas have weakened as Tehran’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt have deteriorated. Iran also backs Hezbollah in Lebanon.
This is in large part because of their shared Shia Islamic beliefs. Saudi and US claims that it is behind the Houthi rebel movement in Yemen seem to fall short of the mark. There is suspicion between the Houthis and Tehran, in part because of religious differences, and in part because Iran’s foreign policy is actually far more cautious than the rhetoric of its statements.
There are, of course, many reasons to criticise the Islamic Republic, but its views on gays and women’s rights are not so far away from Trump’s, and the death sentence is commonplace in both states.
Iranians have many reasons to resent US interference in their country, which has a long track record, not least because in 1980 Washington helped incite the Iraq of Saddam Hussein to invade Iran.
The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War led to over one million deaths. It was one of the bloodiest wars of the twentieth century.
So why the hatred for Iran in Washington? To understand this you have to start with the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which toppled the autocratic Shah of Iran, the second key ally of Washington in the region, next to Israel, and home to the CIA’s headquarters for the Middle East.
This was a great, popular revolution involving mass strikes and demonstrations, the creation of worker’s councils, the disintegration of the armed forces and culminating in popular insurrection.
This was a major blow for the US, coming just four years after the US’s greatest defeat in Vietnam. The divisions that the Indochina war had created within the US, particularly the rise of a mass anti-war movement meant then President Carter could not directly intervene to save the Shah.
Worse humiliation was to follow the revolution with Islamic students seizing the US embassy and taking staff hostage. This was after the Shah and his booty had been allowed exile in the US.
Despite embassy files being shredded the Iranians painfully put them back together in the most damaging series of revelations about American diplomacy and espionage prior to Edward Snowden. When Carter ordered US Marines to carry out a rescue attempt it ended in debacle.
Despite the evident weakness of Carter and the US he did bequeath his successor, Ronald Reagan, and important legacy: the Carter Doctrine. This stated that the Persian Gulf was of vital strategic importance to the US, such that it would go to war if its interests there were threatened.
He also instigated the beginnings of a Rapid Deployment Force, that is, a permanent US military presence in the Gulf.
The Islamic Republic of Iran came out of the revolution, led by Ayatollah Khomeini. Despite the existence of a strong left wing in the country it held that socialism was not on the agenda and looked to ally with the middle class and religious leaders opposed to the Shah in modernising and industrialising the country.
It was a fatal mistake. Khomeini could draw not just on religious belief but on a history of anti-imperialism, a reaction to Western interference in the country. The seizure of the US embassy was key to this.
But the greatest humiliation was the 1953 US-UK coup which overthrew the democratically elected government of Dr Mohammad Mosaddeq, which had not only sidelined the Shah but had also dared to nationalise the oilfields. The CIA and MI6 toppled Mossadeq and reinstalled the Shah in full power.
As the US and the West reacted to the embassy seizure with vitriol that played into Khomeini’s hands. He also kicked out Israeli diplomats handing over their embassy to the Palestine Liberation Organisation of Yasser Arafat, who he welcomed to Tehran.
When Ronald Reagan took office a priority of his administration was to overcome the Vietnam Syndrome, the inability of Washington to launch military adventures as it had down before its stinging defeat in Vietnam because of public hostility. But at the beginning of his presidency Reagan could not dare to launch a direct attack on Iran, he needed a tool to do so. That tool was Saddam Hussein of Iraq.
Saddam seemed an unlikely ally of the US, in large part because he was a close ally of the Soviet Union. But his supposedly secular Arab republic presided over a population which was Shia in the majority, and he feared the Iranian Revolution would spread. Also, Saddam coveted oil rich territory across the southern border. Fear of Iran was shared by Saudi Arabia, with its large Shia population in its eastern provinces. It buried the hatchet with Saddam and would fund and aid him.
As early as 1980 arch ideologue Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's National Security Assistant, declared: "We see no fundamental incompatibility of interests between the United States and Iraq."
Egged on by Washington, Saddam unilaterally tore up a 1975 settlement of border disputes which had guaranteed Iranian free passage through the Shatt al-Arab waterway, which gives them access to the Persian Gulf, in September 1980. Saddam then sent his troops over that water way, believing by invading he could topple Khomeini.
After initial successes the Iraqi offensive was halted and the war became one of stalemate involving trench warfare as in 1914-1918. The Iranians began using human wave attacks on the Iraqi positions and in response to that Saddam ordered the use, first of mustard gas, and then more deadly Tabun and Sarin gases.
During 1987-1988 matters went further as Iran began to look like securing victory. The CIA detected a build-up of Iranian forces opposite the city of Basra where there was a hole in the Iraqi defences. Prior to the Iranian launching its Spring 1988 offensive the CIA passed on US aerial surveillance detailing the Iranian position, allowing Saddam to launch chemical attacks on a scale not seen since the First World War. Washington was fully aware of this but kept up the flow of vital intelligence.
Two thirds of Iraq’s chemical attacks took place in those last 18 months of the war, when American support for Iraq was at its height. In March 1988 Saddam also used gas against the Kurdish village of Halabja. This would later be held up by Washington as a war crime when it wanted to topple Saddam, but at the time it remained silent.
Direct military intervention came with its naval build up in the Persian Gulf, beginning in July 1987, when it announced US warships would escort Kuwaiti oil tankers through the Persian Gulf. It was the biggest US naval deployment since Vietnam. The US effectively blocked Iranian supply lines of food and war material, hampering its oil exports, while allowing Iraqi tankers free passage. As clashes developed the Americans took out the bulk of the Iranian navy.
By the summer of 1988 the Khomeini regime was faced with a desperate situation. Mounting losses, many caused by horrendous chemical injuries, and a collapsing economy meant the war could not go on.
With the US openly siding with Iraq, with American war ships on the offensive in the Gulf Tehran feared further such attacks. Khomeini sanctioned the beginning of peace talks via the United Nations. For Washington this was spun as a climbdown by Iran and a victory for the US.
Yet Washington was not satisfied. It had not had its revenge for what had happened in 1979. In 2001 George W. Bush added Iran to the so-called “Axis of Evil” post 9/11 despite the fact that it abhorred Al Qaeda because of its hatred towards the Shia. Then came the protracted standoff over Iran’s nuclear programme and the imposition of severe sanctions by the US and its allies. That did not work in the way Washington hoped. Earlier there had been large scale protests following a general election in Iran, which the US hoped would topple the Islamic Republic but which it survived.
The way Iran was treated over the nuclear issue aroused nationalist sentiment and many of those who’d been on the streets backed the government versus Obama.
Now Trump is intent, it appears, on turning the clock back. Ignoring the fact Iran is allied with Russia and, to a degree, China. It is a dangerous move. Iran is not Iraq or Afghanistan and has historically demonstrated its military capacity. This is one more reason to keep on the streets against the Donald.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.