When analyzing events in foreign countries, it is important not to overemphasize the importance of one’s own – all politics are local, as they say, and every election is determined by a variety of factors, most of them internal. At the same time, a country the size of the United States inevitably has an impact on every country it interacts with, and ignoring that impact is just as dangerous as overemphasizing its importance in explaining a given event. These are important considerations in analyzing the recent election in Iran, which was won by the relative hardliner Ebrahim Raisi. The American-Iranian relationship goes back decades and has changed dramatically from the 1940’s to the positions both countries find themselves in today. While it is true, and important to remember, that America is not responsible for all of the hardships that the Iranian people suffer and that the Iranian government finds itself facing, it is also true that when America chooses to make life more difficult for a nation and its people, it generally succeeds in doing precisely that.
To this point, when the Brookings Institute, a generally thoughtful and reasonable think tank, all things considered, frames the actions of America’s 45th President as having little to do with the inner political, social or domestic trends of the nation during the latter portions of the administration of still-Iranian-President Hassan Rouhani, one cannot help but take umbridge from the historical standpoint. Although it would be overly simplistic and indeed America-centric to hold him fully responsible for events in Iran, former American President Donald Trump must be held to the proper account for those things he did regarding the nation and the effects they have had and are still having on the American-Iranian relationship; the latest Iranian Presidential election is further evidence of this influence. At the same time, his predecessors too, with the exception of Barack Obama, deserve blame in equal or greater proportions; it is this nearly continuous thread of diplomatic folly regarding Iran, or even abuse of them in some instances, that America and its people must better understand in order to make real progress on this most dire of international fronts.
The 2021 Iranian Presidential Election of June 18 was the freshest opportunity for the people of the nation of Iran to choose the direction of this largely theocratic Islamic Republic and serves as a great example of the toxic effects that negative American actions can have on a nation it dislikes, even should that disdain not turn into militarized conflict. As per the Iranian Constitution, the twice victorious moderate President Rouhani was ineligible to run for a third consecutive term, yet could theoretically attempt for a single third term in four years, similarly to how former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has attempted to in this past two elections; his disqualification by both the Ayatollah and Guardian Council demonstrates the political strength each still possesses in Iran today. And so ultimately, the field was full of candidates that, according to various reports, no one actually liked very much. While reportedly hundreds of names offered themselves up for this election across the spectrum of Iranian political thought, only seven were actually afforded the opportunity to be on the ballot itself; out of those seven, only one or two, Mohsen Mehralizadeh and perhaps Abdolnaser Hemmati, might have been describable as anything close to a moderate.
The winner of the largely-boycotted-election, hardliner judge Ebrahim Raisi, who has also been seen as an eventual replacement for the current Supreme Leader of the nation, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was foreseen by those following the developments in the nation closely; I will be writing regarding him more intimately in the coming weeks. While Khameni and soon-to-be-former-President Rouhanni vocally condemned the closed election with so many competing candidates and ideas floating about, the oligarchic bureaucracy of the nation, The Guardian Council, likely and ironically at the subtle or overt behest of the Ayatollah himself, acted in a reactionary manner regarding the lack of tangible, material progress won for Iran under eight years of a relatively moderate, largely reformist minded administration.
Hassan Rouhani, by contrast with his soon-to-be-successor, is a worldly gentleman and was a complex and worldly Iranian President. Within Iran’s defense establishment he was a notable figure during the 1980’s and was a Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council- which answers directly to the Ayatollah himself – for nearly 20 years. He spent years in Europe on multiple occasions, including his later post-graduate studies in Scotland at the University of Glasgow Calcedonia as well as during his time as the chief nuclear negotiator in the latter portions of the Presidency of Mohammad Khatami. The international and domestic respect that he had earned over decades would only come to aid him once he ran for, and eventually became, President of Iran.
This man, as imperfect as he is, acted with as much foresight as he was able. He negotiated the majority of the landmark Iranian Nuclear Deal with America and the European powers in order to not only free his nation from some of the stifling sanctions under which it had struggled for decades, but to also alleviate the tangible and metaphysical burden of rage that these and various other actions had imposed upon the people and nation themselves. He looked to end a distrust and disdain for the nations and people perceived as externally responsible for suppressing them, even as the people of Iran continue to fight internal repression at home.
Yet where Barack Obama could be reasoned with, Donald Trump simply could not. Even before the Nuclear deal was revoked by the Trump administration, during days where the President was simply antagonizing the nation in various ways in 2018, as the Brookings Institute again noted in wonderful detail, moderates in Iran were beginning to lose the public opinion of the people of Iran. The analysis discusses how events ranging from the choice of figures in Rouhani’s second cabinet to those events of which transpired during what are now referred to as the “Dey protests”, cast Moderates and Reformists, whether fairly or not, as no less reactionary and prone to violence than their fundementalist, conservative opposition, which has led to a sort of sociopolitical blowback which continues to reverberate throughout the nation.
And while the analysis is insightful and makes sure to illustrate the domestic intricacies of Iran, while also making distinctions regarding what America can and cannot control or impact within the Iranian polisphere and society-at-large, I take exception to an intimated notion of the piece. The writers seek to demonstrate the domestic social and political nuance of Iran while also diminishing the absolutely unrelenting pressure that Donald Trump put upon the nation and regime, as well as its effects, both before and after the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was abandoned by America. In doing so, however, they themselves diminish the entire American-Iranian relationship over the last forty years at least, in lieu of this compartmentalized, entirely detached interpretation of this particular history and relationship. To say it differently, while Trump himself only served a four year Presidential term and could only effect so much either positively or negatively, the prior American administrations, largely excluding Barack Obama’s, certainly did almost everything they could to negatively harm Iran and thus push it in a reactionary direction. That influence is not just “reset” with the election of a new administration of course; it all simply continues to compound upon the past, morphing and further evolving with all that has happened, all that is happening, and all that will happen should no true solution be found moving forward.
Donald Trump and his Presidency were simply the cherries on top so to speak; the coup de grâce after the concerted and nearly undeviating effort to wear the nation down and into submission. From Carter to Trump, with only eight to ten years of reasonable diplomacy out of 40, angst has developed further within a relationship that wasn’t exactly sparkling before the Islamic Revolution either. This particular concerted effort has worn away at Iran over time, yet is just one layer of the foundation this current conundrum of international relations is built upon; these layers cannot all be dismissed, with the relationship restarted because of the short lived successes of the Obama administration during the late Ahmadinejad, early Rouhani periods. While the Iranian Revolution, the subsequent, ensuing hostage crisis and Iran-Iraq War are three critical events to properly understand how the American-Iranian diplomatic dynamic has evolved to where it is today, to understand how that generation of Iranians reached those particular points, it is important to go back farther still, to Operation Ajax at the very least, if not further still, back to the moment in 1921 when the course of Iranian history was so massively altered for the first time during the 20th century.
A short history
While Iran was a western ally between the late 1940’s to late 1970’s, it was allowed to behave regarding human rights in much the same way as Saudi Arabia permitted to behave by America, because of American economic interests, today. When Iran sought to weaponize its democracy to empower its nation and peoples against economic imperialism, its unique brand of democracy, along with its chosen leader, each in near simultaneous succession were deemed to be communistic and not democratic after all by those powerful western nations. To understand the pivotal events of 1951, 1953 or 1979, one must first go to the early 1900’s. The Pahlavi Dynasty was a relatively new and short lived monarchy of Iran, having replaced the far older Qajar Dynasty that had persevered for the nearly 150 preceding years; the Pahlavi impact on Iranian history, however, was much greater than its longevity would suggest. It officially came into power in 1925, once the English had helped to foment a coup d’etat against the Soviet-backed Qajar Shah and Dynasty in 1921.The first Shah of this new dynasty, known colloquially as Reza Shah, would become far less famous than his son, yet his timbre, dealings, ideas, actions and fury would touch both his nation, as well as the son who would eventually supplant him as monarch of the nation.
As the Second World War continued to gain global scope, the sudden strategic location and resources of Iran, alongside its leaders disposition towards Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany and the Axis Powers, put the allies in a delicate position. Should Iran fall into the Axis powers either by cooperation or military means, the likes of Germany and Italy would have a desperately needed cache of resources, as well as another potential ally. The Allies solution? The joint Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in late-August, early-September of 1941. Reza Shah was forced in this incident to abdicate the throne not even 20 years after the United Kingdom had helped he and Sayyid Zia od-Din Tabatabaʾi topple the Qajar Dynasty, in favor of his son, the quite famous Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi; that this began a contested and difficult political period in and for Iran cannot and should not be understated.
The young Monarch would sit on the throne for most of the nearly 40 years that preceded the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79, yet in the years directly following WWII, the Shah would come to rule in drastically divergent ways than many within the Parliament of the nation would see fit. One individual who disagreed with the young Shah was an older man, a former MP from a famous Iranian intellectual family of which had royal, Qajar roots, and one whose life had been dedicated to championing reformist ideas and humanism in Iran from both within and without the former Qajar monarchy, as well as in the years after it fell to the Pahlavi Dynasty. This man, Mohammad Mossadegh, would become one of the most influential figures in not only Iranian history, but also in the greater context of 20th century history as well.
When in 1951, the former-MP and founding leader of the National Front of Iran was elected by the Iranian Majils, in a 79-12 vote, to serve as Prime Minister, he was chosen based on his promises to the Iranian people to create an Iran in which all people could live and thrive within. While he was able to lead the nation in an innovative direction through progressive taxation policies including the taxation of the rent of land, as well as political, social and land reforms and the creation of social security, it was his greatest ambition – Iranian control of its oil reserves – that would draw the west’s ire most viciously.
This most famous of proclamations regarding the oil of Iran, of which the Anglo-American conglomerates had previously enjoyed full and highly profitable access to in close partnership with the second Pahlavi Shah of Iran, was too revolutionary a thought for the western powers and their Iranian allies to condone. This friction would create a circumstance in the country of Iran itself which could be distilled into the simple dichotomy of being either supportive of the Shah and his prior policies, or of Mossadegh, who, while in no way a communist, looked to create a society which looked and operated, with broad Iranian influence of course, more similarly equitable to those nations of Europe in which he had spent years of his time in as a younger man.
When circumstances further developed to demonstrate that, at this time, the people of Iran supported not the Shah, but the Prime Minister, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fled, first to Baghdad, before ending up for years in Rome. With the proper luck, this might have resulted in a broad, sweeping revolution in Iran, but foreign intervention halted this revolution before it could begin. The Eisenhower administration would instead take action in Iran much the same way it would in the coming years in both Guatemala and Vietnam as well.
In this instance, the CIA, alongside the United Kingdom’s MI6, helped to foment yet another coup in Iran, their second in just over thirty years, to help to return the formerly deposed Shah of Iran to his nation and drive Mossadegh out of power. The Shah would, in the decades succeeding this event, become known for many modernizing innovations within Iran, yet his reign was largely based on repression of which was enforced by the particularly brutal SAVAK secret police. It was this relentless repression across the next 25 years that forced religious dissidents like Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers out of Iran from 1964 until the Revolution finally expelled the Shah from power. While this Pahlavi rule was considered to be largely secular, the despotic extension of government power and influence from religion, to speech and culture, was not unlike how the Iranian theocracy functions in 2021.
When the Ayatollah finally returned to Iran from this aforementioned exile during the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the American-Iranian relationship would quickly deteriorate from its previous position as the Carter administration, against the President’s personal feelings on the matter, accepted the asylum request of the now-sickly former-Shah of Iran. Carter also, right after the hostage crisis began, levied the first American sanctions against Iran. This particular abetment of the Shah, now wanted by the new Iranian government to stand in court for his crimes against Iran and its peoples, was, in fact, the decisive reason why the Iranians took hostages at the embassy.
Things did not improve for America and Iran with the Reagan or Bush administrations either. As America practically and tactically supported Saddam Heussein in the Iran-Iraq War, it shares responsibility for enabling the Iraqi use of targeted chemical weapons against Iran in this conflict. The US also attacked Iranian oil rigs during Operation Nimble Archer, a sub-mission of Operation Earnest Will, later deemed in international court to have not been “justifiable as self-defense”.The Iranian President throughout much of this time, the future-second-Ayatollah and first cleric to serve in this capacity, Ali Khamenei, won on a fundementalist platform of which the conservative American Presidents were more than happy to use against him politically. While the moderately conservative government of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani held office for two terms from 1989 until 1997, during which further sanctions were levied by America, the succeeding eight years saw a real moderate President of Iran in former Iranian Minister of Culture Mohammad Khatami; yet this did not translate into greater multilateral cooperation while either Bill Clinton or George W Bush held the Presidency.
Bush the Younger, not to be outdone by Clinton or his own father, called Iran a part of the modern “Axis of Evil”, which is of course, a terrible way to diplomatically endear yourself to any nation, let alone one that had been operating with a relative political moderate known for his reformist efforts like President Mohammad Khatami over the previous years. The nation was indeed, actively cooperating with America and its allies in the post-9/11 struggle to counteract al Qaeda and the Taliban and so, Bush uttering these words can truly be seen as a single moment in which the massive opportunity to build trust and empathy with a nation with such deep historical anxiety regarding America was simply squandered. It was not until the administration of Barack Obama that the American diplomatic hand was finally played most correctly regarding Iran, despite the fact that the Obama administration had to first negotiate the Iranian Nuclear Deal with the administration of the now-allegedly-former hardline Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In my work regarding the wider history of the conflict, of which snippets will be available as a series on my substack, I go into further detail and analysis regarding the intertwined history of both Iran and America. Yet returning to the idea at hand; the notion that Donald Trump can’t be blamed for the shift in Iranian public political opinion, to any discernible degree, feels a bit naive to state it frankly. While no one should ever discount the domestic happenings within a nation which are often largely independent of foregin affairs, to suggest that someone who happens to be the single most powerful figure in the world, who was actively and passively pressuring Iran, intimating that he would void their best opportunity to join and subsequently stay within the international community, for alleged violations that, somehow, only Israel was able to “uncover”, is laughable in the extreme and, frankly, unbelievable: Donald Trump is responsible for his fair share of the blame regarding Iran, even if American foriegn policy under his predecessors is responsible to an even greater degree.
To extrapolate the false logic of this Brookings Institute position further, one might ask whether, without the natural provocation that occurred with the shock victory and administration of Donald Trump as 45th President, the moderates and public of Iran might’ve still perceived their cause to be going nowhere? Hassan Rouhanni might have made different cabinet choices in his second term without these external pressures, influencing the internal pressures of his nation. By 2021, it should’ve been six years of full cooperation between all parties in the Iranian Nuclear Deal, and the economic climate in the nation should have improved across that time prior to the advent of COVID-19; at the very least, Qassem Soleimani would be living, while the life of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh might too have been spared, for better and worse.
The work of moderate Presidents like Rouhanni and his political forebear Mohammad Khatami might still be bearing domestic fruit and might still inspire progress had a less militantly anti-Iranian President taken office. International cooperation, without useless sanctions, might’ve created a better and more healthy social, economic and political climate. A better economically and politically integrated and cooperating Iran might have gotten the help it desperately needs for its opiate addicted population, and surely would not have had to deal with this plague of COVID-19 in relative isolation; the Ayatollah might very well have graciously accepted, instead of disregarding and dismissing, the proposed American aid package and agreement during the earlier days of the crisis too. At the very least Iran as a nation would have had better access to potential help or innovations during the worst parts of the first year-and-a-half of the pandemic. This mutually shared struggle through the hardest of times might have fostered a new international trust and perspective regarding America after the first 20 years of the 21st century.
Yet as history stands, none of these positive developments have occurred. The election of Donald Trump was as much a declaration of American obstinance to the progress and reconciliation regarding the American-Iranian relationship as the eventual declaration Trump would make regarding the future of the nation of Iran when he pulled America from cooperating within the JCPOA would be. The assasination of Soleimani was simply, in fact, another missed diplomatic opportunity which further fractured trust and the potential for practical relations. And thus, while the notions proclaimed by the Brookings Institute report remain reasonable to state to certain varying degrees, I find its headline to be a bit simplistic; America’s relationship with Iran was not suddenly fraught after nearly forty years of tension. Rather it was, if for only eight years, more reasonable for the first time in decades once the 44th President took office. The Presidency of Donald Trump, on the other hand, simply aided the reactionaries of Iran in fomenting frustration with the speed of progress gained by attempted diplomacy instead of pushing forward with nuclear innovations in disregard of an America that did not honor its word at a most crucial period in American-Iranian relations, while adding to the frustrations felt by moderates and reformists themselves.
We must ask ourselves genuinely, is Donald Trump not guilty of pushing Iran towards further reactionary means, simply because his forebears generally did so with fairly consistent levels of aggression and indifference before him? That logic, in fact, seems patently absurd, for the Presidency of Barack Obama, as well as that of Donald Trump, demonstrated that a President can definitely change the course of relations between two nations when the conditions are right; to this end, Trump might have, had he wished to, perpetuated positive, perhaps even more advanced relations with Iran, having developed nothing to replace his predecessors deal with other than the previously championed status quo, yet he chose to cancel, “one of the worst deals I’ve ever seen” without offering even a whiff of his own innovation across the rest of his time in office.
Donald Trump is guilty at the very least of perpetuating the failed, tactless callousness that over decades pushed Iran further and further towards the outer edges of the international community. He is, moreover, guilty of unnecessary escalation of tensions with and within Iran, alongside the legacy that will accompany his unilateral destruction of a major piece of international diplomatic progress. Might the Iranian Nuclear Deal have been a better agreement? Better for all parties in fact? Surely the answer is yes, to both questions; yet to use a popular turn of phrase, it is imprudent to, “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
What comes next for both America and Iran
That, however, is precisely what the Trump administration chose to do, and the provocations that began while the 45th President was just a candidate ensured that the most toxic elements of the American-Iranian relationship might be exploited by the more conservative, reactionary and frustrated elements of both countries. It stopped the attempted and successful progress of President Hassan Rouhani dead in its tracks, killing the momentum that had been gained by creating a means by which the nation might escape international excommunication. Donald Trump instead ordered the assasination of a leading national figure, who just so happens to have been the nation’s foremost military General; that the COVID-19 virus would overtake the world soon thereafter would only be compounded by all of these breaches in trust, treaty, etiquette and international law.
The Trump administration’s strategy of “Maximum Pressure” did not force the hand of Iranian leaders in this instance, just as sanctions have not previously. After angering, damaging and attacking the nation for his entire Presidency to that point, the aid offered by the Trump administration during the earlier days of the global pandemic was rejected swiftly and with disdain. Many might look at this and say that, in this instance, America did try to help Iran, yet nations, as with the people that constitute them, tend not to trust their abusers after being abused so many times prior. Ultimately therefore, this abuse that America renewed even before Donald Trump officially pulled America out of the JCPOA has thus far culminated in allowing for a heavily sanctioned nation to suffer through a severe and continuous opioid crisis, as well as the calamitous global COVID-19 pandemic without any real empathy or even superficially altruistic support. When all of this is added to the domestic developments of the nation of Iran and its society itself, alongside the history of American-Iranian relations, it should not surprise many that a figure like Ebrahim Raisi should become President.
And so both America and Iran will continue to suffer from over 40 years of diplomatic missteps until the blunder of the Trump administration regarding the Iranian Nuclear Deal is corrected; however, as the early Biden administration has put on full view, it is not so easy to rebuild trust so recently and intensely fractured. Iran has balked at having international inspectors appraise its facilities as a prelude to further dialogue regarding the international agreement they were unfairly punished for “violating”, maintaining that it will not cooperate in this way until its international disabilities are removed and some type of new deal or at least revised old deal can be agreed upon.
This seems reasonable, for the Iranian Nuclear Deal was revoked unilaterally by Donald Trump, despite the pleading of the European nations involved, after shoddy evidence introduced by Benjamin Netanyahu at the United Nations had contradicted what previous bands of international investigators had long held – that Iran was abiding by the terms of the agreement and should not be punished. Why should Iran agree to this provision after good faith has been previously broken so severely, and for no tangible infraction at all? While the dynamics of Iranian foreign policy are more nuanced and intense than simply who sits as the President, it cannot be expected that the highly reactionary, theocratic soon-to-be-President will be more diplomatically pliable than the moderate, seasoned ex-diplomat had been; on the other hand, there have been whispers coming out of Iran that Raisi has been willing to listen to rival factions and ideas from within the Iranian polisphere. Whether this means that the President-elect, who Amnesty International suggests should be instead, investigated for “crimes against humanity”, will be an amiable partner during negotiations remains of course, to be seen; developments between Iran and China could too help to push the United States further towards cooperation once again, yet the EU and other western nations, like France, now appear wary themselves of Iran. And so, with all of this understood, America will likely have to compromise with Iran, and perhaps to a greater degree than last time in order to attempt, once again, to make any progress regarding relations between the two nations moving into the third decade of the 21st century.
For Joe Biden, with a hostile Republican Party attempting to expose perceived weaknesses at any and every turn, this diplomacy and its merits, if not properly understood by the American people, could be politically calamitous for the 46th President in the by and next Presidential elections. An America which understands the benefits of reconciliation and cooperation better than they did when Barack Obama attempted as much, however, would see this innovation as one that creates the best possibility for a better, safer, more cooperative world and international community, of which all might be able to enjoy and positively impact. And yes, this includes Iran and its great and beautifully diverse people, of all backgrounds and cultures as well.
Featured Image is Ebrahim Raisi by Mostafameraji