Why the US sees Iran’s Role and Behaviour in the Middle East as Malign and Dangerous
US officials and Western analysts accuse Iran of playing a malignant role and demonstrating dangerous behaviour in the Middle East. These accusations refer to its support for groups and countries such as Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Iran is also accused of “controlling four Arab capitals.” And here is Iran declaring, through its Minister of Intelligence Muhammad Alawi, that it “may pursue nuclear weapons if trapped,” as I had reported in recent months, citing Iranian decision-maker sources. Is the US-Iran relationship heading for further escalation, or might those concerned be convinced that it is time to sit around the negotiating table?
Iran is surrounded by 35 US military bases whose presence is intimidating to most Middle Eastern countries. Moreover, the US Sixth Fleet is stationed in the Mediterranean, and US Air squadrons based in the Middle East can reach any theatre of operation in the Middle East very fast. In comparison, the distance between Washington and the closest Arab capital lies the equivalent of ten thousand kilometres away whereas Iran, by its centrality, is one of the most important countries of the Middle East.
This phase of the US-Arab relationship goes back to 1940 when Washington offered protection to the Monarchies that dominated most Middle Eastern states. Kings and Emirs pass on the throne within their families and have no democratic electoral system since the foundation of their kingdoms, making them needy of robust US military protection. The Middle East meets about 27 per cent of the world’s need for oil, and 43 per cent of the gas reserves, and so the protection of oil and energy resources is undoubtedly one of the first American priorities.
In 2001, US forces occupied Afghanistan, in 2003 Iraq, and since its terrorist proxies began their war on Syria in 2011, the US has been occupying parts of that country. Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump and, as is expected, Joe Biden, have imposed sanctions on Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. Interventions of US forces in the Middle East have caused hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and many more wounded. The war on Yemen, together with US sanctions and starvation policies against Lebanon, Syria, Iran, have caused the largest humanitarian crisis in humankind’s history since World War II and left tens of millions suffering from hunger and malnutrition. All this could happen because the US administration considers itself above the law. Washington did not hesitate to impose sanctions even on the International Court of Justice and its criminal court judges, a court that the US itself agreed to establish in 2002, along with 120 countries, to judge war crimes, and whose authority is known as the “Rome Statute“.
The US-Iran relationship was also robust in the last century. It was US President Dwight Eisenhower who promoted nuclear energy and established the Iranian nuclear program in 1957. In 1967, the US supplied a nuclear research reactor to Tehran (Atom for Peace project) with a capacity of 5 megawatts and highly enriched uranium to supply the reactor with fuel. The reactor could produce up to 600 grams of plutonium annually from spent fuel, bringing Iran to the level of nuclear countries and clean energy producers.
US President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger visited the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran in 1972 and were his strongest supporters. The US administration wanted the Shah (strengthened by the British and US intelligence coup approved by President Eisenhower – US State Department official statements credited “the Iranian people, under the leadership of their Shah”, not the US and UK intelligence services – against the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh) to be “the Middle East leader.” In 1977, US arms sales to Iran reached 2.55 billion dollars annually.
However, Imam Khomeini’s arrival to power in 1979 transformed the close relationship into hostility following an Iranian referendum supporting an “Islamic Republic in Iran”. The US supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran and imposed sanctions on it in the same year. It froze $ 12 billions of Iranian oil money at that time. Sanctions on Iran have continued over the years, and to this day, Tehran has found itself labouring under the harshest sanctions in the World. This is what pushed Iran to turn towards self-protection and to gather allies in this struggle for survival. While Iran was under attack, Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. A Lebanese group asked Imam Khomeini to intervene to help drive out the occupying enemy (Israel). Iran found fertile ground to support the Lebanese to liberate their territory. Once Israel was forced to withdraw, “humiliated” by the pro-Iranian group Hezbollah, Iran enjoyed significant influence in Lebanon and maintains this influence to date.
In 2011, the US, Europe and dozens of other countries led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey supported the efforts of Takfiri Muslim extremists to topple President Bashar al-Assad, who asked Iran to intervene. Iran responded and was successful in preventing Assad’s Syrian government from falling and, in consequence, gained a solid foothold in the Levant.
In 2014, ISIS occupied a third of Iraq, and the US refused to deliver already paid-for weapons to Baghdad. Washington wanted to divide Iraq into three states to recreate a new, weak Middle East split by internal sectarian wars. Iran intervened at the request of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. A Fatwa of the highest religious authority in Iraq, Sayyed Ali al-Sistani, created the “Popular Mobilisation Forces” that Iran armed along with the remaining of the Iraqi security forces to stand to ISIS. Once again, the US provided Iran with a trigger, an opportunity to find and establish new allies in Mesopotamia. Likewise, the US war in Afghanistan and the US-Saudi war in Yemen offered golden opportunities for Iran to increase its influence (Ansar Allah – Houthis in Yemen), always thanks to the US interventions attempting regime-change.
Iran has become a manufacturer of precision ballistic missiles and armed drones that can reach a distance beyond 1500 kilometres, and a naval force with which it can close the Straits of Hormuz to suit its national security situation. From fighting Saddam Hussein with light weapons to becoming a nuclear country with the possibility to produce atomic weapons: no wonder the US refuses to lift the harsh sanctions on Iran, even as the Iranian intelligence minister has said.
But Iran, unlike the US, does not occupy any Arab capital: In Lebanon, part of the population stands behind Iran, although two-thirds of the population do not care what happens to Iran: some Lebanese stand against Iran and support the US, and others prefer Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or France.
In Syria, notwithstanding Iran’s substantial military and financial assistance to President Al-Assad and its affiliated forces fighting and dying in the Levant, President Al-Assad has another strategic relationship to deal with, that with Russia, which wants to be the influential country in Syria. Moreover, the Syrian president has refused to respond to over a thousand Israeli attacks and has rejected Iran’s advice to actively establish deterrence against Israel. However, Syria and Iran enjoy an excellent relationship even if they disagree on specific points. Iran respects Assad’s will to act according to what he believes to be in his country’s best interest.
As far as Afghanistan is concerned, the US initiated a dialogue with the Taliban and reached a deal in February 2020 to pull out of the country. After 20 years of war that cost the US $800 billion thus far and left tens of thousands of dead and wounded in Afghanistan, Washington is being forced to leave, with slender strategic results.
History has confirmed over the past forty years that the US interventions to change the map of the Middle East and reshuffle its borders have been the main factor in the increase of Iran’s influence in the Middle East and making it into a regional power. The US policy was devastating for the people of the Middle East. It was not only dangerous but highly destructive and counterproductive to the population, their assets and stability. The US politicians wipe away their own wrongdoing and accuse Iran of exerting a malign behaviour because it is gaining more influence and rejects submission to US hegemony. Washington is collecting failure after failure even though it has the most powerful military machine in the world, acting as though its leadership remained a brand leader.
However, notwithstanding US strength, Iran has not hesitated to confront US authority. With a “made in Iran” missile, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down the most expensive US drone that violated the Iranian airspace. Moreover, Iran bombed the most extensive US military base in Iraq to respond to the unlawful assassination of the Iranian brigadier general Qassem Soleimani. Also, Iran is increasing its nuclear capability and insisting that the US lift all sanctions. Otherwise, it is ready to continue its atomic program to complete the full nuclear cycle. The US has created all the circumstances for Iran to become a considerable regional power.
The Donal Trump and Joe Biden administrations have asked Iran to sit around the negotiating table to extend the nuclear deal and include control of the Iranian missiles and even interfere with the influence Iran enjoys over its allies in the Middle East. These requests are clear indications that the US is concerned about Iran’s efficient and growing power. There is no reason why Iran would want to submit to the US’s will when it is subject to harsh US sanctions. The US request is too costly for Iran to buy into, and Tehran instead realised that it must increase its deterrence. In broader terms, the grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei has vowed to expel the US from West Asia.
There is nothing really new in President Biden’s policy toward Iran. He continues the sanctions of his predecessor, Donald Trump although he may lift some sanctions from “humanitarian motives.” However, the big picture will not change because Tehran will not negotiate on issues which define and defend its national security. The US has succeeded in causing devastating human losses and inflicted severe damage to many Middle Eastern countries’ economies. Consequently, Iran’s “malign and destructive” role in the Middle East can be understood as a response to the absolute control the US attempts to exert over this part of the world through military interventions, waging wars and attempted regime change.