How Neocons Destroyed a Chance for Peace with Iran After 9/11
While most of the headlines the Trump administration has made on foreign policy have tended to focus on Syria and North Korea, the President’s approach to Iran may end up being the most important. The appointment of infamous hawk John Bolton, whose career goal has been to spark regime change in Tehran, is understandably seen as an indicator that Trump may abandon his campaign rhetoric opposing regime change in the Middle East in the case of the Ayatollah. As does Trump’s blossoming bromance with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who recently said the supreme leader of Iran “makes Hitler look good.”
As the decision of whether or not the US should continue to honor the Iran Deal has re-emerged in the news, it’s worth looking back to 2001 to re-evaluate an overlooked moment of US-Iranian relations: the brief period of time where Iran became a military ally to the United States.
When criticizing the foreign policy of the United States in the age of the war on terror, Ron Paul would often discuss the concept of blowback. One of the greatest examples of this was obviously the Iranian Revolution, when secular Iranians joined with Islamic fundamentalists in rising up against the Shah regime after years of intervention by the US on behalf of the Pahlavi dynasty. In the aftermath, the secular liberals of Iran were overwhelmed by the Islamic theocrats led by Ayatollah Khomeini. The result is the Islamic Republic of Iran that exists today.
As a direct revolt to a western-backed regime, revolutionary Iran was inherently hostile to the United States. The Iran hostage crisis helped bring down the presidency of Jimmy Carter and led to America’s support of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. It also imposed sanctions again the country, though that didn’t stop members of the US government from selling missiles to Iran during that time. While some attempts were made to de-thaw relations between the two countries during the H.W. Bush Administration, all progress was wiped away when the Clinton Administration ordered a full embargo of Iran in 1995.
Then 9/11 happened.
The Iranian government condemned the attacks, while citizens of the country took to streets with candles to remember the victims. Then the Iran government offered military assistance to the United States in their efforts against Afghanistan and al Qaeda.
In the words of James Dobbins, the Bush administration's chief negotiator on Afghanistan, the Iranian’s were "comprehensively helpful", sharing intel and helping organize regional allies for action against the Taliban — including putting American forces in contact with the Northern Alliance.
For a moment, it looked like 9/11 could have been the catalyst for a new era of relations between the US and Iran.
Then in 2002, David Frum was asked by President George W. Bush to write his State of the Union address. In the eyes of Frum and fellow Neoconservatives in the Bush Administration, Iran’s vital assistance to the US in the “War on Terror” did not excuse their continued hostility to Israel. As such, Iran was bundled together with their rival Iraq and the regime of North Korea as “the Axis of Evil.” The Bush Administration made Iran out to be allies to the same foe the two sides had been working against for the past five months — to the joy of the Saudi Arabia royal family that assisted the 9/11 hijackers.
While this decision was a bad look for the reliability of doing business to the United States, the consequences within Iran itself were significant. The biggest losers in Bush’s speech were anti-cleric moderates within the country. Those three words eliminated all hopes of Iran benefiting from improved economic relations with the US, which would have given them a political advantage within the country.
With outreach to the West now dead, the Iranian government sought to consolidate support from within by stoking anti-US sentiment and appealing to Islamic hardliners within the country. They picked an engineer from a small village in Northern Iran who had risen to the ranks of mayor of Tehran — Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As Valir Nasr describes in his book, The Rise of Islamic Capitalism, the clerics considered him "the perfect vehicle for stirring up the populist and revolutionary fervor of the lower classes and beating back a rising tide of reformist sentiment.”
Ahmadinejad did what he was expected to do. He was a populist champion for Iranian fundamentalists who despised the West and wanted to see Israel wiped off the map. In response to both his rhetoric and re-commitment to Iran’s nuclear program, the UN imposed new sanctions on the country. The US followed up with attacks on Iran’s banking system.
Interestingly, by the time Ahmadinejad’s presidency came to the end, he had managed to lose the favor of the Ayatollah. Key supporters of Ahmadinejad were arrested, government censors attacked his websites, and his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, has been barred from seeking the presidency.
Unfortunately these moves towards moderation have had little impact on the desire of neoconservative policy makers to demand Iranian regime change. Just as they destroyed an opportunity to solidly relations under Bush, John Bolton and his allies seek to prevent peace from happening under Trump. We have already seen the administration escalate sanctions on the country.
As Mises wrote in Omnipotent Government, “Modern war is not a war of royal armies. It is a war of the peoples, a total war.” This is as true in Iran as anywhere else.
While the rhetoric against Iran is usually directed towards the country’s theocratic government, it must be understood that it is the people of the country that have suffered most from the actions taken against them. Beyond the obvious inevitable collateral damage of a US led military operation against Iran, it has been innocent people — those most opposed to Ahmadinejad and Iranian fundamentalism — who have paid the dearest price for America’s long lasting economic war on the country.
If the Trump administration wants to serve the best interest of both America and anti-cleric forces in Iran, he should end US sanctions and re-open trade with the Persian economy.
Or he can act on the desires of John Bolton and the neoconservative doctrine, and continue to destroy Iran at the expense of the US.
Let it be known though that it didn’t have to be this way.