Re-Thinking the United States’ Relationship with Iran

The U.S. holds long-standing, relatively hostile relationships with several Middle Eastern countries. Iran is no exception. The past is marked with several tenuous agreements, such as the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, when both sides agreed that the U.S. would lift sanctions if Iran agreed to halt its nuclear research. Following President Trump’s pull-out of the Iran nuclear deal and subsequent reinstatement of harsh sanctions, the unfriendly relationship between the two countries has become even more aggressive. This came to a head on January 3rd, when the U.S. assassinated Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military figure, as he arrived in Iraq to meet with politicians and military allies [1]. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei vowed “severe revenge” on the U.S., but as of yet, the only retaliation has been to launch 12-15 missiles at several Iraqi bases housing U.S. forces, with many believing that Iran “deliberately chose targets that would not result in loss of life” [2]. 

For now, the de-escalation of tensions between Iran and the U.S. suggest that the U.S. will not engage in military conflict in Iran. But for a few days it felt that the United States was at the precipice of another decades-long conflict in the Middle East. But the consistent threat of violence forces not only Americans and Iranians, but rather the entire international community to confront the fact that the United States has been involved in the economic and political affairs of the region for far too long. For the sake of international economic and political stability, it is time for the United States to reconsider its level of involvement in the Middle East and its relationship with Iran.

Before tensions rose in early January, the relationship that the United States had with Iran did not strike many Americans as fundamentally distinct than those we have with other powerful Middle Eastern countries. Even after the killing of Soleimani, 77 percent of registered voters surveyed couldn’t identify Iran on a map [3]. Those who read or watch American news sources are well aware of the hostility the United States faces in the region as a whole, but Americans often have a difficult time understanding the positions of different countries in the Middle East. Iran is a fundamentally different country than Iraq or Afghanistan. The 1979 Iranian Revolution saw the end of amicable relationships between the U.S. and Iran, when the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran was forced to leave the country, and Islamic religious leader Ayatollah Khomeni became the supreme leader of the new Islamic Republic [6]. Since this point, the United States and Iran have held no formal diplomatic relations, and the U.S. has generally maintained tight sanctions on Iran, beginning in the early 2000’s. President Bush denounced Iran as part of the ‘axis of evil’, while the Obama administration attempted to relieve some of these long-held anxieties toward Iranian governance [6]. However, the Trump administration continues to push a more confrontational approach. 

It is important to understand the United States’ past relationship with Iran in order to understand not only the severity of killing Soleimani, but how United States officials use rhetoric and political tactics to keep the U.S. deeply engrained in Iranian politics and the Middle East. For Americans who lived through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the ‘90s and 2000s, how politicians and pundits respond to Soleimani’s death feels like deja vu. Both the Trump and Bush administrations emphasized the “imminent threat” posed by a Middle Eastern country, and claimed that drastic actions like the killing of Soleimani or the invasion of Iraq were imperative to keeping America safe. There have been several ‘close calls’ under the Trump administration when it seemed as though we would enter conflicts in Asia, South America, or the Middle East, but the discourse around the Iran conflict feels distinctively different. This time, not only did the Trump administration, Republicans, military officials and conservative pundits push for intervention, but plenty of Democrats and otherwise anti-war officials also claimed that Iran forced our hand, and encouraged the U.S. to continue to retaliate with force. Even seemingly progressive Democratic candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg seem to only have procedural concerns that Trump did not consult Congress before killing Soleimani, rather than wholly condemning the act itself. Most Democratic politicians agree with the basic premise that Soleimani was in fact a terrorist, responsible for killing hundreds of Americans. But we often don’t question why those Americans were even there.

The U.S. has been involved in the Middle East since the Cold War, but the United States’ presence has increased drastically since the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. has become so deeply intertwined in Middle Eastern affairs that any notion that we should leave is considered out of the question. Our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have directly and indirectly resulted in the deaths of 250,000 civilians. This doesn’t even account for those who have died through regional destabilization [4]. Unfortunately, America’s forever-war in the Middle East is rapidly becoming standard operating procedure. Children born after 2001 have never known a United States that wasn’t at war or in some sort of conflict in the Middle East.

The death of Soleimani, an iconic albeit controversial figure in Iran, says much more about the state of America’s soul. For many Americans, it is natural that the U.S. should so heavily intervene in a region that any political or military officials in the Middle East, like Soliemani, who oppose U.S. presence are deemed terrorists. As Senator Sanders pointed out in his response to the missile attack, “It is rarely the children of the billionaire class who face the agony of reckless foreign policy” [5]. The rhetoric pro-war politicians use will never affect them, or their children, the way that it will affect the most vulnerable populations both in the Middle East and in the United States. The wars we engage in are dishonest, expensive, and large populations of veterans come home with irreversible damage. U.S. officials critically need a drastic re-understanding of what international projects are worthwhile.

The killing of Soleimani was an act of war, and luckily the Iranian government decided to not retaliate as harshly as they could have. The United States needs to use this opportunity to pursue non-aggressive options in order to restore amicable relations with Iran. Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister told Germany’s Der Spiegel that he would “never rule out the possibility that people will change their approach and recognize the realities”, asserting the idea that Iran would be open to renegotiating a nuclear deal or teaching an agreement peacefully [7]. For the sake of Iranian and American lives, it is time that the U.S. pursued a softer relationship with Iran. 

[1] https://www.businessinsider.com/what-qassem-soleimani-was-doing-in-iraq-before-assassination-2020-1

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-51042156

[3] https://www.newsweek.com/poll-americans-cant-locate-iran-map-1481346

[4] https://jacobinmag.com/2020/01/iran-bombing-us-base-no-war

[5] https://www.cnbc.com/2020/01/03/bernie-sanders-criticizes-us-killing-of-iranian-general-soleimani.html

[6] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-24316661
[7] https://www.timesofisrael.com/iranian-fm-tehran-still-willing-to-negotiate-with-us/

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Camille Cressman

CAMILLE CRESSMAN is a senior from Southern California. She studies Political Science and English and served a mission in Sweden. Her academic interests include critical theory of literature and class structure, political economy, and grassroots mobilization. Her normal interests include embroidery, pretentious films, sewing, and angry political podcasts. After graduation, Camille plans on attending law school and working in either labor protection or family law

Camille Cressman

CAMILLE CRESSMAN is a senior from Southern California. She studies Political Science and English and served a mission in Sweden. Her academic interests include critical theory of literature and class structure, political economy, and grassroots mobilization. Her normal interests include embroidery, pretentious films, sewing, and angry political podcasts. After graduation, Camille plans on attending law school and working in either labor protection or family law

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