Yesterday, Iran escalated tensions that have been building for years in the Middle East by firing missiles at military bases in Iraq that house US and coalition forces. Early reports indicate that the Al Asad and Erbil military bases were fired upon from missiles within Iran, but there are no American casualties. Iran has also claimed direct responsibility for the attack, claiming that it is retaliation for the killing of Qassem Soleimani. These actions coming after recent escalations in which Iran shot down an American drone and attacked the US Embassy in Baghdad.
President Trump addressed the nation from the White House with Vice President Pence, Secretary of Defense Esper and other military leaders on January 8, 2020.
While tensions remain high right now and fingers are pointed across the political aisle in the United States over who is to blame for the escalation, it is important to note that tensions between Iran and not only the US but the rest of the world have been boiling for years.
Iran became a player on the world stage during World War II when Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin met in Tehran, the capital of Iran, to discuss the Allies next moves in the war. In 1953, Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was deposed in a coup backed by the United States in which Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was placed in power as a monarch. For over 20 years, the Shah would grab more and more power in the nation, and exiled outspoken Muslim leaders including Ruhollah Khomeini. In 1978, major protests broke out in Iran in what became the start of the Islamic Revolution.
In 1979, the Shah fled to the United States, and Khomeini returned from exile to form a new government that would eventually become the Islamic Republic of Iran under Shia Islam and led by a “Supreme Leader” or “Ayatollah.”
Tensions with the United States first ignited in November of 1979 when Iranians seized the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage. The hostage crisis would last for 444 days spanning both the Carter and Reagan administrations, with the Carter administration launching several failed negotiation and rescue attempts. Iran eventually stood down in 1981 when Ronald Reagan took the oath of office to become President of the United States.
In September of 1980, a Saddam Hussein led Iraq invaded Iran aiming to reduce Iran’s growing influence in the region. The war would end in 1988, but would mark the beginning of tensions between Iran and a number of Arab nations in the region that would last for years.
During the 1980’s the Iranian military grew increasingly bold across the globe, backing numerous attacks against other Arab states, the United States, France and other nations. This led to the United States formally declaring Iran a major sponsor of terrorism in 1984 following an attack on the US Embassy in Lebanon. In the 1990’s during the Clinton administration, sanctions were expanded on the Iranian regime as hostilities increased. However, in 1997, it appeared reform in Iran could be achieved when “reformist” cleric Mohammed Khatami was elected President. However, hardliners in Iran from the Ayatollah to the Guardian Council rejected any easing of tensions with the United States.
In the 1990’s the Iranians also turned their hostilities towards Israel, funding numerous terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, and used their Quds Force to carry out attacks against Israel across the globe.
In the early 2000s, the Middle East changed even further with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the revelation that Iran had enriched uranium and was moving full steam ahead on developing nuclear technology. Despite concerns, Iran insisted it was using the uranium for energy capabilities, not weapons. This has not been proven or denied, but is not believed by the United States or its allies. This has led to talks to encourage Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment, which Iran resisted for years.
Tensions in the 2000s also rose due to the dangerous rhetoric of Iranian leaders, notably President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has made repeated aggressive statements throughout his tenure. In 2005, Ahmadinejad stated that Israel “must be wiped off the map” and worked with dangerous forces like Soleimani to oppose Iran in the Middle East. He has also repeatedly stated that “Jews invented the Holocaust” and that the United States government was behind 9/11. These statements have made Ahmadinejad the international face of phrases like “death to America” and “death to Israel.”
Between 2010 and 2012, Iran faced a number of setbacks to its nuclear program following the deaths of several major scientists and a cyber attack that crippled its program. Both Israel and the United States have been suspected to be involved, but no proof has ever been put forward.
In 2015, the Obama administration led an effort with Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia to reach an agreement on nuclear energy in Iran. Iran promised to reduce its nuclear ambitions, slash the number of active centrifuges and disable parts of its key reactor if the US, UN and EU would reduce sanctions. Critics of the deal claim that it was weak and that it only continues to embolden a dangerous Iran, and that they can pick up their nuclear capabilities at full steam in a matter of days.
In 2016, the Obama administration came under fire when Iran captured two US Navy boats and held sailors hostage for 15 hours. The Obama administration called the “quick” release a benefit of new negotiations, while Republicans criticized the weak response by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. Further criticisms centered around a payment of over $150 billion to the Iranians around the same time, with Republicans calling it a “ransom.”
In the 2010’s the US-Iranian relationship became further complicated with the rise of ISIS and the Syrian Civil War. For a period of time, US and coalition forces were on the same side of Russian and Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq in an effort to push ISIS back. However, since the downfall of ISIS, Iranian backed militias have turned their attention back towards coalition forces, which has led to the US elimination of Soleimani who was directing some of the attacks against US troops in the region. The Iranians have also increased their cyber capabilities in the past decade, and have been responsible for a number of attempted cyber attacks on US interests.
In 2018, President Trump announced the United States would walk away from the “disastrous” Iran deal, and reimposed sanctions on the nation, and has pursued a more hard line stance on the rogue nation.
Since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have also steadily increased. While there was a sense of a “cold war” between the two sides for several decades, the 2011 Arab Spring reignited tensions. Currently, Saudi Arabia and Iran are involved in a dangerous proxy war in Yemen, with Saudi Arabia and the United States backing the current Yemeni government against several factions, one led by Iranian backed rebels the other backed by ISIS and al Qaeda.
Are you confused yet? The situation in Iran is not so black and white. Iran’s actions across the globe and their use of proxy fighters in the Middle East have complicated tensions. While the United States has avoided direct conflict with Iran in the past, that may not last forever. A direct conflict right now would be a mistake, but it would also be improper to ignore Iran’s continued and increasing aggression.
The day after the missile strike, President Trump addressed the nation from the White House. In this speech, he called for additional sanctions and for other members of NATO, notably Britain, France and Germany, to step up their efforts in the Middle East. President Trump did not announce further military actions in Iran, but that the United States would keep up its pressure and that Iran will never have a nuclear weapon.
It is important to understand Iran’s history of aggression to analyze the next steps during these dangerous times. While Iran will likely not completely back down, it is important for the United States and its allies to remain strong and united to deter any escalation of Iranian violence. Only time will tell if President Trump’s recent moves will pay off in the long haul. But if the Iranians do not respond further, it appears that President Trump and the United States made the right move and won this round against the Iranians.
For more analysis on the Middle East, check out my latest book “America 2020: The Grand American Political Landscape” available today on Amazon.