Iran and the West have long had an increasingly intertwined, and oftentimes combative, relationship. For most of World War I, the United Kingdom occupied most of the nation known at the time as Persia, fully withdrawing in 1921. That same year, however, the British supported a military coup over the ruling Qajar dynasty, which ended in the appointment of Reza Khan as Prime Minister. Four years later he was named the monarch of the country. Throughout the Shah’s rule of Iran, the UK continued to control the country’s oil through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. In the leadup to World War II, Reza Shah preferred doing business and receiving technical expertise from what would soon be Axis nations, rather than the Allies. This preference led to an allied invasion of Iran in 1941 and the forced abdication of the throne from Reza Shah to his son, Mohammad Reza Shah.
In 1951, Mohammad Mossadeq was appointed as the 35th Prime Minister and later that year took the controversial move to nationalize the oil industry, ending the British monopoly. Two years later, with the assistance of British Intelligence, the CIA carried out its first covert mission to depose a foreign nation’s government, creating a coup and successfully removed Mossadeq. With Mossadeq out of power, the Shah became a more authoritarian ruler, fully secularizing the nation and wielding secret police forces for extrajudicial arrests and tortures. After the oil crisis in 1973 saw oil prices spike, Iran experienced double-digit inflation, and followed that up with a recession.
Demonstrations against the Shah became serious early in 1978, due in large part to the abuses and alleged assassinations carried out by the secret police, as well as the rapid secularization policies alienating the religious core of the country. After a year, the Shah fled to the United States, Ayatollah Khomeini returned from his exile, and Iran was declared an Islamic Republic in April 1979. Due to their longstanding support for the Shah, as well as the active role they played in the coup against Mossadeq, the United States has been viewed as an enemy of Iran. This view was largely fueled during the Islamic revolution and was put on full display when the US Embassy in Tehran was stormed in November 1979, with 52 people in the embassy being taken hostage, a hostage crisis that lasted 14 months.
Since then, the tension between the US and Iran has remained. In his 2002 State of the Union address, then-President George W. Bush included Iran in his ‘axis of evil’ alongside Iraq and North Korea, particularly for their pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Later investigations confirmed that the pursuit of nuclear weapons ended that year, but the country continued to pursue civilian nuclear energy. The mere presence of enriched nuclear material in Iran led to several bouts of economic sanctions targeting the nuclear program, which were lifted with the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known colloquially as the Iran nuclear deal, in July 2015.
After the campaign leading up to his 2016 election, where he ran on the idea that the deal was a bad one for the United States that did little to prevent Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons, President Trump announced that the country would be violating the JCPOA. This would be following a 180-day transition period beginning May 8, 2018, after which “the highest level of economic sanctions” would be imposed on Iran. This announcement was justified on the grounds that, as Trump stated, “we cannot prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb under the decaying, rotten structure of the current agreement,” and that Iran was in fact building a nuclear program; a claim without compelling evidence. At the time, Iran, the deal’s European signatories, and Russia expressed regret at the decision, but Iran stated that the deal could survive without US participation. On November 5, 2018, the United States “fully re-imposed the sanctions on Iran that had been lifted or waived under the JCPOA.” According to the US Treasury Department, “(t)hese are the toughest U.S. sanctions ever imposed on Iran, and will target critical sectors of Iran’s economy, such as the energy, shipping and shipbuilding, and financial sectors. The United States is engaged in a campaign of maximum financial pressure on the Iranian regime and intends to enforce aggressively these sanctions that have come back into effect.”
Following the US’s violation of the JCPOA by re-imposing economic sanctions on Iran, the Islamic Republic begun to slowly indicate that it would be straying further from the deal, as well. On May 12, Gulf tensions began to grow as four commercial oil tankers were attacked off the coast of the UAE, “one was flying a UAE flag, two were tankers owned by Saudi Arabia, and the fourth was a Norwegian tanker.” While the culprit remained unknown, it was determined to be a state actor. A month later, on June 13 two more ships were attacked, one a Norwegian oil tanker and the second a Japanese chemical tanker. This occurred at the time Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was on a state visit to the Islamic Republic. The US suspected both targeted attacks were carried out by Iran using limpet mines and announced four days later that an additional 1,000 troops would be sent to the Middle East. A day later, it was announced “(d)uring a news conference at the Arak heavy water reactor facility, that Iran had increased low enriched uranium production fourfold and would exceed the limit of 300 kilograms by June 27,” violating the JCPOA, in response to the US’s sanctions.
A day after the announcement, Iran shot down an American drone aircraft, with the Revolutionary Guard claiming that it had shot down an "intruding American spy drone" after it entered the country's airspace. A US official disputed this claim, saying that while the drone had been shot down by Iran, it had occurred while the drone was in international airspace over the Strait of Hormuz. Responding to the drone downing, the US imposed more sanctions and carried out a cyberattack against the computer systems controlling the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s rocket and missile launchers. In April, the Trump administration had designated the Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization (Iran responded with giving the US military the same designation).
The exchanges between the West and Iran have only continued in the past month. The UK seized an Iranian oil tanker for violating sanctions on Syria, Iran seized an Emirati tanker, a British tanker and a Liberian vessel last week, and the US punished a Chinese company for importing Iranian oil on Monday. Iran announced it had captured 17 American spies and sentenced some to death (disputed by the US), rejected plans for a European-led maritime security force in the Gulf unveiled by the UK foreign secretary on Tuesday, and tested a medium-range ballistic missile on Wednesday.
It is difficult to see a clear path forward where the tension building up over the past year, especially during the last two months, will be defused soon. The violation of the nuclear deal by the Trump administration was the first domino to fall and lead the Gulf to its current predicament, and it is unclear what the future holds for it. On one hand, Iran said on Wednesday that a formal offer for a ship swap would be forthcoming to swap the British tanker they seized with the Iranian tanker that the UK seized, a sign of potential willingness for compromise. While on the other hand, shipping in the Strait of Hormuz remains tense, Iran tested a ballistic missile this week, and debate continues as to how averse the US and Iran are to actual conflict. The average person must just hope that conflict remains the last option that either nation wishes to follow, but both countries need to demonstrate a maturity to stray from the current ‘tit-for-tat’ strategy that inches both closer to an increasingly inevitable, and very regrettable, end.
- By Michael Pappas, WACNH Events and Education Coordinator