President Donald Trump called off a retaliatory strike last week against Iran after Iran shot down a highly sophisticated American drone flying over the Strait of Hormuz — Washington maintains the drone was flying over international water, while Iran claims it entered Iranian airspace. The president revealed that three strikes were planned against targets in Iran but before giving his military the go-ahead, the president asked the general in charge how many Iranians would be killed as a result of the strikes. After hearing that 150 would be killed, the president decided that such a price would be too high to pay and disproportional to the destruction of an unmanned drone. While Trump’s supporters and even some of his critics are hailing it as an act of restraint and courage, the question for American interests is whether Iran and other adversaries will see it instead as a sign of weakness and indecision.
This was the latest in a series of skirmishes across the Middle East that have stirred fears of a full-scale war between the United States and Iran. For two weeks in May the US military shadowed two Iranian commercial boats sailing around the Persian Gulf as policy makers in Washington and Tehran traded threats and taunts. American surveillance kept constant watch on the two vessels after its intelligence saw Iranian forces load missiles into launchers on their decks. As tensions grew, the Iranian ships eventually pulled into a harbor and unloaded the missiles that had set off alarms for the American military. While it may seem that America and Iran are on the verge of war, this is another chapter in a forty-year-old “cold war.”
For those of us who are old enough remember when the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was ousted in 1979, we also recall that it inadvertently led to the 444-day hostage crisis when young Iranian students broke into the American embassy in Tehran holding American personnel captive. Pahlavi’s ousting appears to have been a déjà vu when the CIA deposed Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh from power in 1953 after he tried to nationalize his nation’s oil. That was the year that the CIA, which was called into existence in 1947 when the US government was being converted to a national-security state, targeted Iran with its first regime-change operation. The CIA had asked President Harry Truman for permission to initiate a coup to help the British oil companies, which the CIA knew would destroy the Iranian people’s experiment with democracy. To his everlasting credit, Truman said no. That did not stop the CIA, however. As soon as President Dwight Eisenhower became president in 1952, the CIA renewed its request for a coup, arguing that Mossadegh was a “communist.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the United Kingdom unwound its colonial control east of Suez amid economic instability, with the American involvement in southeast Asia, the US had to “authorize” others to secure its interests in the Persian Gulf, in other words, maintain control of oil it claimed to be its “own”. Then-President Richard Nixon formalized an agreement with Iran and Saudi Arabia, known as Twin Pillars policy — deputizing Iran and Saudi Arabia as local guardians of US interests in the Persian Gulf region. Yet the Nixon administration’s push to reverse the oil-price hikes triggered by the Israeli military occupation of Egyptian territory after the 1973 Yom Kippur War ran counter to the shah’s need for funds to pay for his ambitious, thereby created an economic and socio-political vacuum.
In any case, by the 1970s the Shah, notwithstanding the abuses of the SAVAK—the Iranian secret police and intelligence service, which had been accused of arresting, torturing, and executing dissidents of the shah—was able to restructure Iran into a highly developed society through the suffrage of women; and the creation of efficient hospitals, as well as legislating religious freedom. He also made his country one of the main global competitors of petroleum. When he tried to nationalize his country’s oil, which would have meant that countries the United Kingdom and America would no longer dictate policy in Iran, he was ousted. After this, in November 1979 President Jimmy Carter gave Pahlavi asylum in the United States for humanitarian reasons, while simultaneously helping Ayatollah Khomeini, who was in exile in France, gain control of Iran and institute the same Islamic theocracy President Donal Trump has been contending with.
It was also in 1979, specifically between April and December that was the deadliest period in Iran’s history for Shi‘ite clerics. They accused the Forqan—a Shi‘ite group that emphasized an observance of Islam without clergy and decided to present an “authentic” Islam—of having connections with other domestic and foreign intelligence services such as the SAVAK, the Israeli Mossad, and the American CIA.
President Donal Trump’s withdrawal of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal) is a reflection of his administration’s commitment to not just contain Iranian power but to cause a regime change. Top Israeli expert Yakov Kedmi stated: “In purely military terms, it’s impossible to defeat Iran… And the Pentagon knows that better than anyone.” Yet notwithstanding Trump’s tough talk, thus far the Iranian regime has called his bluff.
The damage from Trump’s stand-down depends in part on how the Iranian regime respond. If they agree to talks to revise the Iran nuclear agreement, the restraint might pay off. Yet Iran’s leaders have shown no interest in talking as long as US sanctions are in place. This more so as has been further revealed in early March of this year that US Energy Secretary Rick Perry approved six secret authorizations by companies to sell nuclear power technology and assistance to Saudi Arabia.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Trump told a confidant: “These people [Iran] want to push us into a war, and it’s so disgusting. We don’t need any more wars.” If President Trump eases sanctions to get Iran to the bargaining table, he is back to the Obama nuclear deal he withdrew from. Hence, we would be back to square one, not to mention, time and resources wasted. On the other hand if the Iranians escalate again, Trump’s restraint will look misguided and weak. If Americans are now killed by Iranian proxies, his failure to use force to deter attacks will deserve some of the blame. Let us hope that we will never have to find out.