Why does Iran still harbor such distrust and animosity towards the United States? This question is a key factor for understanding the continuous failures of negotiations, even after the concluded nuclear accord.
Much of Iran’s bitterness and mistrust towards the United States can be traced back to the Iran-Iraq War. Iranians refer to the war as the “Imposed War” because Iranians believe the United States orchestrated and funded Iraq’s war efforts against Iran (Riedel, 2013). In July 1988, a U.S. Navy ship shot down Iran Air flight 655 killing all 290 people aboard. Iran still marks the anniversary of the incident, alleging the U.S. intentionally destroyed the civilian aircraft. Since the U.S. military maneuvers near Abu Musa Island in 1994, the Iranian government is suspicious of any U.S. military presence in the region. This was further compounded by rhetoric such as President Bush’s declaration of Iran as part of the Axis of Evil and Senator McCain’s call for the U.S. to support regime change in Iran. Cyber-attacks like the Stuxnet virus against Iran’s nuclear facilities further increased animosity and suspicion of U.S. policies and goals.
Understanding the Iranian mindset requires an insight into the foundation of their national identity and national security interests. Shia Islam and nationalism are inextricable elements of Iranian culture. Neglecting this knowledge will lead to more exclusionary policies devoid of the cultural aspects that make negotiations more palatable to Iranians. There are two distinct facets of Iranian culture that form the foundation of all relations: Iranian nationalism and Shiite particularism. According to Bar (2004), Iranians have a strong self-image dating back to an ancient civilization. Persian pride pervades every cultural, political, and economic facet in Iranian affairs. Iranian national identity is birthed from a lineage of Persian history, mythology, kings, and a massive empire. Conversely, this self-image drives their discrimination against Arabs and other non-Farsi groups. A successful policy must address the Persian and Iranian nationalism factors. Ignoring the cultural aspect will likely be seen as more exploitation of Iran’s affairs and so-called rightful hegemonic influence in the region.
Iran’s Security Interests
The first security strategy is regime survival. The foundation of the Islamic Republic is the concept of velayat-e fagih, which is rule of the jurist. The Supreme Leader exercises complete governing authority under the guardianship of velayat-e fagih. The constitution was later amended to give the Leader extrajudicial powers to correct any “flaw” in the judiciary. He enjoys the full support of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which refer to him as “Imam” or Source of Enlightenment. The IRGC are the protectors of the revolution and view themselves as the continuity and security of the regime’s ideals.
The second national security interest is defending the country against all adversaries. Initially, this meant defense against military threats from other nation-states but has since evolved to include soft power as well. The Supreme Leader, the IRGC, and the Basij continue emphasizing Iran’s efforts in the soft war supposedly being waged by the West against them. The soft war entails all aspects of soft power against Iran’s Islamic and cultural values.
The third national security interest is expanding Iran’s regional influence. More specifically, this includes all efforts to export Iran’s Shia ideology throughout the region, support Shia uprisings, and become the Shia authority in the region. Davis, Martini, and Alireza further assert, “This involves increasing military support for its allies in the region, especially Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria, and, increasingly, Iraq. Iran sees not only Israel but also Sunni Arab states (such as Egypt) and Turkey and Pakistan as geopolitical rivals” (2011).
Considering the Iranian perspective is not just tallying up prior injustices, identifying the cultural and geopolitical causes of conflict provide insight into the state’s mindset. Hunter writes, “Indeed, both sides have become prisoners of the past; both have a long list of grievances. To be limited by the past in analysis, perceptions and policy flexibility is a natural human trait, but in today’s circumstances it would be self-indulgent and self-defeating.” Parasility adds, “After three decades of mutual hostility and infrequent direct diplomatic contacts, differences in political culture and diplomatic style, disproportionate involvement of intermediaries and message carriers, and sometimes confusing and mixed signals from those presumed to be speaking for those in authority, such clarity cannot be assumed.” The recently concluded deal does not, of course, eliminate these concerns or these complex relationships. In fact, engagement with Iran doesn’t only make the nuclear fear not go away, it may make the problem in some ways more daunting and challenging.
The most significant continued concern is Iran’s nuclear aspirations. Additionally, other problems include: Iran’s support for terrorist groups; the regime’s hostility towards Israel; the expansion of Shia theology throughout the region; Iranian threats to close the Straits of Hormuz; Iran’s proliferation of instability through proxy groups; and the theological contention between the Qom and Najaf Howza. Iran’s strategic objectives clash with U.S. goals for the region. Robb and Wald (2012) write, “Tehran’s strategic objectives to expand its influence, export revolution and undercut the Middle East peace process have threatened longstanding U.S. efforts to maintain a regional balance of power, defend key allies and support Arab-Israeli peace”. Moreover, Iran’s strategic objectives adversely affect other nations.
Israel views Iran as the biggest threat to their national security. Israel contends that Iran is will never try to build a peaceful nuclear program but rather that Iran is enriching uranium to build nuclear weapons to use specifically against the Jewish homeland. On October 1, 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). In his remarks, Netanyahu (2013) stated, “Israel will never acquiesce to nuclear arms in the hands of a rogue regime that repeatedly promises to wipe us off the map. Against such a threat, Israel will have no choice but to defend itself.” Israel does not consent to any negotiations that allow Iran to pursue a nuclear program, regardless of the enrichment levels. Israel does not accept containment. This is why Israel still does not accept or consider the new deal as a positive step or one to secure a new kind of Iran for the future.
Turkey supports Iran’s pursuit of a peaceful nuclear program and has occasionally acted as a mediator to support Tehran’s efforts. Despite Turkey’s assistance, Iran and Turkey are regional rivals with diametrically opposed worldviews. According to Barkey, “Turkey is a constitutionally secular state where the military is the self-appointed guardian of secularism. Iran is a theocracy in which Islamic law rules and clerics play decisive roles, including control over the military.” (2012). Like its neighbors, Turkey opposes any Iranian efforts to build a nuclear weapon, which Turkey views as a destabilizing, regional factor.
The Gulf States
Iran maintains strained relationships with its regional neighbors. The Gulf States or the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), collectively oppose the prospect of a nuclear Iran building a nuclear weapon. The GCC warns that a nuclear Iran would threaten the stability of the region well into the Persian Gulf. This would also change the balance of power by enhancing Iran’s persistent efforts to export its ideology and influence the internal affairs of Gulf Coast states. Some of the most notable examples are the violent, Iranian-supported Shia protests occurring in Bahrain and Yemen and the continued dispute over the islands of Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs (Fulton & Farrar-Wellman, 2011).
Russian and Chinese Interests in Iran
Russia and China have a unique and somewhat symbiotic relationship with Iran. The Iranian government has been steadily increasing exports to both countries despite international sanctions. Russia and China openly state their opposition to any Iranian efforts to build nuclear weapons, but also believed in alternative approaches beyond punitive and extreme sanctions. Both countries have conceded to international sanctions against Iran but also violate the sanctions when it is opportunistic for them both. Russia and Iran continue to bolster the Iranian government through military arms shipments, dual-use technology, oil purchases, and financial transactions. Iran is a strategic partner for them both and serves to limit Western influences in the region in a way that benefits both Chinese and Russian geopolitical interests.
No Easy Fix
Iran’s new accord could and hopefully will signal a new engagement that builds new channels of trust and interaction with rivals, both regional and global. Even if this most optimal outcome does occur, however, the national, cultural, historical, and geopolitical tensions that caused issues to begin with will not completely disappear. Iran not having a nuclear weapon will of course be good news to Europe, the United States, and Israel, just to name a few. But that will by no means stop Iran from pursuing its long-held belief in being an important global player and unquestioned regional hegemon. As the saying goes, the game has only just begun!