Why is the United States so mad about Iran?

For whoever tries to follow the news as closely as possible, the Iranian theme in American politics would seem to be dominating the media, far more than any other topic worth paying attention to. Only the recent European problems aggravated by unbridled speculation and visible tensions in the EU family over the right ways to save Greece and prevent Spain and Portugal from falling into the same pitfall have somehow eclipsed the Iranian problematic.

While the Europeans are overwhelmingly concerned about the survival of the euro as the common currency, the recovery of their budgetary balances and the normalization of employment statistics, the United States is always clinging to its anti-Iranian rhetoric. Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq – these are the major challenges of the past and current administrations. The only difference is that both Afghanistan and Iraq continue to be crucial hot spots where America is waging wars upon its antagonists and long-time enemies.

For its strategy to look natty and its rhetoric to sound true, Washington has followed the practice of assembling coalitions instead of acting unilaterally, though the 2003 invasion of Iraq was not supported by any resolution of the UN Security Council authorizing the use of force. Overburdened by these two wars, which have not stopped inflicting grave casualties upon the US and coalition forces, and affected by the 2008 world financial crisis which is still ravaging, the White House seems to be as relentless toward Iran as it used to be, when the chips were hardly down.

So what makes the United States pursue this hard-line stance towards Tehran at the time when serious international threats are evidently contained in more than just Iranian radicalism? Is it the Iranian Obsession Syndrome (IOS)?

Look at the latest trips of US State Secretary Hillary Clinton abroad. Wait until the last minute of her press conference with the new British Foreign Secretary William Hague on his first official travel to Washington. Try to peep into the real intentions of Madam Secretary during her March talks in Moscow with the Mideast Quartet and Russian authorities. Iran is everywhere. Not only has it become the personal obsession of Hillary Clinton, who inherited this topic from her predecessor as an inalienable attribute of service as head of the State Department, but it is also one of the most widely discussed topics in American media.

There is no single reason to believe that Iran, more than any other country in the world, is looking for the best opportunity to assert itself both politically and militarily by following the old divide-and-conquer maxim with regard to its neighbors or nurturing some overly bellicose ambitions in the context of the New World Order à l’iranienne.

But Washington is still too eager to demand that Iran open itself further to the IAEA, stop all uranium enrichment activities, diminish its overt anti-Americanism and make the first awkward steps towards democratization. Is this situation somewhat reminiscent of Iraq in the 1990s, when it was stripped of cash, its foreign assets were frozen, and its oil exports were banned from entering the free market? If you think ‘yes, it is’, then it is time to prepare for a new war in the Persian Gulf. Si vis pacem, para bellum. “If you wish for peace, prepare for war.”

The 1979 Islamic Revolution, which produced one of the most radical regimes in the world and put an end to close US-Iran military cooperation, as opposed to that under the Shah, taking its effective toll on diplomacy and trade, was just one of the perturbations of the late 1970s. If America were always faithful to the idea of getting disgusted with any form of dictatorship or radicalism, so averse to its democratic traditions, the Iranian phenomenon could be largely explained. But the United States was not, as its history showed, and could easily befriend the worst oppressor and flouter of human rights, if such an attitude secured the defense of American interests against the backdrop of the Cold War and later competition for global power.

The infamous 1986 Iran-Contra affair proved to be the best evidence of America’s attachment to sheer pragmatism and secretive diplomacy and now looks as the only episode of the US’s trying to get rid of the IOS, which, to be frank, was not that pervasive seven years after the Shah’s removal from power.

It is all clear that there are no pure angels and irredeemable demons in international politics. But there are some countries which think it is important for them to play by the rules and accommodate others’ views, and some other countries which are less respectful of the collective game. It is just the case of Iran, whose overblown ambitions are far from being tempered by a potential threat of severe punishment. But Iran is not alone, steering out of normal international practice and pursuing its surreptitious plans.

No expert would now have the courage to refute the ambivalence of Iranian policy which, if not directly threatening world peace, may lead to further destabilization of the Middle East and ensuing tumult on the world oil market.[1] Thus, American engagement in the Middle East to promote, at least rhetorically, a peaceful two-state solution and the success of US participation in local conflicts, such as the one in Afghanistan, remain narrowly contingent on the evolution of Iran as a regional power. For the US to abandon its stake in the Iranian affair, it would be tantamount to the outright betrayal of Israel which, to all appearances, could never maintain its present policies without American help and comprehensive military guarantees.

All these factors notwithstanding, it is hardly possible to make out of Iran the centerpiece of international relations which, if being swayed in two opposite directions and thus becoming totally unbalanced, would entail some unsettling repercussions at the other end of the globe. Nuclear security is potentially threatened by any holder of nuclear arsenals, as only members of the nuclear club may use these deadly weapons in case of armed conflict. The everlasting tension between India and Pakistan, both pigeonholed as such, is far more serious and full of sulkier prospects than the attempts of a not-that-powerful Iran, which most of its neighbors tend to regard with suspicion, to obtain command of nuclear technology (which may be used for a number of purposes other than military).

Israel’s well-being as a sovereign state has been jeopardized for decades by a coalition of Arab countries, once presided by Egypt under Nasser, and is always menaced by the inimical environment where the Palestinian cause is widely listened to and sympathized with. The infamous Islamist radicalism that finds its adepts both in war-torn underdeveloped provinces of Afghanistan and rich capitals of Europe, in this case despite the noblest upbringing and excellent education, is hardly the brainchild of Iranian revolutionaries and tends to be a global phenomenon with unlimited spread and fascinating stamina.

Yet, the United States is persevering in pressurizing its European (with a little luck) and Asian partners (as for Russia and China, reciprocal concessions are strongly appreciated) to condemn Iran and to bring it back into the international family of friendly, rule-based nations (was Iran friendly and rule-based before it purportedly left the family in 1979, or just on good terms with the US?). Not much serendipity is required to see that international sanctions, especially if you remember the ominous slogan of post-World War I French nationalists headed by Georges Clemenceau which sounded like ‘L’Allemagne paiera’ [Germany will pay], usually yield very limited results. They only antagonize recalcitrant regimes, making their peoples poorer and more confident that those who have imposed sanctions are true monsters and need to be either resisted or simply destroyed.

History is full of convincing examples: take the ‘cordon sanitaire’ concept authored by Clemenceau, according to which Bolshevik Russia had to be isolated from Western Europe by a string of buffer states. It was no surprise when the French historian André Fontaine stated that the Cold War had begun not in 1947, but in 1919, when the quarantine line was inaugurated.