The following article featured in our Fifth Print Issue from September 2019. In light of the recent tensions once again between America and Iran, we have decided to publish it in full, with an update.

Any casual-eyed observer of the news lately, is no doubt aware of the heated squabble between the United States and Iran. In the last few months both have heightened their military presence in the Gulf whilst Iranian and US officials have exchanged a series of diplomatic spats at one another in light of recent escalations, including the breakdown of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the seizure of a number of oil tankers from both sides. While this unnecessary feud between the two powers is becoming precarious and unstable, this is only the latest development in a hostile relationship that has spanned much of the 20th century. 

The relationship between the United States and Iran is an intriguing one. Trouble between the two nations began in 1953 when US and UK intelligence coordinated to overthrow the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammed Mosaddegh.  Mosaddegh sought to nationalise Iran’s oil industry, damaging US and UK economic interests in the process. The west couldn’t allow this to happen. 

However, in 1979 hostilities between the US and Iran took a turn for the worst. On 16th January, after months of protests from secular and religious opposition, US assisted Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi was overthrown by the Islamic leader Ayatollah Khomeini who founded the current Islamic Republic of Iran. As a result, and particularly after Khomeini had labelled the US as ‘The Great Satan’, US-Iranian relations would be surrounded in enmity and aggression. 

Between 1979 and 1981 the US embassy in Iran was attacked, several American officials were killed and Iranian and US diplomatic relations were left in tatters. Moreover, ties between the two were further stretched on 3rd July 1988 when the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner carrying pilgrims bound for Mecca. All 29 on board were killed sparking outrage in Iran. 

Iranian-US relations failed to recover, taking another hit in 2002 following President George W Bush classifying the Islamic Republic as a member of the so-called ‘Axis of Evil’ alongside the regimes of North Korea and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Consequently, the US imposed tight sanctions on Iran in 2002 after an Iranian opposition group revealed the government’s development of nuclear weapons facilities including a uranium enrichment site. Iran’s economy lost two thirds of its value in two years as a consequence. Similarly, friction between the two nations was felt in 2011 when President Ahmadinejad claimed the US was behind 9/11 in a baffling speech directed at the UN General Assembly. As one can see, Iranian-US relations have never been courteous even before President Trump’s latest assault on the Rouhani’s government. 

However, building blocks for a productive relationship were laid in 2013 during President Barack Obama and President Rouhani’s phone conversation – the first time the two nations heads of state had directedly communicated in over 30 years. This optimism was only enhanced with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known simply as the Iran nuclear deal. This included the lifting of the crippling economic sanctions on Iran in return for the regime to limit sensitive nuclear activity and allow international inspectors to ensure this was being carried out. For a time, it appeared this bitter rivalry was coming to an end.

However, any salvation of diplomatic relations between the two countries was shattered in 2018 when President Trump unexpectedly pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal, labelling it ‘defective at its core’. Trump has since reimposed the crippling economic sanctions in the hope of reducing Iran’s oil exports to zero and has thus barred US oil companies and foreign firms from trading with Iran. According to the IMF, as a result of sanctions Iran’s GDP has contracted by 3.9% in 2018 and is expected to drop a further 6% in 2019. Whilst Iran’s oil exports have fallen from 3.8 million barrels per day to 1.1 million. 

As a vital source of revenue accounting for 2/3 of Iranian exports, US sanctions have struck hard at Iranian society. One only has to take a glance in the past to realise that sanctions against a country only damage the poorest of society and affect their intended target far less than expected. For example, under Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it was the poorest of Iraqi society that suffered under UN sanctions, not the ruling elite. UNICEF revealed that 58% of Iraqi children suffered from malnutrition as a result of harsh sanctions. Meanwhile, the Ba’athist regime sustained a solid grip over the country.

Similarly, Iran’s poorest have been hit the hardest. In 2016, it was revealed that 2.4 million Iranians live on less than $1.90 a day – this will only increase in economic hardship. Sanctions have caused living costs to rise. Both the cost of housing and medical services has increased by 20% in the last year. Concurrently, inflation soared to 31% in 2018 and is expected to rise to 37% in 2019 according to the IMF. Evidently, whatever the reasoning behind Trumps imposed sanctions, ordinary Iranians will suffer the most.  

Because the US has tightened its grip around Iran, Iran has begun enriching uranium beyond the 3.67% threshold agreed in the 2015 nuclear deal. This a precarious situation. Iran can now threaten to develop nuclear weapons which would further destabilise the Middle East and cause unnecessary friction between its rival, Saudi Arabia. As we have seen in the cases of Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, it is usually the surrounding states which bear the brunt of this toxic rivalry. 

Iran and the US also appear to be settling their differences around the Strait of Hormuz. Every country depends on oil, meaning the strait is a national intertest around the globe. 21 million barrels of oil pass through its two two-mile-wide shipping lanes every day. In other words, 1/5 of the world’s oil supply passes through the strait which links the Persian Gulf with the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian sea to the world. As the US imposes sanctions, Iran has threatened to block the strait which lies just off its coastline threatening a large portion of the world’s oil supply. As a consequence, a number of passing oil tankers have come under assault. This skirmish is very similar to what’s known as the ‘tanker wars’ during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Both Iran and Iraq attempted to prevent the others oil exports and thus cripple their economies. Throughout the war 240 tankers were attacked and 55 sank. 

Presently, a scenario is being played out between the US and Iran which mirrors the tanker wars of the 1980s. Between May – June 2019 the US blamed Iranian mines which struck six oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Nevertheless, on July 19th the Iranian Revolutionary Guard seized the British Stena Impero and shortly following that, shot down a US Global Hawk surveillance drone in response to British Royal Marines seizing an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar, supposedly holding oil bound for Syria. 

The threat posed to oil tankers in the region has meant the US and its allies have increased their military presence in the region. The USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier has been deployed to the Gulf for what the US has labelled as ‘troubling and escalatory indications’ from Iran. This coupled with an influx of US troops stationed in Saudi Arabia as well as B-52 bombers has dangerously heightened the tension between the US and its rival.

Similarly, the UK has also moved warships into the region to protect its own vital oil supply. In response, Iran paraded its navy in a 10-day show of force, while also unveiling its new Bavar-373 missile strike defence system capable of targeting ships travelling through the strait. This escalation is clearly becoming a hostile and precarious one

Unfortunately, US-Iranian relations have rarely been optimistic. Over the last few decades both countries have always been sceptical of each other, which has led to serious consequences both in the Middle East and the wider world. President Trump’s latest confrontation with the Islamic Republic is only the latest development in a long and uncertain history between the two countries.

However, the rapidity and seemingly unrestrained escalation between Iran and the US today is not only unnecessary in an already deeply troubled world but also has the potential to have destructive results not just for the people of Iran, but also the surrounding region and the globe.

UPDATE: In a dramatic escalation of tension the Trump administration targeted and killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike on the 3rd January 2020. Head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Soleimani was beloved by both the ruling regime and the Iranian people alike. The US, who considers the Revolutionary Guard to be a terrorist organisation claimed Soleimani was ‘responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more’.

In response Iran targeted two US military bases in Iraq on the 7th January. While no US personnel were killed, a Ukrainian passenger airliner was caught in the crossfire killing all on board. As US-Iranian hostilities appear to be cooling down, Iran faces uproar from Canada as 57 of the 176 passengers on board were Canadian. It would seem that Iran is facing a world which is becoming increasingly hostile towards its quests for hegemony in the Middle East.


Photo by The White House on Flikr.