No war yet! That’s the good news…for now. A few weeks have passed since unhinged National Security Advisor John Bolton – who never saw a regime he didn’t want to change – reportedly ordered the Pentagon to update plans to send 120,000 additional troops into the Persian Gulf. All this preparation and the inherent threat to strike Iran was ostensibly based on vague and unsubstantiated intelligence that Tehran had planned attacks on U.S. troops in the region. Murky and secretive intelligence, preemptive war plans, and unrepentant neocons sowing fear within the American populace. We’ve all seen this movie before, in Iraq, just sixteen years ago, and it didn’t end well. US troops are still there and may be so indefinitely.
If the purported Iranian threats seem manufactured, its because they likely are. And all the wrongs Tehran allegedly perpetrated against the US are exaggerated and overblown. Sure, Iran is, like all countries, an imperfect actor. The Islamic Republic did hold America’s embassy staff hostage during the Carter years. Tehran has backed Hezbollah and Hamas, both of whom once specialized in suicide bombing attacks on civilians.
Still, its worthwhile – particularly in the serious business of war and peace – to step back, slow down, and walk a proverbial mile in others’ shoes. Let me offer, then, the view from Tehran; to see the world and the US through Iranian eyes. An honest historical appraisal of the complicated U.S.-Iranian relationship demonstrates that it was often Washington and its western allies that meddled in the region and acted as the aggressors.
Let us begin in 1941. Though Tehran declared neutrality in that war, Russia and Britain jointly invaded and occupied the country to secure control of its oil reserves. Then, in 1953, when a democratically elected prime minister – Mohammad Mossadegh – dared nationalize Iranian oil (which had been largely under foreign, Western corporate control) the CIA coordinated a coup with MI6 to overthrow the government. The dictatorial Shah was promptly put in power and ruled with an iron fist for the next 26 years. So much for America’s self-proclaimed title as the "beacon of democracy."
Then, in 1980, when Iraq invaded and threatened to destroy Iran, the US openly backed the Saddam Hussein’s aggressive regime. The USprovided key intelligence in the form of satellite photos to the Iraqi Army, and granted Baghdad over $1 billion in economic aid. President Reagan, in absurd twist of irony, sent a special envoy, Donald Rumsfeld, to meet with Saddam. Their now infamous picture shaking hands is all over the web. Saddam regularly employed poison gas to attack Iranian formations. It is largely agreed that U.S.-supplied satellite imagery allowed Iraq to better calibrate these illegal, immoral, chemical attacks. Remember how this was viewed from Tehran: the American superpower, which had already overthrown Iranian democracy, was now backing Saddam in an aggressive war that posed an existential threat to the Islamic Republic.
During the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, which caused perhaps a million deaths, the US Navy waged an undeclared maritime war in the Persian Gulf. In the "Tanker War," the US again tacitly backed Iraq, flew the stars and stripes on Kuwaiti vessels to protect them from attack, and, finally, overtly sank the majority of the Iranian Navy in a one-sided sea battle. At the end of the war, a US naval vessel even shot down a civilian Iranian airliner, killing 290 people. The US commander, Captain Rogers, claimed his crew mistook the jet for an Iranian fighter, but even so the plane was fully in Iranian airspace.
In a final twist of the diplomatic "knife," then Vice President George H.W. Bush refused, during a presidential campaign stop, to apologize for the shoot-down. He callously announced "I will never apologize for the United States – I don’t care what the facts are. … I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy." Oh, and as for Captain Rogers – he was awarded the Legion of Merit for "exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service." This, despite the fact that his ship, the USS Vincennes, was actually in Iranian territorial waters when it murdered the innocent civilians onboard the flight.
Then, after the 9/11 attacks – which Iran had nothing to do with – Bush the Younger counted Tehran among Iraq and North Korea in an "axis of evil." Soon enough, Bush II illegally invaded Iraq and toppled America’s one-time friend, Saddam Hussein. By 2003, Iran had American armies stationed on its western (Iraq) and eastern (Afghanistan) borders. It felt genuinely threatened, which was understandable given recent American military actions nearby and the fact that administration neoconservatives were itching for regime change in Iran. "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran," was a common trope around neocon circles in Washington. Given this history, it becomes rather more understandable that Iran would back militias and seek to keep the US military mired in an Iraqi quagmire. If it didn’t, Iran’s leaders worried – they might be next!
None of this sordid history should be misconstrued to obviate Iran of responsibility for its own imperfect foreign affairs, but it does add complexity and nuance to a challenging relationship. Remember that the USstill imposes crippling sanctions on Tehran, surrounds Iran with its military bases, and maintains a naval presence along its coastline. Combined with America’s nefarious history of meddling in and threatening Iran, its hard not to empathize with the Iranian point of view.
Seen in this light, one understands why an average Iranian sees America as the aggressor in the Mideast. Well, frankly, it sort of is!
Danny Sjursen is a retired US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Truthdig, Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen