An Iranian antiship missle is launched during an exercise near the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has developed an unorthodox military force capable of inflicting significant damage to the U.S. Navy in the event of a new war in the Persian Gulf.
The Iran problem is an enduring constant in American foreign policy. Over the decades, every administration has had its moments with Iran. The country has been too strategically important to ignore. Various administrations have tried to woo it back into the Western fold, or talk of replacing the Islamic Republic with one more to Washington’s liking but - usually following the narrow focus of a one-way lecture on American demands- the results have been miserable. In the final analysis, Iran simply rejects any vision of the Middle East as imposed by the will of the United States. A famous quote by Ayatollah Khomeini puts it succinctly: “We will resist America until our last breath.”
Unfortunately, Washington has helped perpetuate the animosity. The United States has displayed a callous disregard for Iranian grievances and security concerns. Giving a medal to a ship’s captain who just inadvertently killed 290 civilians and then wondering why Iran might harbor resentment is just the most obvious example of American obtuseness. An ill-conceived intervention in the Lebanese Civil War against the Shia, while at the same time backing Iraq, threatened the new Iranian government. Tehran’s response, to level a building full of marines and to take American hostages, still colors American thinking, equally understandably. Washington invariably took the wrong course with Iran. When diplomatic openings appeared, hardliners refused to talk and advocated overthrowing the Islamic Republic. When Iran killed U.S. soldiers and marines in Lebanon and Iraq, successive administrations showed timidity when hard-liners called for retribution.
Glimmers of optimism invariably give way to the smell of cordite and talk of war. In 2012, the prospects for conflict peaked again. Seasoned, pragmatic Iran watchers called for tougher sanctions to punish Iranian intransigence regarding its nuclear program. But punishing Iran for its intransigence also hardens Iranian Iranian leaders and justifies in their minds the need for a nuclear program, both for increased self-sufficiency and as a deterrent against Western aggression. Within the U.S. Administration, discussions in the White House Situation Room turned to the possibility of pressing for sanctions against Iran’s central bank. As this is the means by which Iran receives payment for its oil exports, this would be a radical act, tantamount to an embargo of Iranian oil. “Iran could see it as a de facto act of war,” said one senior Obama administration representative.
Unfortunately, now neither side has much desire to work to bridge their differences. Distrust permeates the relationship. Three decades of twilight war have hardened both sides. When someone within the fractured governing class in Tehran reached out to the American president, the United States was unwilling to accept anything but capitulation. When President Obama made a heartfelt opening, a smug Iranian leadership viewed it as a ruse or the gesture of a weak leader. Iran spurned him. Obama fell back on sanctions and CENTCOM; Iran fell back into its comfortable bed of terrorism and war-mongering. Soon it may no longer be twilight; the light is dimming, fog is rolling in, the night is approaching.