The Scorpion’s Sting and the Python’s Grip

This following summary is from a commentary, found here, covering the relationship between the United States and Iran. The author, John Calabrese, uses the current situation in Iraq and historical incidents to explain how this unstable relationship has played out over time.

Former President Mohammed Khatami may have been one of the last officials on either side to favor reconciliation between Iran and the United States. He worked together with President Clinton and there were people to people exchanges and a partial lifting of some sanctions. However, when President Bush was elected, the policy returned to its original state, with Ayatollah Khomeini stating that negotiations with the Bush administration would be futile, insulting and humiliating.

Khatami also supported a rapprochement with Baghdad, something that the hardline officials in Iran found to be inexcusable. They deemed the Iraqi regime to be dangerous and untrustworthy and were preoccupied with the Baathist regional ambitions and military capabilities, such as ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction, not to mention the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s.
It is from that war though, where the misgivings stem from. Calabrese states there is still no peace and prisoners of war are still in Iraq, as well as refugees. Iranian anger can be understood when the author points out that Iranian compensation and reparation claims are still laying at the United Nations. Of course Iranian officials are quick to put blame on their Iraqi counterparts, stating obstruction of working-level negotiations. The cultural and humanitarian issues have become politically charged and low level conflict continues between the two nations. These include assassinations, terror and sabotage along the border. One of the main perpetrators is the Mujaheddin al-Khalq (MKO), which has been responsible for many attacks against Iran since 1981.

While UN sanctions against Iraq have kept it weak in conventional military terms, it has been strategically beneficial to Iran to ensure Iraq’s compliance with these sanctions. This is the one area where the United States and Iran share a common interest, while relations have been confrontational. US policy has been to protect the regions’ oil from hostile countries, a topic that many find to be the only reason the US has been involved in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Iran feels threatened by the US presence in Iraq. It is interpreted the approach in Iraq to be centered on regime change and includes a vision of a democratic Middle East, a direct threat to the Iranian theocracy. Additionally, President Bush used a radio address to express solidarity with the Iranian people, viewed by Tehran officials as a threat of destabilization.

With relations between Washington and Tehran being brittle, there are many factors that contributed to the erosion of the relationship. For starters, there was the “Karine A” incident in 2002, which was a cargo ship en route to Palestine intercepted by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). The shipment contained weapons from Iran while there are many speculations of conspiracy. Further, there are allegations of Iran harboring al-Qaeda fugitives and arming and funding Afghan warlords. The 2002 State of the Union comment putting Iran in the “Axis of Evil” did not help smooth out relations, as well as heavy US pressure to keep Iran out of the World Trade Organization and the World Bank. Russia has also been affected by US pressure to limit weapons sales and terminate projects and contracts with Iran in the nuclear field. Regarding this issue, the US is in favor of the “United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission” (UNMOVIC) to inspecting Iranian military uses.

Multiple Sources of Apprehension

The US factor to Iran, as stated by the Defense Minister Ali Shamkani, is the US presence in Iraq would (has) increased the threat to and vulnerability of ran in terms of security. The obvious statement here would be the fear of a future invasion. There are concerns over the actions taken against Iraq and Iran has exploited the crisis and girded itself against the dangers associated with the US invasion. It has been clear since the beginning that Iran would take an opposing stance against the invasion, and while it is known that the US presence would present a threat to the Iranian leadership, officials have been outspoken over other issues as well.

Iran has maintained active neutrality and would have preferred a political solution to the crisis. There was a focus on disarmament and a commitment to a multilateral approach. Then-President Khatami called to avert war, under the guise of its own interests to keep the US out of Iraq. With the looming threat of an invasion, Iran tried to use the weakness of Baghdad to extract as many concessions as possible, as cheaply as possible and yet denying military cooperation during the invasion process.

Iran was also heavily involved in cultivating the Iraqi opposition, forging tactical alliances with individual Iraqi groups within Iraq. The SAIRI (Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) is a Shiite group that is based in Iranian territory and the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) is a Kurdish faction used to pressure Baghdad and restrain the Iran Kurdistan Democratic party (IKDP).

While these actions were taken against Iraq directly, Iran relied on diplomacy during the early stages of the US-Iraq War and keeping a strategic alliance with Syria and détente with other Arab countries. Iran even went to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to address the issues over Iraqi refugees flooding the border to Iran. Other steps to avert the war completely were taken and Iranian officials began talks with European leaders, something Calabrese states was used to provide future support in the event of a US invasion in Iran.

It is clear that Iran was opposed against the war in Iraq, but reasons range from the refugee issue to having US presence so close to home. As stated in the IAEA report, nuclear programs were stopped during the early stages of the invasion in 2003. Iran had its own interest in Iraq and having the US military present only gave it more problems than needed. With the recent reports of the spy drone being intercepted by Iran, it is clear that the US has used its presence in Iraq to actively spy on Iran and its nuclear facilities. While it would have been beneficial to Iran and its regional aspirations, as well as the nuclear program, if the invasion had never taken place, the United States has long-lasting presence in the region and it will be a while until that will recede.

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