Making Sense of the Iranian-American Conflict
As the celebrations wound down those hoping for a peaceful new decade were treated to a heavy dose of reality as the United States assassinated Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top general, and brought the two nations to the brink of war. ‘Escalation’ is the word used in countless news reports on the subject: the U.S. escalated an already-simmering great-power rivalry between itself an Iran; European and Middle Eastern officials ‘scrambled’ to stop Iran from escalating the conflict in retaliation, and so forth.
Eventually, Iran did respond — by firing over a dozen missiles at American military bases in Iraq. However, it seems that the attacks were calibrated so as to cause little loss of life, and indeed no American casualties were reported. After Iranian officials sent messages (by way of the Swiss) to the United States saying that no further retaliation was planned, President Trump stood down and declared victory. It is clear that Iran was caught entirely by surprise in the wake of the assassination, and, feeling compelled to respond quickly or lose face but unwilling to countenance an all-out war with America, chose to retaliate in a largely harmless and symbolic manner.
Compounding the problems for the Iranian regime was the downing of a Ukrainian civilian airliner taking off from Tehran’s airport. It seems that a trigger-happy anti-aircraft unit blew the plane out of the sky, mistaking it for an enemy aircraft. The incident has drawn significant international and domestic outrage, with Iranian citizens once again taking to the streets to protest a government they view as overly militaristic and ineffective. The strong showing of goodwill and solidarity with the government in the wake of Soleimani’s assassination seems to have largely vanished.
All this would seem to support Mr Trump’s claim to victory. General Soleimani was an extremely capable leader and one generally opposed to American interests. His death is a significant blow to the Iranian government and its elite Quds Force, which the general led. Iran’s retaliation was relatively harmless and what little international sympathy it had garnered in the days after the hit was squandered by the tragic downing of a civilian airliner.
The historical seeds of this conflict go back to the days of the waning British Empire, whose agents enlisted American aid in the coup which brought down the democratically-elected (and deeply popular reformist) prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, in 1953. It will be of little shock to the reader that the primary motivation behind Britain’s dislike of Mr Mossadegh was his firm desire to nationalise the immensely profitable Anglo-Iranian Oil Company; the Americans complied insofar as their deeply-held paranoia of communist encroachment in the Third World was stoked by clever British intelligence officials. The accession of the tyrannical Pahlavi Shah, widely perceived to be an American puppet, to power shortly afterwards left deep scars on the Iranian psyche. It is, therefore, no great surprise that the regime which toppled the Shah in 1979 was from the outset almost maniacally anti-American (and, by extension, anti-Israel). The strike on Soleimani and the ensuing retaliation is therefore just the latest salvo in the long-simmering and bloody cold war between the two powers.
However, many reports stress that the Iranian missile attack may not be the end of the regime’s response to these events. The nation is no stranger to the use of proxy forces, and it is likely if not inevitable that non-state actors allied or subordinate to Iran will step up their attacks against American forces in the Middle East or elsewhere. And the geopolitical ramifications of the assassination are still being played out. In other words, it is still far too early to call this a victory for any party.
At the time of writing, Dylan Springer is a third year student at the University of St Andrews studying Modern History. He is particularly interested in modern European history and politics and U.S. foreign policy.