Using the 1979 Revolution as Future Indicators
In 1979, the Iranian Revolution reshaped foreign relations in the Middle East. Iran shifted from being an American ally under the Shah regime to a theocratic, Islamic Republic. It also emboldened Iraq to become increasingly hostile to Iran since the USA began to offer support. Symbolic of the revolution is the Hostage crisis of the same year. After a failed attempt in February, November saw a successful storming of the embassy with 60-odd hostages taken. Subsequent rescue efforts failed and saw eight US servicemen killed.
40 years later and one can't help but note parallels with events unfolding now. So, what is the background to what is happening? Ever since the revolution tensions have been present between the two powers, and recent decades has seen Iran increasingly try and assert itself as a regional superpower. Most notable to the Western public is the Iran nuclear deal, which has seen Tehran pursue nuclear capability.
More recently, Washington has been attempting to curtail Iranian influence in the region and its web of connections to terrorist organisations. One such organisation, Kataib Hezbollah, is said to be responsible for the death of a US civilian in Iraq on the 27th of December 2019. This rocket attack also wounded several US soldiers. Retaliation from the United States saw an airstrike kill 25 militants two days later, on the 29th of December. This retaliation is said to be the reason for the attack on the US embassy, in Baghdad, on New Years day.
It is believed that the militias involved in the attack were backed by Iran, and coordinated by Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani was killed in a US airstrike a few days ago and has since sparked backlash from Tehran. Vowing revenge, Iran has seen a nationalistic upsurge with anti-American sentiment. The question now, however, is whether this sentiment will spill over into Iraq. Will the events of 1979 in Iran be replicated in Iraq today? The Iraqi parliament is voting today on whether to expel US forces from the country.
It is not a black and white issue though. One should not see Iraq and Iran bundled together in a quasi-alliance purely due to anti-US sentiment. The 1980s saw a serious war between the two Middle Eastern powers which, even today, has hangover tensions. The US has been helpful in suppressing terrorist cells throughout Iraq and has supported the government there for some time. Conversely, Iran has become an increasingly vital trading partner to Iraq, and pro-Iranian political groups are becoming increasingly potent in Iraqi politics; not to mention the influence of its web of militias throughout the country.
Iran might feel it necessary to accommodate nationalistic surges by following through on its threats. This would likely materialise in the realm of cyber attacks and shipping frustration. After all, Iran possesses significant capabilities to shut off the gulf and threaten oil traffic. It could, for example, use swarm tactics to overwhelm traditional naval capabilities (as it has done before). US responses will likely depend on which way Iraq swings in the coming days and weeks. Will Iraq follow the path of Iran in 1979 and exclude the US from the region? Or will it facilitate US responses?
Cover Photo: USS Stark damaged by Iraqi Exocet missile in the Iran-Iraq War (1987)
At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a third year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK foreign policy and the defence/aerospace industry.