For twelve years, two distant, medium-sized, and hitherto not very important states have bedeviled American presidents. Jimmy Carter had to cope with the fall of the shah, the U.S. embassy seizure, and Iraq's attack on Iran. Ronald Reagan had Iran's attack on Iraq, the Iran/contra scandal, and the U.S.S. Stark and U.S.S. Vincennes incidents.George Bush had the October Surprise, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, "Iraqgate," and Saddam's survival in power.
Why Iran and Iraq? And what does the future hold?
The Iranian Problem
It takes a bit effort now to remember, but U.S.-Iranian relations long prospered. Persians looked at the United States with what one Iran hand, Richard W. Cottam, calls "unreasonably strong good will." When the Iranian constitutionalists needed help with finances early in 1911, whom did they bring to Tehran as treasurer-general but an American, W. Morgan Shuster? When again in need of financial advice in 1922, they hired another American, Arthur Millspaugh. Americans returned the favor. Already in the 1880s, the U.S. ambassador in Iran told whoever would listen that "The field is opened to American capital and industry which has but to come here and reap its fruits." Nearly a century later, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was celebrated in this country as the very model of a benevolent king. When Lyndon B. Johnson enthused in 1964, "What is going on in Iran is about the best thing going on anywhere in the world," he spoke for many Americans.
Things began to sour about 1970, when the shah led OPEC in raising the price of oil. With a little help from his Arab friends, he raised the benchmark price of oil went from $1.80 a barrel in 1970 to $11.58 just four years later. The first energy crisis not only caused economic problems (recession, inflation) but it prompted a deep sense of pessimism in the West. It wasn't apparent at the time, but this confrontation started a new, and far more hostile era for the Iran and the United States.
By 1977, when Jimmy Carter came into office, the oil market had stabilized. In keeping with the traditional U.S.-Iranian amity, Carter spent New Year's Eve in 1977 with the shah. He took the opportunity to toast Iran as "an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world." As if prompted by this testimonial, the shah went on the offensive one week later, when he personally approved a scurrilous newspaper attack on Ayatollah Khomeini. Outrage at that article prompted anti-government riots which led, almost exactly a year later, to the shah fleeing Iran. In February 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to the country and imposed the fundamentalist Islamic rule that continues to this day.
The shah's collapse deeply hurt American interests. Militarily, an ally in a critical region turned into an enemy. Economically, the second energy crisis took prices from $13 in 1978 to $30 in 1979. The supply of Persian Gulf oil became extremely vulnerable. To make matters worse, the Islamic Republic quickly emerged as the most profoundly anti-American regime anywhere in the world. Behind slogans about "Death to America" and the "Great Satan" lay a mentality which rejected not just America's policies, but its whole political system and culture.
Relations with Iran further worsened in November 1979, when a group calling itself "Muslim Students Following the Line of the Imam" assaulted the U.S. embassy complex in Tehran, beginning 444 humiliating days of hostage-holding. The seizure transgressed all international norms of behavior and became a symbol for American paralysis.
The rescue attempt of April 1980 only made matters worse. Worst of all, two American aircraft collided, killing eight soldiers. The U.S. military - no, the whole country - felt intensely humiliated. The absolute nadir came when an ayatollah visited the site of the disaster and prodded the incinerated remains of American soldiers on the desert floor.
The hostages haunted the 1980 presidential campaign, keeping Carter locked in the Rose Garden and fatally damaging his reputation. As election day approached, speculation increasingly focused on an "October Surprise"-concessions by Carter that would get the hostages out. But the Iranians despised him too much for that. Partly to show their hostility (and partly because they feared Ronald Reagan), they let the Americans leave Iranian air space precisely as Reagan took the oath of office and Carter's presidency came to an end.
Reagan started with a fresh slate. For a year, his administration enjoyed relative quiet from Iran. Then, building on its successful use of hostages at the embassy in Tehran, the Iranian leadership encouraged the tactic elsewhere. Shi'ites in Lebanon took the hint. Beginning with the capture of David Dodge, president of the American University of Beirut, in July 1982, they held Americans (and other foreigners) hostage, a sore in the American body politic for fully ten years.
Guilt about abandoning the hostages made appeasement a constant temptation. Eventually, in 1985, the Reagan administration capitulated in what became known as the Iran/contra scandal. The duplicity of this complex scheme - with its imbroglio of keys, cakes, begged money, and Central Americans - permanently wounded the Reagan presidency.
In addition to hostages, Iranian-backed terrorists also killed Americans, starting in April 1983, when they bombed the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 63. Six months later, other Iranian affiliates blew up the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 281. Another American University of Beirut president, Malcolm Kerr, was assassinated. When Iranian agents hijacked a Kuwait Air flight to Tehran in 1984, two Americans were the only casualties. The 1985 hijacking of a TWA flight to Beirut left one American dead.
Killing Americans in the Middle East had a strategic purpose: to intimidate Americans and chase them out of the region, a goal achieved in Iran and Lebanon but nowhere else. Toward this end, Iranian leaders occasionally called for the killing of Americans. In 1989, Speaker of the Parliament Rafsanjani publicly appealed to Palestinians to kill five Americans, Britons, or Frenchman for every Palestinian lost. In 1991, a leading ayatollah admonished Iranians, "Kill only those whom I told you to kill, and those are the Americans."
The Iranian network also reached to the United States. In 1980, a former security guard at the Iranian-interests section killed 'Ali Akbar Tabataba'i, an outspoken Iranian opponent of the regime living outside Washington, D.C. In 1983, Tehran's agents almost burned down a Seattle concert hall hosting a pro-shah theatrical group. By 1989, Tehran could attack American targets at will. The Iranian network in the U.S., noted L. Carter Cornick, is the most dangerous and troublesome of all the terror groups in the U.S. At that time, a bomb destroyed the family car belonging to the captain of the U.S.S. Vincennes, the ship which eight months earlier had brought down an Iran Air plane.
The Vincennes incident topped off years of U.S.-Iranian skirmishes in the Persian Gulf region. Although Iraq had invaded Iran in September 1980, Iranian military success put in on the offensive from July 1982 until the war ended in August 1988. Iranian aggressiveness in the Iran-Iraq War led to repeated encounters with American forces. U.S. ships protected Kuwaiti tankers, destroyed Iranian gunboats, and threatened worse. In July 1988, the Vincennes shot down an Iran Air passenger plane. Though the downing was inadvertent, the Iranians interpreted it as part of an American conspiracy to support Iraq. To the Iranians' despair, the world responded only limply to this outrage. Finally understanding the extent of Iran's isolation, Ayatollah Khomeini days later decided to "drink a cup of poison" and agree to call off the fight against Iraq. Thus did Americans inadvertently bring the Iraq-Iran war to an end.
In another act of aggression, Khomeini suddenly issued an edict in February 1989 against Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, "and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content." This unprecedented attempt to stifle a novel published in a foreign country resulted in the deaths of some two dozen individuals, a diplomatic uproar, and the loss of billions of dollars in trade. It also raised profound cultural tensions (the West vs. Islam) and spurred a debate in the United States over fundamental political values (freedom of speech, secularism) which had seemingly been settled decades or even centuries earlier.
Tarbaby-like, troubles with the Islamic Republic keep sticking. Charges that George Bush was directly involved in the Iran/contra affair keep popping up. The Vincennes incident keeps returning to the news: U.S. News & World Report argued not long ago that the fault in that incident lay not with the Iranians but with a belligerent American pilot. Most dramatically, the "October Surprise" theory bedeviled U.S. politics for over a decade, 1980-93. This argument held that Candidate Reagan reached a deal with the ayatollahs, thereby assuring that American hostages in Tehran not be released before the November 1980 election. Although research, both journalistic and congressional, disproved any veracity to this theory, it threatens to live on in the popular imagination, poisoning American political life with its implication that the two Reagan Administrations were at base illegitimate.
Meanwhile, Next Door
The Iraqi people long viewed the United States with something like the favor of their Iranian neighbors. They appreciated Woodrow Wilson's hesitations about British rule over the country and looked to the United States for justice. An American ambassador in the 1950s recalled "a country-wide reservoir of goodwill" toward the United States. Even during Operation Desert Storm, fragmentary reports suggested that Iraqis still viewed the United States with favor (a Baghdad merchant, for example, stated: "We were bombed but we were happy. We thought it would be an end to our misery").
Relations between the two governments also fared quite well. Washington provided aid and technicians to Iraq in the 1950s. The Baghdad Pact of 1955, an anti-Soviet alliance engineered by American diplomats, took its name and based its headquarters in the Iraqi capital city. The Iraqi coup d'état of 1958 brought these good relations to an end, and since then Iraqi governments have been steadily hostile to the West. In the 1970s, for example, Baghdad had a major role in putting together the Rejectionist Front, a grouping of hard-line anti-Israel and anti-American states vehemently opposed to any reduction in the Arab-Israeli conflict. However high the rhetorical pitch coming from Baghdad during this period, at least the Iraqi regime did not actually invade its neighbors.
This changed when Saddam Husayn, Iraq's strong-man since 1971, became president in July 1979. He turned Iraq into a military machine, adding for example some eight hundred tanks within the first year of his presidency. But Saddam's real interest lay in non-conventional weaponry - the famed super gun, biological and chemical agents, missiles, and nuclear weaponry. The prospect of Saddam with The Bomb so distressed Israel's leaders, they launched the world's only preemptive strike against a nuclear installation in June 1981. Strangely, the U.S. government condemned Jerusalem for this act and delayed a shipment of F-16 aircraft to Israel. Here, as so often in the years to come, Washington gave Saddam Husayn the benefit of the doubt.
Saddam began his expansionist career by invading Iran in September 1980. He made two mistakes: misjudging the Iranian response and not continuing on to attack Tehran itself. Far from capitulating, the Iranian leadership was galvanized. By mid-1982, Iranian forces threatened to move into Iraq.
"A plague on both your houses," came the American reaction. The U.S. government viewed Iraq as the aggressor but could not support Tehran so long as it held 52 American hostages. Only when the Iranians went on the offensive in 1982 did the Reagan Administration - rightly fearing the expansion of Iranian radicalism throughout the Middle East - tilt markedly toward Iraq. This tilt survived many challenges in the years ahead, most especially the 1987 Iraqi air attack on an American warship, the U.S.S. Stark, leaving thirty-seven sailors dead.
Learning nothing, forgetting nothing, the Iraqi dictator invaded Kuwait in August 1990. As ten years earlier, he again misjudged the will of the enemy and again stopped too early. Saddam himself, in a rare admission, recognized it was a mistake "not continuing the attack all the way to Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province and then occupying it." This mistake gave George Bush a chance; with extensive Allied and Arab support, he devoted seven months of his presidency to put together a Saudi-based force to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait.
However well the war went, Bush hardly had little time to enjoy its benefits before "Saddam still has a job, do you?" bumper stickers turned up. Not only did Saddam stay in power, but his truculence and brutality remained intact. Saddam proved willing to impoverish the Iraqi citizenry and to kill anyone - Kurd, Shi'ite, or merchant - who defied his will. To protect the Shi'ites, the Western powers imposed a no-fly zone in southern Iraq. This increased the possibility of U.S. forces again in combat against Iraqis. The war showed that even if you overwhelmingly vanquish the Iraqi tarbaby, it still sticks to you.
It stuck in another way too: appalling irregularities in U.S. government conduct vis-à-vis Iraq during 1988-90 subsequently came to light. It transpires that employees at the Atlanta branch of Banca Nazionale del Lavoro (BNL), Italy's largest bank, had connived with Iraqi officials to make $2.86 billion in unauthorized loans to the Iraqi government (The great majority of this money appears to have gone for military purchases.) As they delved deeper, investigators found evidence of coverups in both the U.S. and Italian governments. The issue not only became an election liability for the Bush administration but threatens to become another permanent scandal.
Shape of the Future
Ironically, American policy in the Persian Gulf since 1977 has been essentially successful. The Red Army did not exploit the shah's fall to occupy Iran. The Iraq-Iran war did not provoke spiraling oil prices and a worldwide depression. Kuwait did not disappear, Saddam did not deploy nukes, Iraqis are not starving by the thousands, nor are Iranian forces occupying Baghdad.
Yet most Americans would deem Washington's policy in the Persian Gulf region an abject failure. In part, this discrepancy has to do with the imperfect nature of the American accomplishment - disasters averted rather than visions attained. In part, it follows from Washington's secretive, triangular, and somewhat amoral tactics, methods which make most Americans queasy.
But we'd better get used to these deficiencies, for they typify the balance-of-power policies which characterize politics in a non-cold war world. The Persian Gulf pattern is likely to repeat itself in regard to China and its neighbors, Russia and its former colonies, the Arabs and Israel, and even the South Africa government and the African National Congress. The more quickly Americans accept the pattern, the better their country's foreign policy will function.