Crash Course: Iran
Iran looms large in American foreign policy for a couple of reasons. One is that the country is a huge oil producer: they have the fourth-largest proven oil reserves in the world. They also control the Strait of Hormuz, the only sea route from the Persian Gulf to the open ocean. About 20% of the world’s oil supply passes through that route.
Then there is Iran’s nuclear program. The country maintains that their program is only intended to provide energy, but the West (and many of the other countries in the Middle East, including Iran’s chief regional rival, Saudi Arabia) worry that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon.
But there are deeper roots to the tensions between the U.S. and Iran. Prior to 1935, the area that now makes up Iran was known as Persia. In the early 20th century, Britain owned controlling shares in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. This was right as oil was emerging as the main source of fuel around the world, taking the place of coal.
In 1951, Mohammed Mossadegh was elected as Iranian prime minister. At the time, Britain was reaping all of the benefits of Iranian oil production, as the expense of the Iranian people. So Mossadegh decided to nationalize the oil industry.
So that’s about when Britain started plotting his overthrow. Eventually, they brought the CIA in on the plan. At the time, the U.S. was very wary of the potential spread of communism, and very sympathetic to an ally’s desire to control a large part of the global oil industry. CIA money and planning was critical to the success of the coup against Mossadegh, which took place in 1953. (Side note: this was the first time that the CIA successfully overthrew a foreign government. Big day for them.)
So then the shah, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi came to power, and was more or less considered a Western puppet until the Iranian revolution of 1979, leading to the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini as the supreme authority in the country. That was also when that crazy shit with the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran happened.
Anyway, the bad blood between the U.S. and Iran is still deeply rooted in the fact that the U.S. participated in the overthrow of an elected leader in Iran.
Iran recently held presidential elections, and cleric and former diplomat Hassan Rouhani won. He was sworn in on August 4.
His campaign centered on a promise to improve the Iranian economy and end Iran’s diplomatic isolation, in part by resolving the conflict over the nuclear program. For several years he was his country’s chief nuclear negotiator.
He has been an outspoken critic of Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In fact, it was after Ahmadinejad’s election that he resigned from his post as nuclear negotiator.
Rouhani has spoken of greater engagement with the West, although he has also been quick to point out that negotiations must take place in a context that gives Iran respect, criticizing the sanctions the U.S. has imposed on the country. The U.S. has lauded these statements, but at the same time just imposed the strictest sanctions ever on Iran.
Rouhani decried the new sanctions as contradictory, saying that they undermine the U.S.’s promise to engage substantively in negotiations. I have to say, I absolutely agree. It was rash and unreasonable to impose new sanctions just as Iran was swearing in their new president; it would have been far more reasonable to see how negotiations with Rouhani progressed before making any such decision.
But then, the promise for greater engagement came from the White House, while Congress imposed the sanctions. The State Department has also expressed concern about the new sanctions.
There is a lot of optimism around Rouhani’s election. He certainly comes across as more open to negotiation than his predecessor, and he seems genuinely interested in improving the country’s economy and civil liberties record. However, there are some other factors to keep in mind about Iranian politics.
One is that Rouhani entered into politics in the 1970s because he was such a strong supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini, the man who became Iran’s Supreme Leader. The new Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, is still the single most powerful man in Iran.
Another is that all candidates for office in Iran must be vetted by the Guardian Council, which must also approve all bills passed by the Iranian parliament. The Council consists of six theologians appointed by the Supreme Leader and six jurists approved by parliament. It is currently controlled by the more conservative elements of the Iranian government.
So any reforms that Rouhami may push for will still have to go through them, which could make for some very interesting politics moving forward.