Iran was the strategic ally of the United States in the Middle East region from 1952 until the Iranian revolution swept away the country's last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in 1979.
Iran’s revolution was supposed to have liberated the people from the clutches of a despotic regime. In fact, there has been a popularly elected parliament in Iran since the late 19th century when the Iranian people imposed a limited democracy on the Qajar emperors who had ruled Iran for 500 years.
Iran’s modern rulers have sought to control the parliament in the same manner as the emperors. The Iranian revolution of 1979 was stolen from the people by equally tyrannical, but now religious, leaders.
As a result of its new leadership in 1979, Iran turned from being a strategic partner — which guaranteed stability in the Middle East region — to an adversary intent on destabilizing and controlling the region to serve its own very narrow interests.
Using the oil wealth that the British developed for Iran after the world wars, the mullahs — Iran’s religious leaders — bought and funded surrogates with wide reach. Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard became tools of the regime to bring countries of the region under Tehran’s control.
The United States was forced to go it alone in curbing Iran’s growing negative activities in the region.
The task of controlling Iran was made even more urgent because of the threat it posed to Israel. In its attempt to exert influence in the surrounding Arab world, Iran embraced the Palestinian cause with fervor, providing funding and weapons to Hamas and other radical groups fighting Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.
Iran also is at the center of the conflicts in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. In each case, Iran seeks to control the actions of so-called proxy governments through bribery, intimidation and, in the case of Iraq, direct armed intervention by the Shiite militias — many of whose soldiers came directly from Iran, where they were members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
In Syria, Iranian mercenaries fought to prevent the overthrow of Bashar Assad, whom the Iranian regime controlled absolutely.
Qassem Soleimani was in charge of each of the proxy states. He was extremely effective in establishing Iran’s so-called “Shiite crescent,” the region encompassing Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon where Shiite Muslims reside. (Shiites are a large Muslim sect, but are vastly outnumbered by Sunnis. A schism between the two sects dates to the seventh century.)
President Barack Obama was determined to control Iranian behavior, especially in the development of nuclear weapons. He saw this as an issue of prime importance to the United States, Israel and U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf.
The successful negotiation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the Iran nuclear deal — in 2015 was the first step in controlling Iran under an international framework.
After Obama announced the agreement, he said he “hoped” it would lead Iran to be “less aggressive, less hostile, more cooperative” in the region.
That hope was not realized.
Iran, through its highly effective commander Qassem Soleimani, continued to expand Iranian influence and instability throughout the region.
Even though President Donald Trump made it clear that he wanted to alter Iranian behavior and was intent on canceling the Iranian nuclear deal, it was, in fact, President Obama who first angered the Iranians with what they charged was a breach of the 2015 agreement.
It is conventional wisdom that U.S. sanctions imposed by the United States during both the Bush and Obama administrations are what brought Iran to the negotiating table. Iran was promised that sanctions would be lifted if it complied with the terms of the nuclear deal. Obama further promised that he would promote investment banking by American banks in Iran. But Obama never moved to help develop the Iranian economy.
In early 2016, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani claimed that the U.S. had violated the nuclear deal, and he and other hard-liners threatened to pull out of it.
From the start, the Trump administration focused on the inadequacy of the agreement in curbing Iran’s hegemonic activities and began to increase sanctions in a policy that Trump called “maximum pressure.”
In 2018, Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal and declared that Iran would have to beg for renegotiation of the agreement as well as stop its nefarious activities in the region.
Iran reacted with what it called a policy of maximum resistance. Soleimani increased acts of violence in all the proxy states. The Iranian government exchanged verbal threats with the U.S. in the media.
Meanwhile, the effect of the sanctions on the Iranian economy increased and Trump continued to apply maximum pressure in an attempt to get Iran to negotiate.
Last September, Rouhani and Trump came close to having a face-to-face meeting at the United Nations, but it did not come to fruition, likely because Soleimani believed Iran’s strategy of maximum resistance should be allowed to work.
The face-off between maximum pressure and maximum resistance endures.
It should come as no surprise that the United States took advantage of intelligence information to kill Soleimani. He was a bad actor who had the blood of Americans and many others on his hands. For him, the ends always justified the means.
How the Iranians react to his killing will determine the course ahead.
So far, their reaction has been perfunctory, and the U.S. has held its fire. So far.
The Soleimani killing illustrates the level of control the Iranians have achieved in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The governments of those countries condemned the killing, and Iraq’s prime minister went so far as to declare three days of national mourning — that for a foreigner who had violated Iraqi sovereignty by coordinating the attack against the American embassy in Baghdad.
My hope is that the situation will ease in the coming days. The Iranians know a war with the U.S. would end in disaster for them.
They will continue their strategy of maximum resistance; we will continue ours of maximum pressure. The trouble is that it’s the long-suffering Iranian people who will suffer the most.
John B. Craig is the ambassador in residence at Elizabethtown College’s Center for Global Understanding and Peacemaking. He served as President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Oman and as a special assistant to President George W. Bush.