The Observer view on averting the west’s collision course with Iran
A ceremony in Tehran last week marking the third anniversary of the assassination in Iraq by a US drone of Qassem Suleimani, a senior commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), conveyed a defiant message to the west. “We have not and will not forget the blood of martyr Suleimani. The Americans must know that revenge is certain and the murderers will have no easy sleep,” Iran’s hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, vowed.
Iran has already attempted to avenge Suleimani’s death through what US officials say was an IRGC plot to kill John Bolton, Donald Trump’s former national security adviser. It is demanding the arrest of more than 150 American and British “suspects”, including Trump, who ordered the drone strike. Tehran has also imposed sanctions on western officials and, bizarrely, the RAF base at Menwith Hill, North Yorkshire, which it claims assisted the strike. The UK is expected to follow the US in designating the IRGC a terrorist group.
The evident depth of anger and enmity felt within Iran’s regime over Suleimani’s killing and many other long-festering grievances is not wholly surprising, yet it should give western governments pause. It fuels an evolving, many-fronted threat to western security interests. It also reflects a huge strategic defeat: the failure of a decades-long US and Europe-led policy of engagement and the consequent emergence of the Islamic Republic as an implacable foe.
Bad blood may be traced back to the 1979 toppling of the Shah, a key US ally. Israel views Iran as an existential threat. Its backing for Syria’s dictator and anti-western Shia militias in Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq is seen as all of a piece.
The risk of open confrontation with the west is further aggravated by three explosive issues. One is the anticipated collapse of long-running talks to deny Iran nuclear weapons-making capabilities. If diplomacy fails, the prospect of military action by Israel is real. A second source of added tension is Iran’s supply of “kamikaze drones” to Russia for its war in Ukraine. On Friday, the US slapped yet more sanctions on Iran in bid to curb this dangerous escalation.
Most threatening of all perhaps, at least from the mullahs’ perspective, is culturally and ideologically destabilising support across the western world for the ongoing struggle for women’s rights inside Iran – and for an end to executions, torture, censorship and clerical repression. Like their peers inside the country, thousands of demonstrators gathered in London this weekend to demand a new, free Iran. The old order trembles.
Was Iran’s descent into domestic tyranny and international pariah status inevitable? Moderate presidents Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005) and Hassan Rouhani (2013-21) encouraged hopes of rapprochement with the west and more progressive policies at home. That they ultimately failed was in part attributable to the hostility of hardliners and conservative control of the Majlis (parliament).
Would-be reformers also struggled with a powerful, corrupt IRGC and the baleful influence of its chief, the fiercely anti-American supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is at him, principally, that the wrath of those protesting against the death of Mahsa Amini is aimed. If Iran is to change, they rightly insist, Khamenei must go.
The regime’s slide into lawless illegitimacy is Khamenei’s dire legacy. So, too, is a succession of bad foreign policy choices, typified by his “look east” strategy favouring ties with Russia and China over the west. Yet policy mistakes and complacency by politicians in the west have also contributed to the crisis.
Barack Obama tried hard to make engagement work. The result was the 2015 nuclear deal. But Republicans in Congress blocked the across-the-board easing of sanctions that Tehran expected. That failure to deliver undercut Rouhani and the reformers politically as Iranians’ economic plight inexorably worsened.
Western policy further shredded with the advent of Trump. Egged on by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s hard-right prime minister, he reneged on the nuclear deal in 2018. Iran has since greatly increased its weapons-related capabilities. What Trump and Netanyahu said they most feared – a nuclear-armed Iran – has been brought closer by their political machinations.
Obama’s decision not to intervene directly in Syria’s civil war left the door open to the IRGC and its ally, Russia. Likewise, the west’s failure to seriously address the Israel-Palestine conflict allowed Iran’s hardliners to grow their influence with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Meanwhile, Israel’s escalating “shadow war” brought a series of provocative assassinations of Iranian officials and scientists.
With Iran now positioned as Russia’s major wartime ally, the potential for these various strands of conflict to merge into a large confrontation is obvious. Yet, surprisingly, there is little discussion in western countries about what to do. Do the US and its allies seek regime change in Iran? If so, do they plan to actively assist the protesters?
If not, then a rethink is urgently required about how best to rebuild a constructive dialogue with the majority of Iranians who reject their country’s increasingly desperate, illegitimate leadership – and dream of a prosperous, democratic future. What, exactly, is the west’s policy towards Iran? A fresh start is needed, before it’s too late.