One year after the United States government assassinated Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani and nearly plunged the two countries into war, will the new administration lead a shift in relations?
Incoming president Joe Biden has said that he wants to rejoin the Obama-era nuclear deal that Trump backed out of. But not every country will welcome the post-Trump United States with open arms—and picking up where Washington left off with Iran, in particular, may not be so easy.
A look at the last year in the US-Iran relationship reveals why. After assassinating Suleimani, Washington made other decisions that were devastating for Iranians. While Trump wavered and shrugged in the face of the pandemic’s toll in the United States, he was focused and relentless when it came to making life worse for Iranians. Even as the pandemic exploded, the United States intensified a decades-old sanctions regime, hurting the Iranian medical industry and impoverishing millions of Iranians.
Washington ratcheted up military hostility too, doing just about everything to provoke Tehran short of actually invading Iran. It moved aircraft carriers to Iran’s coast and kept them there for the entire year. It added thousands of troops to the region in countries surrounding Iran, where they joined the many thousands who were already stationed there. It armed and encouraged its allies Saudi Arabia and Israel in their own actions targeting Iran.
In fact, the year was bookended with the assassination of another high-profile Iranian, nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in November. Fakhrizadeh had long been targeted by Israel, and a US official has said that Tel Aviv was behind the killing, though Israel officially denies it.
In the days after last January’s assassination, when the United States and Iran stood on the brink of greater conflict, Americans in multiple cities rallied, denouncing war. Crucially, Tehran showed restraint in its response, carrying out a limited attack on US bases in Iraq calculated to show that Iran could not be stepped on without a response, while avoiding American casualties.
Washington cannot count on that restraint forever, however, given that its hostility has produced tremendous Iranian suffering. That suffering, which is unavoidable for people in Iran, barely figures in the American conversation about the relationship. This is why we should not expect Iran to easily and graciously accept a US return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the formal name of the nuclear deal)—and why a return to that deal alone is not enough.
American policy toward Iran needs to be guided by dignity, not domination. And that means, beyond rejoining the agreement, Washington must dramatically transform its approach. This should start with dismantling every aspect of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign—including the sanctions, additional troop deployments, and the assassinations.
But the United States must also work to repair the damage from a much longer history of violence toward Iran.
That history began in 1953, with the CIA-engineered coup against Mohammad Mosaddegh, the popular prime minister of the country’s first democratically elected government. Mosaddegh wanted Iranian control over its oil; in response, the US and British governments toppled him, and the autocratic shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, returned to power, which he would hold until his overthrow in the 1979 revolution.
Later, when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980, the United States supported the Iraqi dictator with arms and intelligence. Entire Iranian neighborhoods were flattened, and tens of thousands of Iranians were made refugees. Thousands of Iranians were killed by Saddam’s chemical weapons while a million people on both sides lost their lives in the war.
In July 1988, the US warship Vincennes downed an Iranian civilian airliner flying over the Persian Gulf, claiming to have mistaken it for a military fighter jet. All 290 people on board the aircraft were killed, including 66 children. The United States later decorated Capt. Will Rogers “for exceptionally meritorious conduct” as commander of the Vincennes during that time.
The United States has been imposing sanctions on Iran since 1979. While some were briefly lifted when the United States, Iran, Germany, and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council all signed the JCPOA in 2015, many remained in place. Then Trump withdrew from JCPOA and escalated the sanctions.
Today, US officials and analysts in Washington’s think tanks openly discuss using sanctions to make life unbearable for civilians in order to foment dissent. While sanctions nominally target specific purchases and sales, like those in the energy sector and transactions by Iranian banks, the result is near-total financial isolation because of the risk of “secondary sanctions” from Washington that other countries—or even individual banks or corporations—face if they do engage in business with Iran.
The economic devastation undercuts both individuals’ ability to purchase medicine and the government’s ability to provide health care for its people, making Iran’s Covid-19 crisis dramatically worse. Unable to obtain necessary medical equipment, Iran has struggled to enforce safety measures, like temporarily shutting down businesses or providing financial support to individuals unable to work. And when Iran requested a $5 billion IMF loan to fight the pandemic, the United States blocked it.
Removing these Trump-era measures to brutalize Iranians is urgent. But the entire history of US policy toward Iran in the 20th and 21st centuries has been cruel and based on domination. We need a decisive break with it, and a total transformation of the US-Iran relationship.
This call for change could be amplified by the resurgent US movement to defund and demilitarize the police because of their violence toward Black people and other people of color, and their role in suppressing dissent. These conversations about demilitarizing US policy abroad and police at home should go hand in hand. The racism and violence of the US government stretches beyond its borders, and that means the work to dismantle institutions rooted in white supremacy must as well.
A future in which the Iran-US relationship is rooted in dignity is possible. But first, the United States must stop the harm and reverse the damage it’s caused.