Juliette Tolay, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Political Science
Penn State Harrisburg
Scenarios I see are escalation toward military conflict, status quo of tension and management through low level of conflict through proxies, or accommodation – easing of tensions
No way of knowing which scenario is more likely
Points of conflict: Syria US backs movement to overthrow Assad, Iran a major force to provide military and financial support to Assad
Lebanon – Iran is longtime sponsor of Hezbollah, US supported pro-Western orgs, US views Hezbollah as terrorist and adversary to peace process
US and Iran at odds over Persian Gulf, Iran has sharp rivalry with Saudi Arabia, which supports US, and US has supported Saudis
US concerned about Iranian efforts to destabilize nations on Gulf
Points of accommodation: war against ISIS, which is devoted to slaughtering Shiites. ISIS views Iran as heretical, to be destroyed
It’s a significant point of agreement, since ISIS represents a security threat to both nations
Second point of accommodation: Nuclear agreement, very controversial in both nations, but both nations committed to implementation
Third point: stabilization of Iraq, The US and Iran don’t agree on what a stable Iraq would look like, but would like to see Iraq become a stable nation again. But support different political parties, interests, and visions, but an unstable Iraq is a threat to both countries.
So grounds for conversation. Iran glad to see US overthrow Taliban, since persecuted Shiite minority
One of major concerns: support for Syrian govt, Iranian support for militias in different countries (Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen) – on sides of civil wars that the US opposes. Iran funds and arms militias, but doesn’t have complete control over them
For US to condemn Iran for that manipulation for local conflicts, like pot calling the kettle black.
Both Iran and US adopt sanctimonious pose
The US is worried about Iran’s threat, or appearance of threat, to stability of Arab Gulf states, including Bahrain and Saudi Arabia
Gulf States concerned about Iranian subversion in their countries
The rulers of the Gulf States trample the rights of Shiite citizens, treated like dirt
Monarchies portray rights-based struggles as Iranian subversion, accuse Iran of meddling, the way the US perceived USSR during Cold War
Iranian threat might be overblown
US has military bases surrounding Iran, makes you realize whose a threat to whom. Largest preposition base in world outside US is in Qatar, fifth fleet based in Bahrain, and large bases in Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey
Iranian threat to US is small boats dropping mines in Iraqi coastal waters
Iran doesn’t like fact that US wants to overthrow Assad
Relationship has noting to do with religion or Shiihism, purely strategic relationship that’s beneficial to both nations
US military presence in Iraq makes Iranians very uncomfortable
Hardliners in both countries that would like to escalate tensions
People in Iran think nuclear deal is bad, and want to ditch it
Deep-seated ideological hostility, in their DNA, a political camp of anti-Americanism that doesn’t want to see improvements because it would weaken their standing in Iranian domestic politics
Fear that improving relations with West would lead to growing Western cultural influence in Iran that would diminish their influence
Revolution in 1979 was against Western cultural influence, so ideologues afraid that easing of tensions could lead to backsliding
Hardliners are afraid is what US really wants is to overthrow their govt, and they have reason to suppose that outsiders want to meddle in their politics. 1953 CIA overthrown of prime minister.
Iranians think US is much more capable and clever in foreign affairs
Have pragmatists in Iranian political scene, president Rouhani, want to end Iran’s diplomatic isolation to improve economy.
Iran’s economy hurt by sanctions, but Iran hurts itself too, too much state-dominated, crony capitalism, inefficient. Iranians suffer high unemployment and low income. These want to revive trade with West and US, if US will allow that.
In US, have our own hardliners who think nuclear deal a bad deal, not unreasonable position. Does not affect ballistic missile program, does not address support for militias, so maintains that Iran gets economic revival but can continue to frustrate Western effort to restabilize Middle East
Not clear cut idea that deal was all gain, but sometimes in diplomacy, a bad deal is better than a worse deal.
Trump said he’d abandon deal, but US has followed through on next stage, and waved sanctions, but added new sanctions for anti-American organizations, but US has not abandoned nuclear deal
Hardliners in both countries want other country to show bad faith so they aren’t the ones who looked like the sabotage the deal
Nuclear deal a good way to tone down any possibility of escalation toward war.
War games show a messy outcome, won’t advance US interests in a clear way. Consensus on both sides is that escalation is to be avoided, but not at all costs, because either side has no idea where it would lead to
Iran – could lead to full scale US invasion and overthrow
US – don’t know if it would be quagmire
So ample caution on both sides
Some say you can just fire Tomahawks and they will cave
That’s an idiotic idea. Khameini and people around him are tough men, they don’t scare and don’t back down
Quick strike against Iran might be gratifying for American public, but don’t see Iranian govt caving under that strike, so wind up with situation that if you don’t strike harder, you back down and lose credibility
Miscalculation, forces not far apart in Gulf, Iraq, and Syria, so escalation is possible, and people on both sides want to see it happen due to crazy optimism
Status quo of tense and unsatisfying situation but most people consider it preferable to escalation and war
Possibility of reset ahs greatest promise for stabilizing Middle East, but depends on domestic politics in Iran and US, but pragmatists don’t dominate in either country
Stalemate in both nations for visions of future, one in Iran likely to go on, no sign of thaw in Iranian politics
SQ is best either side can hope for for now.
Iran had constitutional from 1905-11. Ruler acceded to popular protest and granted constitution in 1906. Royalist powers launched coup and seized capital in 1908, civil war followed.
Howard Baskerville and American missionary in Tabriz, took up arms with constitutional forces, was killed defending the lines
A marker in Tabriz honoring Baskerville
Morgan Schuster, banker who organized treasury department. Russians objected because trade was untaxed, so Russia issued ultimatum to fire Schuster, or Russia would invade. Parliament didn’t want to invade, voted to dismiss him, but Russia invaded anyway.
Other nations besides Israel would feel threatened by Iran nukes
Israel and Saudis have security cooperation
Rev Guard have decisive voice in security matters, have red lines that parliament and president can’t go past, but don’t control everything
These elections are sometimes surprising, not fair and democratic, but outcomes sometimes surprising
Don’t know if counting will be accurate
High percentage of young, hard to say what it portends for future of regime, don’t feel as strongly about history of Ayatollah Khomeini
Don’t have hostile view of US, but Iran not a representative democracy
Time is on US side, see where we stand 10 years
Iranians now having contact with Israelis, don’t hate each other
My own person is look for points of accommodation, ways to avoid conflict, tone down Saudi-Iranian rivalry
US sees itself as supporting Arabs against expansion Iran
Firmly believe in domestic relations, dialog is essentialHopefully with time, less fearful attitudes of young attitudes of young Iranians toward West will prevail
Ambassador Alexander Vershbow
November 30, 2017 - WSCC