#7 Maximum Pressure: An Iran Primer

In this episode, your resident geopolitics nerds take on a fan-suggested topic and dive into the deteriorating US-Iran relationship. We find out exactly what makes the two countries enemies and what prevents them from reconciling. Learn about their historic JCPOA nuclear deal, how Trump tore it apart and imposed sanctions, and how it all led up to the assassination of the infamous Qassem Soleimani.

INTRO

RYAN:

We want to start by thanking all of our listeners for tuning in, and also to everyone who has reached out to us with feedback and topic suggestions. Special shoutout to Maggie O., one of our listeners, who asked us to explain some of the conflicts in the Middle East. 

We also want to say that, unfortunately, there will be no security sunday episode this week. Ramya has been sick and Hunter went home to California so there just wasn’t enough time. Apologies to anyone who was looking forward to it. 

There will be a new security sunday next week though so remember to tune in. For today, we’re excited to dive into the complex and volatile Middle East with a primer on the current state of foreign affairs with Iran. 

HUNTER:

The year is 1979…a revolution topples the Shah of Iran, and a theocratic, expansionist regime fills its place. Amid mass protests in the streets, the American embassy is attacked and taken hostage for over a year. 

This event led to a longstanding clash of civilizations and ideologies that goes on to this day. We know that coronavirus has taken precedence over practically every diplomatic matter and news story, but that doesn’t mean that the bad blood between Iran and the United States has disappeared. 

RAMYA:

Absolutely. Back in January, (and we know that feels like forever ago), the United States was just minutes away from going to war with Iran after orchestrating the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, a powerful Iranian general. That kind of conflict doesn’t just “get resolved” due to outside forces, even if it’s a global pandemic. 

We’ll get to the specifics of why that happened. But first, let’s talk about how and why the US Iranian relationship has continued to deteriorate with no signs of improvement.

RYAN:

We’ve already brought up the Iran Hostage Crisis of ‘79, but we really have to emphasize that it completely changed the trajectory of Iran’s relations with the US. 

Rather than go over all the relevant events since then, we’ll discuss the themes that have resonated in US-Iran relations through the last 40 years. 

MAJOR DISAGREEMENT: GOVERNMENT, HUMAN RIGHTS, TERRORISM

HUNTER:

Alright guys. So let’s talk about the key differences between the US and Iran. At the very core, the two countries have fundamentally different ideologies on how society and government should function in the modern world. 

As we all know, the US is a democracy. Iran, formally called the Islamic Republic of Iran, is a hybrid of theocracy and democracy.

RAMYA:

So we all know what a democracy is, and you probably have an idea of what constitutes a theocracy. For this episode, let’s go over what a theocracy is.

A theocracy is a system of government where most of its power and decision making is concentrated in an elite religious class that rules by God’s decree. Iran is ruled by a Supreme Leader called the Ayatollah, a Shiite term for the highest religious leader.

Iran, as mentioned earlier, is a hybrid of theocracy and democracy. There are still elections for government officials like legislators and the president. However, the candidates that people can vote for are decided on by the elite clergy class.

RYAN:

On the other hand, the US is based on liberal, Enlightenment era values which center on individual liberties. This is reflected in its democratic government structure, where the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion are given the utmost importance.

Look at it this way. Inherently, the US is founded on the presumption that humans can govern themselves. In contrast, Iran believes that human capacity is limited, and god’s guidance is necessary to be able to govern a society. That is why a religious elite governs the country.

HUNTER:

Where the two countries are similar is that both want to export their philosophies and styles of government across the world. I’m sure you all know of the US’s desire to sow the seeds of democracy wherever it can, whether it be Korea, Vietnam, or the Middle East. Iran is the same way, except instead of spreading democracy, it wishes to spread Shia Islam and its theocratic style of government. Iran itself is scared that the US wishes to implement a regime change policy on Iran, which would topple the Islamic Republic and make way for a US-friendly government. 

RAMYA: 

So it sounds like there are similarities between how the governments are formed and how they enact their foreign policy, but their ideologies couldn’t be more different

I’ve read numerous articles over the years about Iran’s transgressions of Human Rights, and I found that the US and Iran may not actually agree on the definition of what a human rights violation is.

RYAN: 

That’s right. The US State Department conducts a yearly Human Rights Report on Iran, which has repeatedly found that the Islamic Republic curtails its citizens’ rights to association, expression, and religion, and uses punishments and torture methods that infringe upon basic human dignity. 

For the US, these violations go directly against what the country stands for, so it views Iran’s actions as infringing upon human rights. According to the Iranian government and Quranic law, humans simply don’t have the capacity to define how people should treat each other, and that divine wisdom is necessary to make that conclusion. 

HUNTER: 

Oh I see where you’re going with this. So if the Iranian government, acting on God’s behalf chooses who people vote for, while condemning people who speak out against the system, then the government is not violating their human rights. They are putting god’s will into action, which supersedes all human concepts. As such, Iran does not find the US’s man-made laws to be sufficient for all situations, whereas God’s omnipotence can be. 

RYAN:

I mean, yes. In the simplest terms, that explains how the topic of human rights is actually not a black and white issue in Iran’s eyes, as opposed to the US who takes a hard stance against it. 

RAMYA:

Actually, we can apply that same underlying logic to terrorism, which is another issue that the two countries disagree on. Once again, it comes down to contradictory perceptions based on fundamentally different ideologies. The two view each other as the largest state sponsors of terrorism in the world, and justify their actions based on that. 

RYAN:

Wait, so tell us more about that. How do the specifics of that contradiction play out?

RAMYA:

The US views Iran’s support of groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis as sponsoring terrorist organizations, but Iran views those groups as liberation groups who are fighting for the same Shia values as Iran itself. 

In contrast, Iran views the US’s relationships with Israel, Saudi Arabia and rebel groups in Syria as sponsoring terrorism, while the US thinks the opposite. 

RYAN:

Something we haven’t talked about yet but many people might be wondering about is the Iranian nuclear program. Hunter, you studied the Iranian nuclear programme extensively. How does that fit into all this?

HUNTER:

Most recently, the US and Iran have been disagreeing about Iran’s nuclear programme. It’s basically the same issue of difference in perception. The US believes a nuclear programme leads to nuclear weapons, while Iran says that it is only gonna use it for peaceful energy purposes because nuclear weapons are against god’s will. But we’ll go more in-depth about that later on.

RAMYA:

Ok, so let’s see. We’ve covered that the US and Iran have different perspectives on how to govern and fundamentally different ideas on human rights and what constitutes terrorism.

But one of the most important things to remember is how Iran views itself in the modern world.  The country has a history spanning thousands of years and a unique culture that emphasizes national pride. The Iranian people come from the Persian civilization, which has been a powerful force since the Bronze Age.

HUNTER:

That’s a really interesting point. Iranians are definitely proud of that legacy, and the government views itself as the modern day Persia. In that way, we can assume that what the Iranian government wants is not necessarily tied down to tangible, material goals, but rather what raises the collective self esteem of the Iranian people. 

RYAN:

That is absolutely right. And that same pride can result in a deep need to save face, manifesting itself in the Quranic principle of nafy-e sabil

Nafy-e sabil posits that according to Allah’s will, non-Muslims will never dominate Muslims. So if the Iranian government perceives any kind of diplomatic matter as paving the way for Western domination, they consider it null and void

Nafy-e Sabil is an important concept as it is the foundation of Iranian foreign policy, and we see that play out when we get into the most recent developments between the two countries. 

So, on the topic of recent developments between the US and Iran, have there been any bright spots?

POST-TRUMP

RAMYA:

The most recent example of cooperation between the US and Iran was the signing of a multilateral nuclear deal called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, in 2015. It stipulated restrictive measures and routine oversight on Iran’s nuclear programme, in exchange for the US and the other signatories (like Russia, UK, France, Germany, China) lifting a number of economic sanctions on Iran. 

The JCPOA became the Obama administration’s signature diplomatic success, and quelled fears in Europe over Iran’s growing nuclear capabilities. For Iran, it allowed the economy to grow considerably. A lot of that success can be attributed to the Obama administration’s understanding of nafy-e sabil, in that the agreement treats Iran like a respected equal.

RYAN:

That’s correct. However, the Trump administration viewed the JCPOA as a terrible deal that should’ve shut down the Iranian nuclear programme for good. 

So, in May 2018, Trump withdrew from the agreement. He said there was definitive proof that Iran was creating a nuclear weapon. Therefore, he said, Iran was violating the JCPOA. However, the other signatories’ intelligence agencies maintained that there was definitive proof of Iran not making a nuke.

HUNTER:

Well, whatever the case was, ever since Trump withdrew from the deal, the US has pursued a policy of maximum pressure, with the intention of forcing the Iranian regime to abandon its nuclear programme and its support for rebel groups and militias across the Middle East. This new policy entailed re-instituting sanctions on Iranian goods and devastating its economy. Ramya you’re pretty familiar with the economics of this, what were these sanctions on?

RAMYA:

Well, the sanctions hit pretty much everything, ranging from Iran’s largest exports like hand-woven carpets, pistachios, caviar, and of course, oil, to personal sanctions on current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, his inner circle, and multiple ministers. The unfortunate truth is that in 2016, after the JCPOA was signed, Iran’s economy went from having a negative GDP growth rate to almost 13%. When Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, he also threatened any and all countries importing Iranian oil with sanctions, and banned all American and some foreign firms from trading with Iran. So, foreign investment in Iran dried up, Iran’s oil exports dwindled, and its GDP growth rate went back into the negatives. 

RYAN:

That sounds bad, but for someone like me who doesn’t really have a strong grasp on economics, what does all this mean for the average person?

RAMYA:

The economic turmoil caused the value of the Iranian rial to fall by half and it has continued to fall. Inflation rates have shot up and been steadily increasing. Basically, the Iranian people’s money is worth less than half of what it used to be, and the prices of everyday goods like milk, sugar and beef are consistently increasing. In the end, the “maximum pressure” tactic by the US is really affecting the Iranian people greatly.

HUNTER:

So the sanctions were a clear violation of nafy-e sabil, and Iran needed to respond, so the country resumed its nuclear programme in violation of the JCPOA. Iran announced that it had surpassed the JCPOA-imposed limit on low-enriched uranium in June 2019. Low-enriched uranium isn’t very suitable for making a nuclear weapon, so it has to be refined, which is why Iran also began enriching the uranium to a higher potency than the deal allows. Both developments undeniably put Iran on a closer path towards obtaining nuclear weapons, with many experts saying that Iran already has enough uranium to make one. 

RAMYA:

Have the US and Iran had any military conflict while the sanctions and nuclear matters went on? 

RYAN:

Oh definitely. The two countries have been skirmishing on land and at sea. in December 2019 An Iranian missile attack hit an Iraqi base in Kirkuk, which killed an American contractor and wounded several others. The US retaliated by striking the Iran-supported Kataib Hezbollah militia, killing 25 and injuring another 55 that same month. 

HUNTER:

Yep, and Iranian gunboats started harassing numerous foreign oil tankers, which incited Trump to declare that all US ships in the area will have Navy escorts. Those military standoffs culminated in the US orchestrating the January assassination of Qasem Soleimani, a major general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). 

RYAN:

So, some of you may be wondering why the US chose to target this man and why it’s such a big deal. Well, Soleimani was potentially the second most powerful man in Iran behind the Supreme Leader

He led the IRGC’s Quds Force, which specializes in guerilla warfare and military intelligence outside of Iran. Soleimani’s main goal was to sponsor Shiite militias and terrorist organizations in Syria, Yemen, Israel, and all across the Middle East. Basically, he was one of America’s top priorities in the Middle East and a frequent thorn in the White House’s side. 

HUNTER: 

Well that makes sense. But here’s the question: if this is all because of Iran’s nuclear programme, why doesn’t Iran just abandon it to save its economy?

RYAN:

It comes down to nafy-e sabil. Iran/Persia was a preeminent world power for over 2000 years, but it has spent the last century getting manipulated by western powers like Britain and later the United States. The repeated coup attempts, the CIA backed Shah regime, the constant pressure from sanctions for the past 40 years — all are viewed as humiliating violations of nafy-e sabil, which can’t be tolerated by any means. 

RAMYA:

That’s right, and the nuclear programme has been a source of Iranian national pride for decades, and so it is a powerful salve to a bruised ego. The Iranian regime feels that nuclear weapons are the only way to both establish themselves as a global power and bolster defense against the US’s regime change policy, so no economic cost is too steep. 

So Hunter, does the existence of the nuclear program make it more likely that the US would go to war with Iran?

HUNTER:

Yes and no. It’s during the development of nuclear weapons where the risk of war is highest. Once they have nukes, the cost of going to war with them becomes too large to ignore. Think about it this way. Iran watched the US invade neighboring Iraq in 2003 on suspicions that they had WMDs. The US invaded one of the most militarized countries in the world, destroyed the Saddam regime, and left Iraq a burnt-out shadow of its former self. Iran watched all this happen, and will do anything they can to prevent the same from happening to them. 

RAMYA:

Understood. And all of Trump’s saber rattling only reinforces the Iranian view that an invasion like this is imminent

RYAN:

And nuclear weapons are one of the ways that Iran could make sure that this impending war is too costly for the Americans to consider fighting. Imagine a situation where any attempt to invade Iran would threaten a nuclear response against Israel, or even the US itself. Now ask yourself if you’d still be willing to fight that war. 

LOOKING FORWARD

HUNTER:

Let’s talk about how things will look moving forward. Since Trump decided on a “maximum pressure” approach, Iran’s missile programme has only escalated, and we keep getting closer and closer to war. The current dynamic between the US and Iran can only lead to war, really. The sanctions, no matter how crippling, aren’t doing anything to stop Iran’s nuclear programme. In fact, they’re pushing Iran even further away. 

RYAN:

Sanctions have a history of working, but only towards one goal: to get the parties involved to the table to negotiate. The Trump administration’s sanctions are being used as a punishment instead of as a diplomatic tool. And the problem is, sanctions are like antibiotics– they are less effective when they are overused. We know that Iran will never back down because of nafy-e sabil, so all the sanctions are doing is causing the Iranian people to despise the US even more, which gives more legitimacy to the regime. 

RAMYA:

The US needs a new diplomatic approach to Iran, starting with the sanctions. 

The White House can keep them on Supreme Leader Khamenei, his inner circle and other ministers, But many of the sanctions need to be removed or reworked so that the Iranian people don’t end up suffering so much. That way, the US can still oppose the regime itself while rebuilding ties with the Iranian people, which will put much more pressure on the regime than economic sanctions ever could. The US needs to approach Iran as an equal partner, because nafy-e sabil means Iran will not tolerate any condescension or chastisement. Overall, the US must understand the differences between the two countries to find a diplomatic solution before war eventually breaks out. 

FINAL WRAP UP 

What’s something you want people to remember if they remember nothing else about this episode? 

RYAN:

Many of the differences between the United States and Iran come down to fundamental disagreements on key issues like human rights, terrorism, and nuclear programmes. These disagreements are rooted in the separate governing philosophies that each country employs; in this case it’s the US’s liberal democratic values set against Iran’s theocratic Islamic beliefs. Both countries are similar in that they both want to export those values and beliefs to other countries, which has put the US and Iran on a collision course over whose ideals are better. You can see this collision course reflected in the countries’ actions lately.

RAMYA:

The past two years have seen a relatively rapid escalation in the conflict between the two countries, and the primary driver was the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. Pulling out of the deal meant the US was free to institute sweeping economic sanctions on all parts of the Iranian economy, and it did just that. After multiple rounds of sanctions crippling the economy, Iran began violating the JCPOA in earnest, creating and refining uranium at a rate that now allows Iran to make a nuclear weapon. The resulting tension from the sanctions and the nuclear programme even led to the US assassination of key Iranian general Qasem Soleimani. At this rate, the US and Iran are closer to war than almost ever before. 

HUNTER:

It’s important to remember that Iran is already in a very tough situation. Its economy is in shambles, and low oil prices have squeezed its ability to make money from oil exports. On top of that, it’s trying to fund all these militias across the middle east and jumpstart its nuclear program. For most countries this would be enough to force them to negotiate. But because of their unique culture, the regime can’t afford to back down without losing all credibility. With no way to save face, they are lashing out instead. To the US it doesn’t seem rational, but to Iran it’s the only viable option. That’s why it’s so important to change approaches: the more the US pushes them, the more dangerous they become.

2 thoughts

  1. Overall, I think you did a very good job covering a lot of territory in such a limited space. But it seems you’ve missed a few things. Given the fact that US nuclear posture vis-à-vis the Soviet Union for 50 years during the Cold War was based on the notion of deterrence, or mutually assured destruction (MAD) theory, it was surprising that you did not mention the role of Israeli nuclear weapons targeting Iran and how this may be a factor driving Iran towards developing its own nuclear weapons. And while you mentioned that Iran certainly doesn’t want to end up being invaded like Iraq, you neglected to mention that Iraq and Libya both gave up on their efforts to build nuclear weapons and North Korea did not, and everyone has seen how that’s worked out in terms of who gets invaded and who doesn’t, so arguably there might be some lessons there that are germane. Also, while you briefly mentioned the Shah, you mostly started the history from the 1979 revolution, and you did not mention the US involvement in the 1953 overthrow of Mossaddegh and the lasting feelings of animosity towards the US that engendered over the next 25 years. While the Shah was certainly a modernizing force (maybe pushing too much modernization too fast on a culturally conservative society), he also grew increasingly repressive, so why begin your US-Iran history only in 1979? Furthermore, if your thesis is that the US is opposed to Iran because it is an undemocratic regime with human rights abuses, that doesn’t account for why the US has no apparent problem with other undemocratic regimes in the region from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to UAE to Morocco, Bahrain, Jordan and beyond (not to mention with the regime of the Shah before 1979). I mean, the US State Department’s yearly Human Rights Report on these regimes have also found they’ve repeatedly curtailed their citizens’ rights to association, expression, and religion, and use torture that infringe upon basic human dignity, so that explanation for why the US opposes Iran is arguably less than comprehensive. If it’s not the lack of democracy issue, one wonders what else is at issue in the US-Iran conflagration. Some have argued that Iran seeks to exercise its own foreign policy, independent of the US, and that’s what the US is opposed to. There are legitimate differences of opinion on regional issues, such as the Israeli occupation of Palestine (you mentioned Hezbollah and Hamas but not their raison d’etre regarding Israel) and who is allowed to have nuclear weapons and who isn’t, etc. But there are also areas where the US and Iran agree, such as in their opposition to the Sunni extremist Islamic State. I’m certainly no fan of the despicable regime in Tehran, but your narrative has some holes in it from a foreign policy perspective.

    1. Hi Rick,

      First off, thank you for listening to the show! We’re always looking for our episodes to create a discussion and inform our listeners. And you bring up some excellent points–there is a lot more history before 1979, and a lot more regional dynamics that affect the US-Iran relationship and the Iranian nuclear program. You are absolutely right that the the Israeli nuclear program plays a role, as does the example set by Iraq and North Korea. You are also correct that on the whole, human rights issues might not be the primary driver of US policy towards Iran. It is often the case in foreign policy that rhetoric does not match actions, and the Middle East is a great example of that.

      So in short, yes. There are certainly gaps in our narrative that would have been interesting to talk about and likely relevant. This episode was designed as a primer for people who don’t have a deep foreign policy background, and is not meant to be all-encompassing. The Iran issue is so complex that it would be impossible for us to cover all of it in a 25 minute segment, so many of the points you brought up were, quite simply, cut for time.

      That being said, we are thankful for your response! We are always looking to engage with our listeners and build the show collaboratively. If there are any topics you’d like to see us take on, or any points you’d like us to go into in more depth, shoot us an email and we’ll try to work it into the show!

      Best,

      Hunter and the Geopolitics Rundown team

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