Why Iran Is the US’s Go-To Enemy in the Middle East

Tehran, Iran, protest
Anti-US protest following a Friday prayer led by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, in Tehran, Iran, on January 17, 2020. Photo credit: © Hamid Vakili/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press
Reading Time: 17 minutes

Gary Sick was there when the US-Iran relationship quite literally blew up.

He worked on Iran issues as part of the National Security Council staff in the Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations. During the Carter administration, he was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the ensuing hostage crisis. In this WhoWhatWhy podcast, he reviews 40 years of failed US policy toward Iran, and discusses the following matters:  

    • Why Iran has become the “go-to enemy” for the US in the Middle East.
    • Why, unlike other US enemies, Iran has no friends in the US policy establishment.  
    • The Iranian revolution took place just after the US retreated from Vietnam, where 50,000 Americans died. Today, Vietnam is an ally and a popular tourist destination while Iran remains a nemesis. 
    • Why the Iran nuclear deal was actually working, and why those who advocate regime change are wrong. 
    • The US relationship with Saudi Arabia, the Saudis’ relationship with Iran, and why the Europeans are basically unable to make anything better.
    • A future Iranian reaction to the death of General Qassem Soleimani, and why, in the long run, we should be very afraid of the potential response.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the radio whowhatwhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

If there is any one problem that runs through the center of American foreign policy over the past 70 years through eight successive administrations, Republican and Democrat alike, it is the always complicated, sometimes poisonous relationship with Iran. The markers along the road are tall. The U.S. coup that installed the Shah of the 1979 hostage crisis, Khobar Towers, Lebanon, Holocaust denial, and the continually failed U.S. efforts to seize opportunities when presented by Iran, have all contributed.

Jeff Schechtman: It seems that our relationship with Iran never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity. 40 years ago, the Iran hostage crisis forever transformed our view of that nation. For many, our memories of and attitude towards Iran were frozen in place at that precise moment in time. As students yelled ‘death to the Shah’, it set in motion a chain of events that has become part of the DNA of both countries. Trying to understand it and treat it has been one of the central pillars of American foreign policy. Yet with each successive treatment, the disease always threatens to burst out and become full-blown. That’s where we are once again.
Jeff Schechtman: As Winston Churchill once described the former Soviet Union, Iran is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Few understand this dynamic better than my guest, Gary Sick. Gary served on the National Security Council staff under presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan. He was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis and is the author of several books on U.S-Iranian relations. He’s a retired captain in the U.S. Navy with service in the Persian Gulf, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. He was the Deputy Director for International Affairs at the Ford Foundation. He has a PhD in Political Science from Columbia, where he’s a senior research scholar, adjunct professor of International Affairs, and the former director of the Middle East Institute, and he is the founder and executive director of the Gulf/2000 Project.
Jeff Schechtman: It is my pleasure to welcome Gary Sick to the whowhatwhy podcast. Gary, thanks so much for joining us.
Gary Sick: Well, it’s a real pleasure to be with you.
Jeff Schechtman: Why do we have such a continuously difficult time understanding Iran?
Gary Sick: Well, there’s two problems. One is that we don’t understand Iran. Despite our long relationship and the vast amounts of printers’ ink that has been spilled talking about our relationship with Iran, we still know very little about that society. But beyond that, even if we know something about Iran, it has become our go-to enemy in the Middle East that, when we are looking for a core around which we can create a foreign policy, Iran has become that and because of the hostage crisis and the really difficult relationship that we’ve had, Iran has almost no friends in the United States. So it is easy to hate, and it is easy to use as a sort of all-purpose demon to justify whatever it is we’re trying to do in the Middle East at any given moment.
Gary Sick: And Iran does its part in contributing to that point of view. Iran has on one hand, made some very generous offers and has attempted to, in fact, get out of this bind that the two countries are in, but they have also behaved very badly. For instance, taking hostages and not just at the original one, but basically arresting people for no particularly good reason and holding them for very long periods of time. And this has kept alive this view of Iran.
Gary Sick: It’s really ironic that at about the same time as the Iranian revolution, we were fighting in Vietnam, and in Vietnam, we lost over 50,000 American lives and destroyed a country. It was horrendous, and we all know that history, but today we have good relations with Vietnam. People go there for visits; people go there for vacations. Whereas with Iran, the political difficulties were huge, but there really was very little loss of life involved, and it was basically for Americans, maybe two or three at the time of the revolution. And we today, 40 years later, are in a situation where we have less contact, less involvement, and probably less interchange between Americans and Iranians than we’ve had in the last 70 years. So it has become a sort of permanent feature of American foreign policy, and it’s hard to see how we’re going to get out of that.
Jeff Schechtman: And yet there are two generations of policymakers, essentially, that have come and gone since the hostage crisis 40 years ago, and it seems there’s never really been an opportunity for a full reset in terms of those relations.
Gary Sick: That’s very true. The people who are angry with Iran today, in many cases, were not even alive at the time of the revolution. President Obama really made a full-scale effort to try to change that involvement, to try to change the narrative of our relationship with Iran. He initiated negotiations with Iran, negotiated with them for three straight years, and produced an agreement, which is called the JCPOA or the Iran nuclear deal, which basically, dramatically reduced Iran’s capacity to move toward a nuclear weapon, which was regarded as the most serious problem between the two countries at the time. And I would argue actually, went a very long way to preventing Iran from ever getting a nuclear weapon, despite the propaganda that’s come out about the agreement since that time. The reality was that Iran accepted in perpetuity that they would be inspected by the IAEA inspectors. People would be keeping an eye on what they did, and they made a flat promise, without any qualifications whatsoever, that they would never, under any circumstances, build, or store, or use nuclear weapons.
Gary Sick: That was a huge step forward, but it didn’t fit into the the reigning view of Iran as the enemy and basically was thrown out, then, by President Trump, and that more than anything else, if we’re looking for reasons why we’re having a crisis right now, it is a crisis of our own making. I mean basically, at the end of the Obama administration, there were direct contacts with Iran that had been opened up for the first time, really, since the revolution. There was an agreement that was being enforced and which actually was being observed by Iran in great detail, which hugely restricted its access to nuclear materials. There was the possibility of then building on that to go to the next level and begin examining some of the issues that were not addressed in the nuclear agreement. And those possibilities of direct contact, negotiation, and building on an existing successful agreement were lost when we turned the other way, walked away from the agreement, without cause.
Gary Sick: We didn’t cite anything except that we… Basically, it was that one administration didn’t like what a previous administration had done, and then imposed the most severe sanctions in history on a country that we were not at war with. So in effect, what we’ve done is gone from a position of having a working relationship with Iran, where we could actually talk to each other about issues. We’ve gone from that position to, in fact, we have, for all practical purposes, declared war, economic war, on Iran, and it’s very clear that there are people in the White House and in the State Department whose principle objective is to try to bring down the government of Iran, to destroy it, without any great thought about what might come along to replace it.
Gary Sick: So we’ve gone from one extreme to the other, and I think it was a tragedy, actually, because none of this was necessary. By the end of the Obama administration, Iran was not thinking about taking hostages. The people at the highest level had access to each other for a kind of hotline arrangement. If something was going wrong, we could be in touch with each other. There was talk about negotiating on other issues that were of particular concern to the United States, and Iran was, in fact, not making nuclear material that would have been dangerous. All that has changed, and it was basically because we chose not to continue with that arrangement, and basically under the fiction that we were going to somehow improve it. I think we have shown very clearly that that strategy was not realistic in the sense that we would somehow improve the situation that we had with Iran. We’ve made it much worse, and it’s very difficult to see how this present crisis is going to resolve itself.
Jeff Schechtman: Do we have any clear understanding, and is it in fact relevant, as to what the incentive was for Iran to enter into the negotiations they did with the Obama administration that resulted in the JCPOA?
Gary Sick: The people who negotiated with Iran got to know the people on the other side very well. They spent a lot of time together, and I think they understood very well what the Iranians were thinking. And in effect, what the Iranian negotiators were looking for was a reduction of the sanctions that had been placed on them, that would give them an opportunity to re-engage with the international community. Iran has its own national interests, but that was one of them, and it was very clear that the Rouhani administration, that was what they were after. They were looking for an opportunity to open up their system beyond where it had been since the revolution.
Gary Sick: There were lots of people in Iran who opposed that, and so you can focus, if you’re looking at what’s going on in Iran, you can focus either on the people who are making an effort to try to get out of the bind that they’ve put themselves in with the revolution and the Islamic Republic afterwards, or there are the people on the other side, the Revolutionary Guard and others who say, “We should never open up to the outside world because they will simply come in and poison us and take away from us the revolutionary achievements that we have made.”
Gary Sick: And so there is a fight going on within Iran, and what the JCPOA really did was give a little advantage to the people who really wanted to open up the system and basically have Iran become, in effect, a more normal country and less the sort of revolutionary cause. That was one of the objectives, and I think it was well understood by the people who negotiated the JCPOA. As we see, they did get… Rouhani and company became sort of rock stars for a while. They were so popular in Iran because it was understood that they were making life easier for people in Iran.
Gary Sick: But then the United States, by walking away from the JCPOA, completely undercut the people in Iran who were interested in some kind of reform and change, and have actually strengthened greatly the hardliner group who are now in ascendance, and they’re coming up on new parliamentary elections just next month. And everybody has pretty much agreed that the hardliners are going to win the parliament. They’re going to kick out the people who were in favor of the Rouhani government, and we’re going to end up with a very much more militant and old-style revolutionary government in Iran than we’ve had before. And that to me is… I mean, it was a huge missed opportunity.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent does the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia play a role in the decisions that we’ve made with respect to Iran?
Gary Sick: Well, I think the Saudis really believed that when the Trump administration came in, that they basically had a very good friend in Washington, and that basically they could then pursue their own foreign policy interests knowing that the United States would back them up. That has proved not to be the case, and without going through the entire litany of things that have happened, the reality is that as the United States put tremendous pressure on Iran, not surprisingly, Iran struck back. Well basically, we removed 40 percent of Iran’s national income. The United States did unilaterally… simply eliminated a huge portion of Iran’s ability to pay its own bills and run its own government. That was a huge blow, and no country is likely to sit still and just take that if that’s what is done to them.
Gary Sick: So Iran struck back and did it in a number of ways, interfering with tanker traffic in the Gulf, the shoot down of the drone, and then the attack on Saudi oil fields, which took basically 50 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil off the market for a limited period of time. That was an enormous blow and was absolutely contrary to what the United States had always said, that they were there to protect the free flow of oil in the Gulf. And the United States basically didn’t respond. And what the people in the United Arab Emirates and in Saudi Arabia really came to understand was that they were extremely vulnerable.
Gary Sick: The United States could act with a degree of impunity because we were so big and so strong that the Iranians couldn’t really strike us in any seriously effective way, not as a serious threat to our own national existence, but the Emirates and Saudi Arabia were in a very different position. They were within just minutes of the missiles that could be launched from Iran, and they were highly vulnerable. They get their water from desalinization plants along the Persian Gulf, which are basically undefended, and so a series of missile strikes, for instance, on that would deprive them of their water. Not to mention the fact that their oil facilities are, as they discovered, vulnerable to attack by highly accurate missiles. And the Iranians surprised everybody by the tremendous accuracy of their attack.
Gary Sick: So the Saudis and the UAE have responded to this, not by aligning themselves even closer with the United States, but rather have been engaging in negotiations, independently, with Iran with the idea of reducing the threat, that they would end up being the people who would pay… For whatever the United States did, they would be the fall guy. They would be the ones who paid the price for that, and they’ve really looked down that barrel and decided they don’t like it. And both sides have actually initiated negotiations with Iran to try to mitigate that problem.
Gary Sick: So in effect, the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has turned out to be a surprise to Saudi Arabia, and I think we’re seeing the Saudis and the other Arab States in the Gulf basically hedging their bets with regard to the United States because they’ve decided that basically, they have no control over what the United States may do, and they’re the people who will end up paying a price for it.
Jeff Schechtman: Where does terrorism and the battle against ISIS fit into this equation today?
Gary Sick: Well, Iran, after ISIS broke out of its territory in Syria and started driving toward Iraq, Iran was the leading force to put together an opposition that basically stopped ISIS in its tracks, before it got to the holy sites in Iraq. And also they were aiming at Baghdad, and they stopped them short of Baghdad. Ironically, it was General Qasem Soleimani who mobilized that force and intervened to stop ISIS from its attack. They then have been fighting ISIS independently at the same time that we’ve been fighting ISIS, so in effect, the United States and Iran, and President Trump actually said that explicitly, that this was something that worked to the interest of both parties. He said that explicitly in his speech after Soleimani was killed.
Gary Sick: So basically, United States and Iran shared an interest in fighting and destroying ISIS, and Iran’s role in doing that has been almost entirely ignored in the United States, simply because if Iran is the enemy, we don’t want them to be seen as doing something that was useful for our purposes. So it has gotten almost no attention whatsoever, and the fact that Iran was fighting ISIS at the same time we were fighting ISIS was simply overlooked. But in any case they have been, and were, and basically have shared a great deal of responsibility in the fact of taking ISIS out of operation. And so in that sense, it’s something that we actually do share.
Jeff Schechtman: Given this broader framework, how do we explain the reaction, thus far at least, to the killing of Soleimani, and why has the reaction been seemingly so restrained?
Gary Sick: Well, the killing of Soleimani was a huge shock to Iran, and he had become a real hero, and he’d become a hero in Iran primarily because he had led the charge against ISIS. And people took the position that if Iran didn’t face up to ISIS and stop them in Syria and Iraq, that they would end up having to fight them in Iran. And so the fact that he mobilized that opposition had made him a national hero, and the reaction in Iran to his death was clearly national, and clearly emotional, and dramatic actually. There were millions of people who went out in the streets and marched.
Gary Sick: But then at the same time, Iran responded to this. They felt that they had to do something, so they launched a dozen missiles or so at a base in Iraq that had Americans stationed there. And although nobody was killed, the act was severe in the sense of having these missiles raining down over a period of an hour or so was enormous. And we do know that there were some people who, even though they were not hit by the missiles themselves, they’ve suffered concussions and have had to go for medical treatment abroad. So there was an Iranian reaction.
Gary Sick: But again, it’s pretty clear that throughout the reactions that the Iranians have shown, how they’ve made a considerable effort to avoid hitting Americans and causing Americans to lose lives, that it was clear that was a red line. They’ve only really missed one time, and that is… There was an American contractor on one of the bases where they were coming under attack, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that triggered the White House reaction to Soleimani.
Gary Sick: But the idea that somehow, by getting rid of Soleimani, you were going to resolve the problems that Iran was causing in the rest of the Middle East was simply false. One of the things that Soleimani had done was really build an organization that was resilient and that was institutionalized. It was not something that was based on one man, and so he was not the Quds Force. He was the front man. He was certainly the person that represented that, and his picture was sort of the picture of the Quds Force, but the Quds Force has not collapsed. Immediately, they appointed his deputy, who Soleimani had actually groomed, on the grounds that he thought that he was going to die. He didn’t take very many precautions personally. He was out on the battlefield. He had his picture taken with the troops. He traveled on a commercial aircraft. He didn’t do very much to protect himself, and he knew that he was taking risks, and so he had actually prepared someone else to take his place who is perhaps less charismatic, but the organization goes on.
Gary Sick: So you know, this is a victory for the United States, but it’s also a very serious setback because basically now, the Quds Force and Iran, in general, is really interested in revenge. And that is something that could go on for a very long time. So fundamentally, what this has done is place a target on the back of a lot of Americans who are working in the Middle East, and this may go on for years. It’s not something that they’ll either strike in the next 15 minutes or never. More likely, this is something that… We can see people, perhaps Americans, getting assassinated in the Middle East for a period of years in response to this because there are people who are aggrieved and who are… feel that the United States has basically opened Pandora’s box. If the United States can assassinate a senior leader in another government, then why shouldn’t we be subject to the same treatment?
Gary Sick: And I don’t think that that was fully appreciated in Washington at the time that the decision was made, but that is one of the outcomes, and we don’t really know what that’s going to look like because this could extend over a very long period of time.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the disconnect between American actions and the potential response, as you’re detailing now, and the broader international community’s reaction to this, particularly the European nations that were all part of the JCPOA and what it means for their ongoing relationship with Iran.
Gary Sick: Well, the Europeans were totally opposed to the U.S. decision to withdraw from the JCPOA. They felt that the agreement was working. They were quite prepared to work with the United States to come up with a solution to some of the other problems with Iran, and they were prepared to pursue that very actively, but they thought that throwing the JCPOA out was literally throwing the baby out with the bath water. There was no need to do that, that you could pursue the other interests while maintaining the huge benefits that the United States and the other countries had.
Gary Sick: What’s happened in the meantime is that the Europeans have discovered that with an administration in Washington that is prepared to take huge risks and to basically act contrary to the interests of its allies, that they really are unable to intervene, that words are not enough, and that they are not in a position to challenge the United States on the financial side. So they have proved to be very, very weak in terms of trying to respond to the problem, and that has become very evident. And so over time, Iran, which originally thought that the Europeans would assist and come to their rescue, at least to some degree, have been terribly disappointed. And at this point the Europeans and the Iranians are really on a downward path in terms of their relationship, that is going nowhere good.
Gary Sick: And so both the Europeans who felt that they could play an independent role and the Iranians who had counted on the Europeans to provide some support during this period, everybody has been disappointed, and the European role has turned out to be very, very slight. And they can still play some role, but basically, the United States has shown no interest in working with the Europeans for any kind of intermediate solution. And the Europeans have become very aware of that and also aware that they don’t have the financial capability to really challenge the United States if the United States is prepared to ignore their interests completely, which has simply been the case.
Jeff Schechtman: And finally, in your view, is there any good, anything positive, that can come out of recent U.S. actions, the murder of Soleimani or anything else that’s transpiring now?
Gary Sick: It is really difficult to come up with a silver lining in any of this. Basically, almost everybody has been weakened. The U.S., as I said, U.S. relationships with the countries of the Middle East, the Gulf Arabs for instance, have been weakened. Our relationship with the Europeans and other allies have been weakened. Our own position in Iraq, for instance, where we are fighting ISIS, the Iraqis have been absolutely furious at the United States for, in effect, carrying out an assassination on their soil by someone who was carrying a diplomatic passport and was actually on his way to a meeting with the prime minister of Iraq. They say that this is an abuse of America’s role in Iraq and contrary to the terms of an agreement, and they are anxious to try to get the Americans to leave. They may or may not succeed in that, but this is a new, another crisis that has been created, where the United States now, its role in Iraq has been severely affected because of our own behavior. It’s really very difficult to find a, a silver lining.
Gary Sick: And the one thing which, from my own perspective, watching U.S. policy in the region, not just the Trump administration, but over years, our role in the Middle East has not produced a very positive result, and watching it year after year, it’s very clear how negative those results have been. One of the things that may come out of this is that the United States, which was moving slowly to reduce its footprint in the Middle East, that that process may in fact be accelerated. And if so, from my perspective, that would not be a terrible thing. Basically, President Trump really wants to get out of the Middle East. A lot of people share that view and would see that as a good thing. So to the extent that our behavior has, in fact, accelerated our likelihood of reducing our presence in the Middle East, our military presence, that may be a good thing, but that may be a bit of a stretch.
Jeff Schechtman: Gary Sick, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the whowhatwhy podcast.
Gary Sick: It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio whowhatwhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio whowhatwhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Maryam Kamyab, Mohammad Mohsenifar / Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0).

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