Just when a gradual but definitive thaw was melting the decades-long frosty Iran-US relationship the unpredictable Donald Trump, by withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Tehran, has once again shown why his fickleness is keeping the world on tenterhooks.

President Trump’s move, that has shocked even his closest allies in Europe, is but a continuation of Washington’s dogged attempts for decades to isolate Iran, break the country’s independent spirit and turn it into a lackey on the lines of many others in the West Asian region, notably Saudi Arabia.

The Trump administration, after pulling out of the nuclear deal signed in 2015, has already commenced the process of re-imposing economic sanctions on Iran. It has dictated to its reluctant allies in Europe, who were part of the deal, that they need to back the sanctions.

In 2004, a year after the US successfully invaded Iraq and deposed president Saddam Hussein it set its sights on Iran. The government in Tehran was in the process of developing nuclear energy which, it said, was for peaceful purposes.

But the then president George W Bush refused to believe it despite the Iranian government opening its facilities to international inspection.

Two years later, the US used its clout with the United Nations Security Council to sequester Iran and impose further sanctions demanding that it give up its uranium enrichment programme. Iran’s desperate pleas went unheard among the international community.

Iranian revolution

It is widely documented that the US targeted Tehran at the behest of its allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, besides its own reasons that go back to the 1979 Shia Islamic revolution in Iran. The revolution changed the cosy equation that the US had with the earlier Shah regime.

In West Asia, the rise of the Shia sect which rules Iran unnerved the Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia. The Iranian revolution characterised Israel as its foe and vowed to work for an independent Palestinian state.

The Iranian revolution regarded the US as its primary enemy resulting in, among other things, the extended hostage crisis that led to the breaking of relationship between the two. Since then, the US has imposed various kinds of sanctions on Iran until 2006 when it roped in the UNSC to expand the sanctions.

In the aftermath of the revolution in 1979, the US and the Saudis instigated the then Iraq President Saddam Hussein to invade Iran with a view to destabilising the regime of Ayotollah Khomeini.

This resulted in the eight-year-war between Iran and Iraq, leaving both countries in a shambles — in particular Iraq. Unfortunately for the US and Saudi Arabia, the Khomeini regime politically emerged stronger after the war.

In this context, the outcome of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 reflects the complex social structures in the region which willy-nilly worked to Iran’s advantage.

Within Iraq, the Shias had been persecuted by Saddam Hussein. The community, therefore, supported the US invasion. To the dismay of Washington, this backing did not last long.

Sizeable sections of the Shia community turned against the US occupation within months of the invasion.

The Shia in Iraq, historically, looked up to the Ayotollah in Iran, and revered him as their spiritual leader. Also, there were places of pilgrimage in Iraq that the Shia visited in large numbers. Contrary to the US calculations, the post-Saddam Iraqi governments came under the influence of the neighbouring Iranian government. The US move to fan the nuclear issue was with a view to ensuring that Iran would be kept in check and not overplay its proximity to the Shia in Iraq.

Reacts to US pressure

Iran, in the meantime, reacted to US pressures by building its own network in the West Asian region. For example, it created and lent substantial support to the Shia-dominated Hizballah group in Lebanon.

The Hizb, credited for taking on the Israelis during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, over the years grew in stature within the country.

Its members have won popular elections and have been in government. The Hizballah also has its own militia and works in coordination with Iran. It has played a major role in protecting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from the armed uprising since 2011.

Iran has also supported the Shia in West Asia and proffered help wherever necessary.

Yemen is another example where the Houthis, a Shia sect, are backed by Tehran and this has led to the ongoing proxy war there between Iran and Saudi Arabia causing a humanitarian crisis.

For the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel, the rise and consolidation of the Iranian dispensation represents an existential threat. Led by Washington, they have not spared any effort to neutralise Tehran.

The previous US administration under Barack Obama tried to change the script by attempting to soften the hostility with Iran.

The government in Tehran too was under severe strain trying to combat sanctions and was willing to sign a deal. Washington’s European allies too agreed and the result was a nuclear agreement that doused tensions and opened the way for a more peaceful way of resolving the various conflicts in the region.

The only naysayers were the Saudi and Israeli governments who were upset that Iran had been brought back into circulation with the possibility of mending ties with the US. The Republicans in the US too were unhappy with the deal.

Trust deficit

The anti-nuclear deal lobby in Washington which now rules the US led by Trump has clearly indicated that they don’t trust Iran. The hardliners aver that the nuclear deal has done nothing to check Iran’s military backing and network in West Asia.

In the perception of the Saudis and Israelis, Tehran continues to be a threat and needs to be hemmed in. Trump has obliged these sections and unilaterally walked out of the nuclear deal.

The other signatories, including France, the UK and Germany, feel slighted and alarmed at Trump’s move which could push back the already troubled West Asian region into a bigger crisis. More importantly, the latitude the US and the others had with Iran could disappear leaving the world that much more a dangerous place than before.

The writer was formerly Editor at Aljazeera based in Doha.

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