The year 2020 was off to an intense start with the U.S. assassination of a powerful Iranian general in a Baghdad airstrike, but fortunately the resulting international crisis has deescalated following recent Iranian missile attacks on bases in Iraq. At the very least, there has been no further retaliation. For many people, the possibility that the tension could heighten into a full-blown war, even “World War 3,” seemed very real. The reality is that the United States has been at war with the Islamic State of Iran since at least 1979, albeit by unconventional means. The long history of U.S. sanctions against Iran and deep involvement in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War demonstrate that the U.S. has been making war on Iran for decades, even without “boots on the ground.” We have been destroying Iran economically, militarily, and politically.
The first U.S. sanctions against Iran date to the year of Iran’s founding, 1979, and were in response to Iranian students storming the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and taking 52 U.S. citizens hostage. Passing an even tougher executive order sanctioning Iran has since become a feature of every U.S. presidency since the Carter administration, but particularly with Democratic presidents. President Bill Clinton banned U.S. trade with and investment in Iran in the 1990s, while President Barack Obama extended “crippling” sanctions with the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act of 2009. There was a brief lifting of sanctions around the time of the nuclear deal brokered under Obama in 2016, but this was quickly reversed under the new Trump regime. Trump reinstated the sanctions and toughened them with the 2017 Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act. Foreign investment in Iran has since evaporated, as companies worldwide face U.S. sanctions if they do business with Tehran. As a result, Iran’s gross domestic product shrank 4.8 percent in 2018 and was expected to shrink an additional 9.5 percent in 2019. Iranian oil exports have flat-lined and the Iranian currency is rapidly losing value. High inflation has meant that basic goods, especially food , have risen to staggering prices, with low-income rural families most adversely affected. In late 2019 the Iranian government was forced to cut fuel subsidies to pay for greater food subsidies, resulting in public unrest. These riots vindicated the predictions issued a year earlier by United Nations Special Rapporteur Idriss Jazairy: that U.S. sanctions would drive millions of Iranians into poverty and make imported goods unaffordable. U.S. sanctions do destabilize Iran, but by disproportionately targeting ordinary Iranians to make them take to the streets, not over political rights or passion for democracy but over the falling standard of living.
With complete dominance of the global world economy, the U.S. weaponizes the many markets it penetrates. If it did not, it could not shut Iran out of dealings with countries and companies around the world, as Iran possesses ample reserves of the most sought-after commodities of advanced and industrializing economies, oil. Even those typical sponsors of countries on the margins of U.S. empire, China and Russia, will only risk upsetting the machinations of the capitalist world economy so far. The U.S., meanwhile, has amassed substantial experience using economic warfare to isolate the communist country in its own “backyard,” Cuba, and later Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In both cases, the Cuban and Iraqi political elite went largely untouched by the embargo and the sanctions, while the lowest stratum of society bore the brunt. In the case of Iraq, it resulted in such high rates of malnutrition and a scarcity of medicine that the U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator in Baghdad, Denis Halliday, resigned in 1998 for refusing to be party to a “genocide.” His successor did the same, referring to the sanctions’ impact on ordinary Iraqis as a “true human tragedy.” The figure of 500,000 children killed by the sanctions was once a widely cited statistic, but that is now known to be untrue; nevertheless, the reality that sanctions by their very design hurt the poorest people in a country is something left unacknowledged in U.S. political discourse. If anything, the U.S. use of sanctions is considered a sign of restraint when the alternative could so easily be outright war. There is no question that the U.S. could invade, given that Iran is surrounded on either side by the long-running “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iranian health care system has so far coped with its needs, but like its armed forces, investment cannot produce quality without access to the latest technologies and science. It is only a matter of time before the human suffering the U.S. inflicted on Iraq in the 1990s and 2000s is repeated upon the Iranian people. Of course, like in Cuba and Iraq, such suffering will likely not produce regime change, as U.S. neoconservatives desire.
The 1979 Iranian Revolution, with its rejection of both capitalism and communism was a huge disruption in the Cold War order. The Iran-Iraq War that followed in late 1980 led to the world community largely funding the Iraqi invasion of Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province. The Shia identity of the new Iranian government also meant political awakenings among Shia communities around the Muslim world, worrying countries with large Shia minorities. Iraq’s aggression was not enough to overthrow the post-revolutionary government, however, although it did drain Iran of extremely critical resources, not the least of which was hundreds of thousands of casualties. The war was an economic loss for both participants, but it succeeded in doing immense damage and trauma to a generation now in power in Iran. That generation still remembers the chemical weapon attacks carried out on Iranian soldiers by Iraqi forces, with reconnaissance information provided by the CIA (who knew their purpose). In U.S. memory, the Iran-Iraq war was soon forgotten; Henry Kissinger dismissed the conflict by saying, “It’s a pity they both can’t lose.” The maestro of international relations by ruthless realpolitik perceived the Iraq and Iran are, as anyone can see on a map, the centers of power in Western Asia, and as such, needed to be either destroyed or integrated into U.S. empire. The House of Saud and various Gulf emirates chose to sell their sovereignty, but Iraq and Iran resisted. It is no coincidence that they are in the conditions they are in today: one recovering from U.S. aggression, one still suffering through it.
There was no action taken by the U.N. Security Council against Iraq for its 1980 invasion of Iran and when Iran submitted a resolution aimed at Iraqi use of chemical weapons, the U.S. delegate was instructed to abstain if the resolution looked likely to pass. Years later, in the aftermath of the first U.S. war with Iraq, it was revealed that many of the biological weapons possessed by the Saddam Hussein regime had come from U.S. manufacturers. U.S. Senator Donald Riegle of Michigan released a report in 1995 that found the U.S. government had approved almost 800 different export licenses for sale of biological weapons, some of which were later used against U.S. troops in the 1990 Gulf War. When the U.S. went to war with Iraq again in 2003, there emerged the infamous photo of Donald Rumsfeld, then Special Envoy to the Middle East and later U.S. Secretary of Defense, shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in a 1983 meeting. This image persists as a visual representation of the hypocrisy in U.S. foreign policy, which is rife across the Middle East. Without U.S. support for a cruel autocratic regime, the Iranian revolution may never have happened; we knew Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction because we kept the receipts; the mujahedeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan were the forebears of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was a short-lived but obvious product of U.S. destabilizing the region. Notably, Iran took part in the campaign to defeat ISIS, despite its lack of involvement in its creation. Part of the popularity surrounding Qassem Soleimani within Iran came from his significant role in fighting ISIS through his intelligence operations. When Soleimani was killed in Baghdad, he was not acting in the guise of a sinister spy but as a diplomatic courier shepherding messages at the request of the Iraqi government. Soleimani himself would not have had the remarkable career he had were it not for U.S. interventions in the area.
According to Thucydides, when the ancient Athenian empire was besieging the island of Melos, they threatened to raze every structure to the ground and enslave the entire population if Melos did not surrender. When Melos’ diplomats attempted to argue the injustice of the ultimatum, the Athenians replied that “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Today, the U.S. is strong, and Iran is relatively weak, and since Iran dares to resist U.S. dominance, Iran must suffer. The idea that suffering has been averted is misleading and dangerous ignorance. U.S. sanctions and our involvement in Iranian strife past and present reveal the war started in at least 1980, never stopped, and has never become more intense. Of course, it is right to be wary of the U.S. war on Iran extending into the use of conventional weapons, since that will mean even more pain and loss of life. Yet it is wrong to the U.S. is at peace; the Pax Americana was borne from the last world war and remains fueled by military conflict.