The tension regarding Iran remains thick. The most recent news includes the US reinforcing bases in the Middle East, sending an aircraft carrier, and a B52 bomber squadron. General McKenzie commander of US forces in the region says Iran has taken a step back and reassessed its plans, but the danger remains and the tension with Iran didn’t arise overnight.
Back to the future, factors contributing to IRAN tensions
The tension regarding Iran remains thick. The most recent news includes the US reinforcing bases in the Middle East, sending an aircraft carrier, and a B52 bomber squadron. General McKenzie commander of US forces in the region says Iran has taken a step back and reassessed its plans, but the danger remains and the tension with Iran didn’t arise overnight. 1979 is an often used date for Iranian tension, but even that ignores some of the fundamentals in the region regarding history, geography, and politics that puts Iran on the other side of a frequent fault line with the West.
History and Geography
The Father of History himself detailed the origin of their tensions. When the Persian Empire clashed with the Greek city states nations Herodotus portrayed this conflict as a clash of civilizations. One on side stood the cultured city states of Greece, small but proud of their philosophical and artistic accomplishments. They were free men fighting choosing to fight for their nation against barbarians forced into combat by their uncaring rulers. Herodotus said that the Persians “urged” their soldiers “forward with continual blows from whips.”(vii.224) But one of Xerxes generals with a knowledge of Greek customs warned that they would fight for their freedom “not with the spear only, but with the battle axe.” (vii.136)
But the battles were not just ideological constructs of Greek historians, or attempts at political expansion of the Persian Empire. The Battle of Thermopylae was fought in a narrow pass on purpose. The Greeks developed what some scholars call the Western Way of War, which is focused on heavy infantry and excelled in flat terrain or could hold choke points like the Hell’s Gate. In contrast, the Persians and many before and after them focused more on lightly armored hit and run tactics. As a Persian general advised Xerxes:
“These very Greeks are wont to wage wars against one another in the most foolish way, though sheer perversity and doltishness. For no sooner is war proclaimed than they search out the smoothest and fairest plan that is to be found in all the land, and there they assemble and fight; whence it comes to pass that even the conquerors depart with great loss.” (vii.9)
The direct clash of arms, according to many historians, became a distinctive feature of Western warfare, and it often clashed with differing forms of warfare from Eastern cultures that were often seen as less manly. This combined with ideology to often explain away geographic and war making differences among East and West. For example, the Roman general Crassus lost to the Parthians and their horse archery. Geographically, this was located near the Euphrates River and ideologically the Romans labelled their enemies as subversive with tactics based on deceit. The Roman legions simply could not effectively fight the mobile horse archers.
The same fault lines between the Fertile Crescent and the highlands of Persia and then Asia were pronounced throughout history. The Persians fought the Greeks, successor states of Alexander fought each other, Romans fought Persians, Byzantines fought Islamic forces, and during the crusades the West again fought Islamic forces. In addition to these geographic and political differences there were often ideological factors that colored the conflict.
Just like Herodotus the Western writers in the medieval age often cast their struggle in ideological terms. In short, there are thousands of years of history, where a combination of geography and ideology fueld conflict that separated the East and West usually around the borders of modern day Iran and Iraq.
The Islamic revolution
It was the Islamic revolution in 1979 that put a modern face on the conflict with a new radical terrorist ideology but the same old geographic factors. Before they took Americans hostage they had been a democratically elected government and friend of the United States. In fact, despite denying them spare parts for 40 years the Iranians still have scores of fighter jetsthey bought from the US in the 1970s.
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Recalling Cyrus the Great and his invasion of Babylon, Iran fought a long war with Iraq. While the modern reasons changed slightly, it was still a fight for control over resources by ideological foes that geography made acute. In fact, in one book about ancient strategy, author Tom Holland wrote the introduction of his chapter making the reader believe that he was discussing the American capture of Bagdad, but he was in fact referring to the shock and awe of the ancient Persian Empire.
The Persians didn’t stop at the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and Iran remained active across the broader Middle East as well. They actively fund Hamas and Hezbollah, groups that are quasi state actors in the region and attack Israel. In fact, the proxies of Iran are fighting in the same region in Syria as the ancient Battle of Carrhae.
After America’s invasion of Iraq, Iran supported radical militias and provided them with armor piercing weapons. This made the insurgent’s weapon of choice, improvised explosive devices, more deadly. The Iranian backed militias consolidated control over much of the country, particularly after the American withdraw in 2012, and the collapse of the Iraqi army against ISIS terrorists in 2014. The US has since reentered the country and help Iraqi forces restore much of their territory.
But the Iraqi government is ambivalent about the US Iraqi alliance, and the party ran by Shia militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr came in first, and the Iranian allied Fatah bloc came in second. The government is unlikely to remain a firm American ally if tensions increase into open warfare.
Obama Iran Deal/ Effect of Tariffs.
The most important and long term problem to solve has been Iran’s nuclear program. During my time in the Marine Corps in the early 2000s, short timers would mockingly tell the new recruits to enjoy their war in Iran because tensions were so high we thought it was so likely.
The Obama administration produced a deal that was widely criticized and abandoned by President Trump. The problems all mirror those the US faced trying to stop North Korea’s nuclear program.
The deal left Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure. As the North Koreans have shown, activating a reactor that was previously shutdown is fairly easy and inexpensive. The restrictions were only temporary
Instead of airstrikes Trump has applied “maximum pressure” on Iran. He has imposed economic sanctions that have affected the entire country and designated the Iranian Guard as a terrorist organization. Despite the possibility of alienating allies and raising domestic gas prices, he discontinued waivers that allowed some foreign countries to buy Iranian oil. Again, North Korea provides a good example. While these economic sanctions are hurting the country, and even seem counter intuitive in some cases as Iran has promised to restart its program shortly, the treaty never effectively stopped them to begin with. North Korea has survived fierce economic sanctions, and the totalitarian government has consolidated its control in both countries. Yet, economic sanctions and military pressure and even high tensions are better than active war.
The danger here is US might actually be a victim of its success. Most surprise attacks happen for very specific reasons and the two major causes usually include alert fatigue and the boy who cried wolf syndrome. France in World War II knew a German invasion was coming, but they had so many false alarms over the spring of 1940 that when the Germans actually launched their attack, most of the units were already in place and the minor adjustments were ignored.
The Israelis experienced the Boy Who Cries Wolf syndrome. In response to intelligence reports of an imminent attack they mobilized their armed forces which dissuaded attack. These mobilizations dissuaded attacks which ended up making them look useless to the general public. When the country faced signs of another attack the analysts became the boy who cried wolf, there was no mobilization, and the Israelis suffered a fierce surprise attack.
This is why America might be a victim of its success. The Iran threat remains just as deadly as ever. But America might be having tension fatigue and after adding extra forces to the Middle East for no reason according to the critics, it seems like they cried wolf. The next time America should respond to Iran modern day isolations would say that John Bolton, Trump’s most hawkish adviser, or others are just being a warmongering Neocon. Modern day isolationists will argue this is needless sabre rattling that is pointless at best and counterproductive at worst.
The fault line between and tension power on the Persian steppes that moves east to control the Middle East and threaten Europe or Western nations is nothing new. The geography, distribution of resources, and ways of warfare produced differing ideologies that were seen in words and conflict for thousands of years. The most current version comes from 1979 and has destabilized the Middle East through terrorism as an arm of foreign policy and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The long term lessons of history suggest this tension is nothing new, but still just as dangerous and important to address.