To understand more about the recent tensions between the United States and Iran, The Beacon talked to Dr. Sidra Hamidi, an assistant professor in the department of political science at Stetson University.
Previously a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, Hamidi completed her Ph.D. in political science at Northwestern University in 2018.
Hamidi’s research focuses on international security and international relations, with particular focus on nuclear politics and diplomacy.
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran began ramping up following the election of President Donald Trump, who vowed on the campaign trail to tear up the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — also known as the Iran nuclear deal — that was agreed to in 2015 by his predecessor, in concert with five other countries.
Calling it “the worst deal ever,” Trump made good on his campaign promise and announced the U.S. would withdraw from the deal in May 2018, reimposing sanctions on Iran.
Since then, the other five countries involved — China, Russia, Germany, France and the United Kingdom — have been trying to keep the deal afloat and to keep trade with Iran going, but with limited success.
Iran began breaching some of the terms of the deal in early 2019, to show its displeasure.
The U.S. also has been concerned about what it sees as growing Iranian influence in Iraq. Both countries are predominantly Shia Muslim, in contrast to Sunni states in the region, like Saudi Arabia.
Iranian-backed militia groups were part of Iraq’s successful fight against ISIS, but their presence has made U.S. officials wary. Some were said to be involved in recent violent protests at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
Then, in a Jan. 3 drone strike near Baghdad International Airport in Iraq, the U.S. assassinated Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, a high-ranking figure in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and commander of its Quds Force, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group because of its operations in conflicts outside Iran.
The move angered government officials in both Iran and Iraq, raising fears that the tensions could escalate into an all-out military conflict.
Iran responded Jan. 8 with attacks on Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops. The country also announced its intent to cease complying with any limitations of the nuclear deal.
We asked Dr. Hamidi how the U.S. and Iran ended up having such poor relations to begin with, and what the future might hold for the two countries and the Middle East region. She answered our questions on Jan. 7.
Q: First, how did we get to this point in U.S.-Iran relations?
A: It goes back to the 1979 revolution, and it goes back to the hostage crisis right after the revolution, but it goes back even further than that.
It goes back to the 1953 coup that deposed a democratically elected Iranian leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh, who had more socialist leanings and wanted to turn the country’s oil reserves public, and take them away from the British at the time.
The CIA and British intelligence agencies orchestrated a coup.
For the Iranians, that in and of itself is a big part of the identity behind the revolutionary government that took over in 1979.
So, there’s a long history that goes back to the Cold War, really.
More recently … I think there’s just been ramping tensions ever since the U.S. left the [nuclear] deal. Ever since then, because Iranians perceived that the U.S. had not held up its end of that deal, they were kind of ramping up things they were doing with their nuclear program, and also their presence in the region.
That’s been happening in the last couple of years.
Beyond that, when the Arab Spring happened in 2011, I think the whole region — Iraq and Syria in particular — became kind of ripe, just because there was so much of a power vacuum in the area, for foreign interventions from Iran and beyond.
The sense that I’m getting is that Iran has really expanded its role in the region, particularly with Iraq. They’ve made inroads with the Shia leaders there. In Syria, they are allied with Bashar al-Assad.
I think they have been opportunistic, and I think that’s what spurred the U.S. into action.
Q: Who was Qasem Soleimani, and why is he apparently so important?
A: It’s very hard to get a sense of how Iranian leadership works, and who really has the ultimate say and all of that, but the sense that I’m getting is that he was a very powerful leader in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and part of the IRGC is the Quds Force.
I think the analogue [for the Quds Force] is maybe like special forces, or the CIA.
He was sort of on the U.S.’s radar for a while. He had been sort of expanding Iran’s influence in the region, particularly [with supporting Syrian President al-Assad] in the first couple of years in the Syrian Civil War.
He was just an important military leader in Iran. The Revolutionary Guard, in particular, is pretty revered, especially by the conservative factions in the country.
Q: Why has the U.S. been concerned about Iranian influence in the Middle East?
A: The U.S. ally in the region has always historically been Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia and Iran are historically rivals in the Middle East.
So, any attempt by Iran to extend their influence in the region is viewed as a threat to U.S. interests in the region, in part because of the historical alliance that we’ve had with Saudi Arabia. I think the U.S. kind of just found itself in a difficult place after the War in Iraq, and the invasion in 2003, because of the sectarian issue of Shias and Sunnis in the region.
Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was under Sunni leadership, and since he was removed from power in the invasion, it’s been a Shia-led government. In part, that’s because that’s who the U.S. has supported, because they were the opposition to Saddam Hussein.
But that’s also created kind of this unintended consequence with Iran. Historically Iraq has been Sunni[-led], Iran has been Shia, and there’s been a rivalry between the two countries. From a sectarian perspective, it seems that they have now become more aligned.
Q: How has the killing of Soleimani caused Iran and the Iranian people to react so far?
A: Just this morning, I was watching [the news], maybe on Al-Jazeera, that in one of the funeral processions [for Soleimani], there was a crush, and 50 or so people were killed. It’s clear that a lot of people are coming out.
Whether or not they were aware of who he was or what he was doing is a question that I don’t really have the answer to, but it’s clear that the revolutionary government [in Iran] is using this to bolster support for themselves, in sort of a rally-to-the-flag moment.
So, I think that’s another unintended consequence of this, that maybe before making this decision, the U.S. should have thought a little bit more about how it’s going to be seen by the Iranian public.
Martyrdom as an idea is something that is particularly important to the Shia faith, and he’s largely being seen as a martyr in the country. Perhaps not by everyone, but by a lot of people.
Q: What is likely to happen next, as far as an Iranian response to these attacks?
A: It’ll be interesting to see what their response is. I think you can always try to make predictions, but the world is pretty unpredictable these days.
Most of the time I kind of shy away from saying, “Well, this is what’s going to happen.”
People on the U.S. side have been saying perhaps a cyberattack or a different kind of attack is what Iran will opt for. Whether or not it affects Americans, or how much it affects Americans, is unclear.
It could look like that, or it could also be an attack on U.S. forces in Iraq and in the region.
I’ve researched and written about the nuclear deal and what this all means for that. That’s always been the question for the last 20 years now — are they actually going to build a nuclear weapon?
I think, largely through diplomacy, that has been prevented for a long time, but I think the question is going to arise among Iranian leadership, if they had nuclear weapons, would the U.S. have taken this act?