With each passing day, the present situation spirals towards greater uncertainty. War, it seems, is a palatable necessity to remove a regime whose existence the US has only ever believed to be temporal.
Two months ago, a news story slipped under the radar that added a subtle nuance to the current tension over the Iranian nuclear talks. British and Iranian Foreign Ministers William Hague and Ali Akbar Salehi quietly met with one another amid an Afghanistan security conference in Kabul, reported in each country at the other’s request, in attempt to restore the two countries’ diplomatic relations after they were suddenly cut last November after the attack on the British embassy in Tehran.
This meeting contrasts the current negotiation debacle and rising tension due to the recent implementation of the new sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran on the 1st July. Whilst the two countries have only agreed upon the establishment of interest sections within friendly embassies, the two states’ relations have followed the vicissitudinous patterns of normalisation and tension within the region. The agreement is a far cry from cordial relations, but at least the two governments are tip-toeing their way towards reconciliation. This development spurs a more important question – why has the United States refused Iran its olive branch?
Diplomatic relations between the US and Iran have existed in a state of limbo for the past thirty-two years. The Carter administration cut off ties after the American embassy’s takeover by revolutionary students in 1980. Since then, diplomatic exchange has been limited to interests sections in the Swiss and Pakistani embassies and there has been no attempt to restore full relations beyond this step.
Iran joins Bhutan, Cuba, North Korea and Taiwan as one of the five countries without diplomatic ties with the US. This curious assortment of countries appears to be a list of teenage rebels (minus Taiwan) written by the disapproving American parent.
The reasons given by the US government for the status quo are shallow, retroactive justifications for a series of offenses that Iran is not alone in committing. Iran is neither the first country to support terrorist groups, have a poor human rights record, oppose the US-led peace process nor have a nuclear programme. There is an extensive amount of news articles, opinion pieces and academic works discussing these denunciations. There are, however, two other reasons that are rarely mentioned that underline US policy towards Iran.
The first is pragmatic. The world is witnessing another arms race between the superpowers. Unlike in previous centuries, however, the race is restricted to the cyber realm. The race for cyber weapons is nevertheless as imperative as it was for nuclear weapons. Indeed, there is no indisputable evidence that proves StutNex and Flame were constructs of the US and Israel, however the sheer amount of manpower and resources not only to create these weapons but also to conceal their production points to the involvement of a government.
In The Diplomat, a recent article discussing the cyber attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities compared the alleged US strike to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour. Yet StutNex and Pearl Harbour share little in common. Pearl Harbour was a surprise attack by a country that the US had tragically underestimated in order to wipe out the US Pacific Fleet and level the playing field for Japan. StutNex and Flame are a different kettle of fish entirely.
Using the Second World War example, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki offer a much more accurate comparison to the cyber attack on the Iranian nuclear programme. In both cases, the US was using a weaker victim as an example to warn its competitors of the arsenal at its disposal. Just as the film Dr. Strangelove famously observed, the whole point of a doomsday weapon is lost if no one knows you have it. The attacks send a clear indication of America’s current cyber warfare capabilities to the competing powers. More worryingly, it marks the beginning of another Cold War era after the past two decades of US global hegemony.
Iran is a good test subject. Its ability to retaliate against US interests is muted, especially when one considers the consequences of a US response if the situation is escalated. The Islamic Republic has few friends and its relations with Russia and China do not greatly balance the threat posed by the US. The regime is universally demonised in the Western press and attracts little sympathy from important international actors. In reality there are no other regimes with a similar level of cyber infrastructure that the US could attack without causing huge international uproar.
The second reason is ideological. The embassy takeover in 1979 was a bitter divorce for the US from its protégé in the Middle East. The intensity of the revolutionary’s hatred for the American influence was difficult to accept after the considerable amount of treasure the US government had invested in the country.
Whilst US politicians will not hesitate to mention Iran’s refusal to accept Israel’s existence when justifying their policy towards the regime, they essentially have the same policy towards the Islamic Republic – calls for regime change, claims of ‘separating the regime from the people’ and trying to somehow speak on behalf of the Iranian people. Iran holds a unique place as an existential enemy to the US and best summarised by the infamous ‘Axis of Evil’ term eternalised in George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address.
The US government is trying to undermine the stability of the regime and paints a simplistic picture of how ordinary Iranians view the regime. Its actions show that the underlying assumption of US policy is that the regime is becoming more and more distant from its population – an assumption that cannot be immediately taken at face value. It also shows that the US government does not deem diplomatic relations with the regime as necessary, which removes a vital element in the prevention of war. With each passing day, the present situation spirals towards greater uncertainty. War, it seems, is a palatable necessity to remove a regime whose existence the US has only ever believed to be temporal.