It seems that, in American political history, every Nixon has his Vietnam.
Since the American Revolution, there have been very few periods when the United States has been out of conflict of any kind. But since the 20th century, the interference of our international policy in foreign affairs has been increasingly decisive –for better or for worse.
While our involvement in the two great wars was welcomed with open arms, other types of conflicts such as the Korean War, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War and the War in Iraq have been increasingly difficult to sustain ideologically.
When a president faces internal problems, nothing works better as a smokescreen than attacking windmills.
Since the U.S. House of Representatives began an impeachment inquiry against President Donald J. Trump, tensions between the U.S. government and the regime in Tehran have been rising unchecked.
Although the Trump Administration was inaugurated with radical foreign policies –such as the so-called Muslim Ban in January 2017– Washington’s positions against Iran have been more than aggressive.
The executive order “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States” issued at the beginning of the Trump administration blocked the entry of a huge number of Iranian citizens, regardless of their origin, under the argument of alleged terrorist links because it is a country with a Muslim majority.
Paradoxically, the government reinforced relations with governments such as Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates and some Sunni states in the Persian Gulf, building a kind of economic front against Iran and its influence in the Arab region.
President Trump also began a political campaign against the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA or Iran Deal), which kept the regime’s nuclear weapons development in Tehran at bay.
By May 2018, Trump had already announced the withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA and the imposition of new sanctions against Iran, which for its part threatened to reinstate its “unlimited” uranium enrichment, and to close the Strait of Hormuz that divides the Persian Gulf from the Gulf of Oman, represents the only sea passage to the ocean and is one of the most important oil checkpoints in the world.
An invisible enemy
Despite being reduced to a “terrorist government” in international political rhetoric, Iran is, dangerously, much more than that.
The Islamic Republic of Iran maintains diplomatic relations with some 97 countries, always torn between the world’s tendency to globalize and its strict religious stance to block Western interference in its society.
Its negotiating currency has always been the nuclear proliferation and Islamic radicalism, which has become its main export through guerrillas scattered throughout the Arab world. Since 1982, the Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iran has been supplied with billions of dollars donated by faithful followers of the Revolution and has allowed the establishment of a highly developed armed struggle.
Hundreds of thousands of Muslim volunteers have joined an army that is virtually impossible to count, and which has spread dangerously throughout the world. One of them is the well-known Hezbollah terrorist organization, born after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon during the 1980s.
However, the coalition of European countries seeking economic and social stability in the world reached out to the Tehran government in the early 1990s through oil import agreements.
In this way, the Western world was trying to keep a dangerous, ideologically radicalized nuclear power at bay.
But the positions of Donald Trump’s government in Washington threatened that stability.
Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal led to violent maneuvers in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in July 2018, to which the United States responded by re-imposing the sanctions lifted by the Barack Obama administration in 2015.
Are we at war now?
In August 2018, Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suspended diplomatic talks with the United States, putting American military agents at risk even on Iraqi territory, neighboring Tehran.
Seven months later, the United States threatened any country with economic relations with Iran, hoping that the regime’s economic weakening would force it to sit down at the negotiating table.
However, and if we have learned anything by now, negotiating with religious extremists is not that easy.
Over the past 12 months, the United States has increased its military presence in the Persian Gulf, including the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and four B-52 bombers in the Middle East.
Iran insisted that it would not meet with the U.S. unless sanctions were lifted, making the situation a game-changer.
Although both governments have said through their diplomats that they are not “seeking war,” tensions have only escalated, especially after the attack on four commercial ships in the Gulf of Oman in May 2019.
After several incidents, including drones and electronic boycotts by the United States, the State Department, and the Pentagon raised the possibility of Iran having links to al-Qaeda, which would make the case for an invasion similar to the one carried out in 2003 against Iraq under the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists.
2020 was inaugurated with the assassination of the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, in a drone attack in Iraq. Soleimani was considered the number two in Iran’s chain of command, as well as being the brains behind all the clandestine operations of the Islamic guerrillas.
Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, promised “severe revenge” against the United States, and announced that he was withdrawing permanently from all commitments to the 2015 nuclear deal.
Simultaneously, the Iraqi parliament has voted to ask the United States to withdraw from the territory in order to avoid an escalation of the conflict with its neighbor.
So the answer to the question that opens our headline is no, we are not at war with Iran… yet. With a president as impulsive as Donald Trump at the helm, nothing is certain.