On Feb. 11, the Islamic Republic of Iran celebrated the 40-year anniversary of the 1979 revolution. In 1979, groups from across Iranian society — from religious extremists to secular non-communist left-wing activists — violently seized control of the Iranian government through a coup, exiling Iran’s previous leader, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had been given premiership in a 1953 plan by American and British intelligence. The Shah was replaced with anti-Western and fundamentalist cleric Ruhollah Khomeini as the Ayotollah, who instituted repressive policies and took hostile actions that would alter the status of Iran domestically and around the globe. The results of the revolution forever changed history and have had an immense impact on the relationship between Iran and the United States. The Islamic regime still holds power today, and on its 40th anniversary — while Iran’s leadership celebrates — it is a worthy time to commemorate and acknowledge the past and present threats that Iran has posed to the United States and the world.

In February 1979, as Ayatollah Khomeini became Supreme Leader, the streets of Tehran were filled with millions of people burning American flags, chanting and holding signs with threats against the U.S. and its allies. Just a few months later, the American-backed Shah was deposed as Iran’s premier, and college students in Tehran raided the United States Embassy and held 52 American diplomats hostage, citing the U.S.’s grant of asylum for the Shah as justification. With the revolutionary coup and the ensuing 444-day hostage crisis, the United States and Iran became locked in a bitter conflict and rivalry that has spanned all four decades of the Islamic Republic’s reign.

This tension has come to a head over the past few years, as President Donald Trump decided to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), often referred to as the Iran Nuclear Deal. This agreement — made between the U.S., China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, the European Union and Iran — was crafted in order to assure that ongoing developments to Iran’s nuclear program would not threaten other countries. Terms included an imposed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring of Iranian nuclear sites, and as a result, the lifting of “nuclear-related” United States sanctions on Iran. The agreement was adopted by the Obama administration, under the auspices of former Secretary of State John Kerry, in January 2016. Proponents argued it would allow Iran to begin to moderate its foreign and domestic policies without many of the crippling sanctions placed on it by the United States and other Western powers, and would stop the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.

Before and after the Iran Deal was adopted by the United States, domestic and foreign critics identified the severe flaws in the JCPOA. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed out in his address to the United States Congress in July 2015, the deal would “… leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure, providing it with a short break-out time to the bomb…” when the deal would expire in 10 years. Vivian Bercovici, former Canadian Ambassador to Israel, noted that among its other issues, the JCPOA “… did not address Iran’s ongoing ballistic missile program.” There were also those such as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who argued that Iran was not complying with the terms of the deal, and thus the U.S. would be well served to leave the agreement and reimpose sanctions.

Last week, Iran made its true intentions clear – if they weren’t already obvious – when President Hassan Rouhani, elected in 2013 to supposedly bring the change former President Barack Obama had bet on, said that Iran has “not asked and will not ask for permission to develop various types of missiles.” It is clear that Iran’s hatred for the United States, and its underlying desire to continue to build their nuclear power, have never wavered. So much for moderation in Tehran.

This past May, President Trump acknowledged the JCPOA’s many weaknesses and withdrew the United States from the Iran Deal, drawing both praise and ire from the international political community. Trump’s decision marked an informed pivot in U.S. policy on Iran, away from ungrounded idealism and towards a more realistic and truly comprehensive plan. In November, the Trump administration re-imposed all sanctions lifted under the terms of the JCPOA, putting economic pressure on Iran and those who do business with its regime, and incentivizing Iran to give up its enrichment of uranium and development of nuclear missiles. These actions, though not entirely sufficient in ending the Iranian threat, are steps in the right direction in preventing Iran from using a nuclear arsenal to threaten the U.S. and other countries to whom it is hostile. The decision to withdraw from the deal is also crucial to showing Iran that the United States will not be deceived by non-credible promises from a long-time adversary.  

However, Iran’s development of its nuclear program is not the only threat the country poses towards the U.S., its allies and global stability. Throughout the Middle East and worldwide, Iran has been involved in proxy-conflicts, often against U.S. allies and interests. In a combination of funding and arms, Iran has ignited the civil war in Yemen through its support of the Houthi rebels. The war and its resulting humanitarian crisis have caused the deaths of thousands of innocents in Yemen. Iran has supported the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and has funded and armed Hezbollah terrorists on the Lebanese border with Israel. Outside the region, the Islamic Republic has even attempted to radicalize Muslims in South America, and is wanted for the assassination of an investigator who uncovered Iran’s responsibility for the 1994 attack on the Jewish Community Center of Buenos Aires. Iran’s tactics and choices, if left unchecked, will cause more innocent Yemeni and Syrian citizens to die, risk Israel’s security, create further difficulty in defeating the Assad regime and continue to create violence and instability in the Near East and worldwide.

These effects would be disastrous for the United States and those seeking peace in the Middle East. Should the tension between Iranian proxies and Israel continue to escalate, it is quite possible that what is now the Syrian Civil War could quickly turn into a complete regional conflict, which despite President Trump’s announcement last December of a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, may necessitate a heavier American military presence in the area. Yemeni civilians would continue to starve and be killed. As it currently stands, Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters are already bribing Syrian rebel groups to stop their fight against Assad and join Hezbollah efforts against Israel. If Iran continues to foster this chaos, the Near East could light up like a tinderbox. It is vital that the U.S. take notice of this impending threat, and take action to prevent these harmful results. To start, we must work with our allies to bring food and relief to those dying in Yemen, and continue to enforce the sanctions that will cut the revenue source for Iran’s malicious actions around the world.

Despite all the history that has unfolded over the past few decades, we must recognize that the dangers Iran has posed to the United States and its allies have their foundations in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It was then that a country – once a staunch supporter of America in the Cold War – became frustrated with the West, and positioned itself as one of the chief U.S. foes on the world stage for the foreseeable future. Former President George W. Bush classified Iran as a member of an “Axis of Evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address, and though many of the threats to America have changed in the ensuing 17 years, Iran remains the world’s largest state sponsor of terror in the Middle East and worldwide. While President Rouhani, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and many of Iran’s citizens celebrate the world-changing events of 1979, America must mark those days with sadness and pursue a course for the future that will finally bring the Iranian regime’s production of global instability to an end.

Noah Ente can be reached at noahente@umich.edu.

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