Edmund Burke’s observation that “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it” has almost become a cliche. But in the case of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Iran strategy, Burke’s diagnosis is spot on. With regards to Iran, the United States has two choices: know Iran’s history, or repeat it.
Americans seem not to understand that for over 2,500 years, Iran (known as Persia until 1935), one way or another, dominated Middle Eastern politics and culture. It has always been a regional hegemon, and sees that as its rightful role. For example, the ancient Persian Achaemenid Empire, from the 6th to 4th centuries BCE, was the world’s first transcontinental empire, spanning three continents (Asia, Africa, and Europe). From the Indus to the Aegean Sea, and from the Jaxartes to the Nile, the Persians ruled supreme.
The Achaemenids built a large naval fleet, maintained a large army, and instituted an effective administration that not only collected taxes and redistributed land among the king and his subjects, but also meted out justice. Among other achievements, the Persians built large cities and roads to facilitate movement.
When Alexander the Great defeated the last Achaemenid King Darius III at the Battle of Guagamela (in present-day Iraqi Kurdistan) in 331 BCE, the former didn’t need to found a new empire; Alexander just took over from the Persians. In this spirit, Alexander benefited from the remains of the Achaemenid Empire, and decided to preserve the Achaemenid administrative system to run his expanding empire.
It is important for Trump to understand that each time Iran’s influence receded in regional affairs, the country then made a comeback with more vigor and resolve. Shortly after Alexander’s death, the Parthians, who had moved westward into present-day Iran and had been influenced considerably by the Persians, rose from Persia to dominate the Middle East. The Parthians were later replaced by the homegrown Sassanid Empire, which dominated the Middle East until the Arab invasion of Persia in the 7th century. In the process, for four centuries, the Sassanids challenged, fought, and at times defeated the Byzantine or East Roman Empire.
In addition to their long periods of regional primacy, the Iranians have also shown considerable resilience in the face of foreign invasions. Being on the frontline of Arab invasions in the east, Persia saw the influx and later absorption of hundreds of thousands of Arabs, from invaders to tradesmen in the 7th and 8th centuries. Despite the fact that the Arabic alphabets and vocabulary were forced on them, the Persians preserved their language and eventually, as Arabs continued to assimilate in Persia and Central Asia, they adopted Persian instead.
The Persians were also the first people to form autonomous dynasties like the Saffarids, freeing themselves of direct Arab rule from the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. Nevertheless, under the Abbasids, the Persians were appointed ministers and senior administrative officials on a regular basis. In other words, although the caliphs were Arab, Persian officials for the most part ran the Caliphate.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, Persia suffered irreversible destruction at the hands of Genghis Khan, his descendants, and Timur (Tamerlane). Nonetheless, the Persians remained as resilient as ever. Shortly after, as the Ottoman Empire rose to prominence in the Middle East, so did the Persian Saffavid Empire. The Saffavids for centuries remained the only force that challenged the Ottomans’ hegemony in the Middle East. The Saffavids were also the main and only force that prevented the westward expansion of the Mughals from India and present-day Afghanistan.
The Saffavids were replaced by the Qajars. Despite some setbacks, the Qajars preserved Persia’s independence at the height of Anglo-Russian competition in the 19th century. Persia was one of the very few Muslim majority countries not colonized by any European power.
The Qajar dynasty was followed by the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925. Under the Pahlavi dynasty, Iran aligned itself with the United States during the first three decades of the Cold War to act as a bulwark against Soviet expansion toward the Middle East. When the Ayatollahs led by Khomeini founded an Islamic Republic in 1979, relations with the United States worsened. Ever since that time, Washington has tried to isolate Iran as if it were an irritating little rogue state that, if manhandled correctly, would subside into quiescence.
Given Iran’s history and its self-conception based on that history, this is a key misconception. For over 2,300 years, the Iranians have confronted every major power of every time period — from the Greeks under Alexander the Great to the United States — in the competition for dominance of the Middle East. Despite suffering setbacks and even defeats at times, the Iranians have fought, outlived, and outlasted every single challenger and every single invader, including the Arabs, Genghis Khan, Timur, and even Saddam Hussein. It is hence fair to say that the Persians/Iranians, from Cyrus the Great to Ayatollah Khamenei, have pursued a policy of regional dominance.
Iran’s history and civilization have infused a sense of ineradicable pride and nationalism in its citizens. Today, despite many years and many rounds of sanctions against Iran, the country is more influential and dominant in regional affairs than it was in 1979.
Iran’s current government, like its predecessors from the Achaemenids to the Pahlavis, wants respect and a recognition of its role as a regional player — and it has earned the right to such. Excluding Iran from regional affairs or trying to isolate it is futile, given its history as a regional hegemon. However, it seems that the United States simply cannot grasp how the Iranians see their rightful role in the Middle East. U.S. misperceptions must change if there is to be a future for peace in the Middle East. Iran’s cooperation is absolutely vital to restore stability in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
Trump’s current strategy is focused on “neutralizing the government of Iran’s destabilizing influence and constraining its aggression, particularly its support for terrorism and militants.” The strategy states that Iran remains hostile to Israel, supports terrorism, engages in subversive activities, missile proliferation, and threatens freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, among other things. In particular, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is accused of “undermining the international system…by force and coercion.” With regards to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or more commonly known as the Iran deal, Trump’s strategy maintains that Iran exploits the JCPOA’s “loopholes.”
To confront Iran at the regional level, the strategy proposes forming regional alliances to “restore a more stable balance of power in the region.” Internationally, in addition to asking the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to “fully utilize its inspection authorities,” the United States will also “rally the international community” to condemn Iran, especially IRGC.
Trump and his administration must come to understand that Iran is not going to curb its drive for regional supremacy. At a time when the regime’s capabilities have improved considerably, it has more resources to employ in its pursuit of regional power than ever before.
Congress has more than a month’s time to decide what the United States will do about the Iran deal. Congress has three options: first, end the deal; second, ask for better terms for the United States, which would mean a renegotiation of the deal (to which the Iranians have already said no); or third, do nothing, which would create uncertainty about the future of the deal and certainly damage U.S. diplomatic credibility (especially among its allies).
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday that if the United States re-imposed sanctions on Iran, his country “could walk out” of the nuclear deal. The fate of the deal is in Congress’s hand. The Iran deal has been a good first step to cooperate on issues of mutual interest and importance with Iran. There is potential for building on it, rather than scrapping it. To do otherwise ignores the lessons of thousands of years of history.
Arwin Rahi is an independent researcher and a former Fulbright scholar at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service. He writes regularly on Afghanistan and neighboring countries.