Placing the ‘Iran Issue’ in Historical Context: A Critique of America’s Vision of the World


“I would bomb the shit out of ’em.”
Donald Trump, 2016 presidential campaign

It seems today as though US foreign policy is enforced by one of three mechanisms: Strongly-worded disapproval, sanctions, or the jaw-dropping “fire and fury” of the world’s most powerful military. There are a series of issues faced by American foreign policy makers today, and it is up to Americans to decide how we face them. But this begs the question: What do we consider to be an issue meriting American action? By portraying certain countries as issues, we create a worldview in which the American role of world policeman is reinforced.

How might we approach the ‘issue’ of Iran? You might begin by considering Iran’s strategic location, in the hotbed of an oil-rich region in the crossroads of the Eurasian powers. Another might consider the US’s historically-problematic involvement in the Iran, perhaps the imposition of the Shah, or the Iran-Contra affair.

The problem is defining Iran as an ‘issue’ in the first place. By constructing Iran as an ‘issue’ and an object of American foreign policy, a conceptual framework is created wherein the United States may act on Iran so long as it benefits the American position. The ‘American position’ itself is unclear… Is it to create a world safe for freedom as envisioned by Wilson? Is it to increase the US’ relative power to protect its global hegemony? To enforce the liberal order’s preeminence and values on non-compliant regimes? This remains unclear.

Nonetheless, let’s place US-Iranian relations within a historical context.

The United States has long viewed countries in the global peripheral space as objects to act upon. This phenomenon may be considered to have begun with Monroe Doctrine, which many see as a stark divergence from the policy envisioned in Washington’s farewell address (1796) and his earlier Proclamation of Neutrality (1793), both of which held that the young United States seek amiable but “removed” relations with the European powers. The Monroe doctrine, on the other hand, is often seen as the US’ opposition to European colonialism in the Western hemisphere. This view, that the Monroe Doctrine and Washington’s proposed policy are diametric opposites, is flawed. This is because they exist within the same conceptual framework; that other states are either our equals and must be respected, or that states are undeserving of our respect and thus objects for our manipulation.

President Washington, in the Proclamation of Neutrality, said the US “should with sincerity and good faith adopt and pursue a conduct friendly and impartial toward the belligerent Powers”, by which he was referring to European nations. Important here is Washington’s use of the word “Power”. Washington did not view the European “Powers” as objects of American power. Rather, they were seen as autonomous agents which the US should respect, and with whom the US should not intervene. The respect due to these nations was predicated on their power at the time. Because during the 1790s Latin America was under the colonial administration of European powers, by extension, Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality applied to the US’ neighbors.

However, by 1823, most of Latin America had gained independence from European “Powers”, and were, at least, subject to reconsideration by the US. That same year, what would become known as the Monroe Doctrine was proclaimed by President Monroe during his State of the Union Address. The Monroe Doctrine specifically states that the exertion of European power or influence in Latin America would be seen as “the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States”. Contrary to the values imbued by the Declaration of Independence, European intervention in Latin America was only undesirable insofar as it was of bad consequence to the US, rather than because European intervention in Latin America was inherently bad in that Europeans deprived the oppressed people of Latin America of their inalienable rights of self-determination.

Despite the claims by Monroe that the US would seek the position of “impartial observer” to the formation of republics in Latin America, the US in fact sought to secure Latin America within the US’ own sphere of influence. Because Latin America was seen as lacking sufficient power for true “autonomy”, the US could exert is influence over the region justly. Some, like Arturo Escobar, a post-colonial writer, argue that the US constructed an image of Latin America as a backwards, hopelessly impoverished, childlike region in need of American guidance. This impression of Latin America allowed and justified US intervention in the region.  Examples of this include the US interventions in Columbia to secure the Panama Canal and the US forcing a newly-independent Cuba to adopt the Platt Amendment which gave the US control of Guantanamo Bay.

The US was not an impartial observer, nor did it attempt to uphold the liberal values that it claimed to stand for. Instead, it constructed an image of a backwards region, providentially placed for American influence and exploitation.

How does this relate to Iran?

The British and Russians portrayed the Middle East as being filled with backwards and destitute people incapable of self-governance. In 1941, fueled in part by this portrayal as well a desire to secure oil for World War II, the British Commonwealth and the Soviet Union invaded Iran and put a compliant Mohammed Reza Shah in power. The new regime was supported by most of the Allied powers, including the US, who had a vested interest in Iranian oil. One might add Iran to the great list of US-backed oppressive regimes that ultimately backfired on US foreign policy. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the country has suffered from both a corrupt and repressive government, as well as countless Western-backed trade sanctions.

While Iran is certainly deserving of criticism for its oppressive regime, the US’ Iran policy has been markedly schizophrenic. The US has supported the House of Saud in Saudi Arabia, whose regime shares many similar qualities to that of Iran, with the important exception that the Sauds are compliant with the US hegemony. Moreover, the US historically has had no problem supporting truly evil regimes as long as they have remained compliant.

Today, our news feeds are saturated with reminders that Iran is home to an oppressive regime and its society is backwards and destitute. While this portrayal may not be entirely fabricated, we are also constantly told by the Trump administration that Iran is ‘out to get us’. With contextless tweets like, “Iran to defy Uranium Stockpile Limits”, and, “It is the assessment of the U.S. government that Iran is responsible for today’s attacks in the Gulf of Oman….”, we, as responsible Americans, should be wary of the warnings given to us by history. The US government fabricated reasons to exert its influence over “backwards counties” that have non-compliant regimes before: Mexico “invaded our territory and shed American blood on American soil.” “Remember the Maine”, and the “Gulf of Tonkin”. among others. should serve as reminders of how our government has justified expanding its sphere of influence through violence.

Iran is not seen as a power worthy of the United States’ respect. Instead, it has been portrayed as a nefarious actor that is backwards and helpless. Because of this portrayal, invasion is self-justified in the eyes of many American policy-makers.

But the problem predates our construction of Iran.

It has to do with the fact that we, as Americans, see Iran as an ‘issue’, suitable for American redress. But Iran is not an ‘issue’ that America must deal with. The US is a net-exporter of oil, we have the most powerful global hegemony the world has ever seen, the best-funded military in the world, the largest economy in the world, and ultimately, we have no reason to intervene in Iranian, or even Middle Eastern affairs.

The Sunni-Shia conflict has been going on (and off) for more than a millennia. It is a Middle Eastern issue that the region must come to terms with on its own. No amount of Western or American intervention will ever be able to end the conflict.

Iran is no object for the projection of US power. As Americans, this is a reality we must come to accept.

The world is not our playground, nor are we the rightful and just enforcer of liberalism. We have attempted to police the destitute ‘third world’ for close to 200 years, and we have failed dismally. The only way to put a stop to this practice is to change our perception of the rest of the world. The Earth contains a plethora of peoples, ideologies and cultures. Each must be allowed the opportunity to control its own destiny if they are ever to achieve liberty and prosperity. American paternalism has failed.

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Alexander Oman

Alexander Oman studies politics at King's College London, focusing on the intersection of libertarian- and post-colonial theory. He is currently interning at the Libertarian Party headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia. Raised in New York, Alexander has long been interested in libertarian philosophy as well as the liberty movement, as it is the only theory that seeks to empower the individual against the mass and the state.


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