Welcome to a special bonus episode of News Beat podcast.
The tense tit-for-tat between the United States and Iran over the last two weeks culminated on Wednesday with Iran launching more than two dozen ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases housing coalition forces.
That no one was killed in the strike—perhaps the Iranians intent—has appeared to cool tensions despite deep distrust and animosity on both sides. At the same time, however, the consequences of the U.S. assassination of Iranian General Qassim Soleimani has been swift: Iran announced it would no longer abide by its commitments of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—also known as the “Iran Nuclear Deal”—the counter-ISIS campaign in Iraq has been paused, and that country’s prime minister called on the United States to prepare for a withdrawal of American troops.
Trump’s decision to assassinate Iran’s most influential general and commander of the Quds Force, an offshoot of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, sent shockwaves across the Middle East and the world.
While angering Iran and momentarily providing the regime a much-needed cause to rally the country behind after tense, and bloody anti-government protests, Solemani’s slaying has rekindled the debate over war powers—a constitutional obligation the U.S. Congress has largely abdicated. In a notable development, the Democratically controlled House of Representatives on Thursday passed a war powers resolution that restricts Trump’s ability to strike Iran without Congressional approval. Still, it’s too soon to say if the U.S. Senate will approve the measure. And even so, Trump can veto the legislation with a stroke of his pen, and there’s already precedent for Trump doing just that. In 2019, Trump vetoed a historic bipartisan measure that would’ve forced the end to the country’s involvement in a devastating war in Yemen that’s killed more than 100,000 people, including thousands of civilians, and created the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s vague accusations of an “imminent attack” to justify the general’s slaying has been met with skepticism from lawmakers and the media. After nearly two decades of perpetual war in the Middle East, there appears to be little appetite in the United States for another prolonged conflict, though the war hawks in the administration might disagree.
Of course, the situation remains fluid. So instead of pontificating on what the future may hold or attempting to chase the news, we thought it’d be more beneficial to take a breath and explain how America and Iran arrived at this critical juncture. With that in mind, we invited Dr. Assal Rad, research fellow at the National Iranian American Council, to talk about the U.S.-backed coup in 1953, the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and ramifications of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or “Iran Nuclear Deal.”
The 1953 U.S.-Backed Coup, Iran Nuclear Deal & Assassination of Qassim Soleimani
The following is a transcript of our interview with Dr. Rad, which has been edited for clarity:
We think context is always important, especially in a situation such as this. Can you explain for listeners who may not be too aware of the past, the evolution of U.S.-Iranian relations beginning with the 1953 coup?
Dr. Assal Rad
Of course. Something that’s interesting about looking at the relationships of the two sides, obviously in contemporary society in the United States we assume this sort of enmity between the United States and Iran because of the embassy seizure of 1979. But of course, before the revolution of 1979, Iran and the U.S. had very good relations when Iran was ruled by a monarchy. However, what’s often missing in the historical narrative from the American side is the coup d’etat of 1953, in which the United States and Britain removed a democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. And installed, reinstalled I should say, a king, the monarch, who was then later deposed in the 1979 Revolution. So there’s distrust on the Iranian side. And of course, because of 1979 and the hostages, there’s distrust on the American side. So one of the arguments that we’ve tried to make is that if we can understand that both sides have mutual grievances, then maybe there’s a path of moving forward, rather than sort of staying on, you know, grievances of both sides, which, by the way, just to point out, interestingly enough, really parallels the situation we find ourselves in now again. It’s just this tit-for-tat sort of finger-pointing, whereas we had the opportunity to move forward from that with the diplomatic solution, which was the JCPOA, and I’m sure we’ll get into that more. But that’s the framing of kind of what’s missing in the story, is 1953.
You just mentioned the JCPOA. That was a pivotal moment for the Obama administration in regards to Iran, and some have argued that the Trump administration’s decision to back out of the Iran nuclear deal has helped get us to this point. And even U.S. intelligence, I believe, and the International Atomic Energy Agency, had said that Iran was living up to those commitments. So how has America’s decision to abandon the agreement, compounded by the reinstatement of these economic sanctions, impacted Iran?
Well, it’s not that it’s helped us get into the situation. It is directly responsible for why we’re in this situation. Like I said, there’s this entire history of, you know, there’s this entire adversarial history between these two states. But what the JCPOA, what the Iran nuclear deal encompassed, was an international agreement. It took years of diplomatic work in negotiation. And absolutely every, you know, everybody, every international body, said that Iran was complying with the deal. The [International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA has inspectors there to make sure that Iran is complying with the deal. That’s the entire point of the deal, is to have monitors there to make sure that Iran is prevented from getting a nuclear weapon. It’s allowed to have a peaceful nuclear program for energy. But what the deal was trying to do was make sure that they’re not going to get a weapon, and it ensured that. Once the Trump administration quit the deal and implemented sanctions, we slowly saw everything unravel. Then, if you look at it the first year after the U.S. quit the deal, Iran complied by every part of the JCPOA, it stayed exactly in the agreement. and complied by every single part that it was supposed to. But after a year of really brutal sanctions by the U.S. and secondary sanctions, that didn’t really allow channels like financial transactions to occur, the other parties to the deal, the European parties. also couldn’t provide Iran with any of the economic benefits that it was promised in the deal. So after a year of abiding by it, but getting nothing out of it, in fact, you could argue they were punished, they’re being punished for abiding by the deal. After one year, they went from, you know, a sort of strategy of patience, to measured reductions in the deal. And all of that was never to abandon it. They never wanted to quit the deal, but to get other parties to the deal to fulfill their promises. In fact, even after the Soleimani assassination on Sunday, when Iran announced its final reduction and said that they’re not bound by the commitments within the JCPOA, they’re very careful to say that they’re still not quitting the deal, that the framework of the deal is in place and if sanctions are lifted, and Iran gets the benefits that it’s promised, that it would go back to full commitment to the deal.
So you mentioned Soleimani and whose assassination really sort of became this turning point recently. Middle Eastern experts know who Qassim Soleimani is. Military experts know who he is. But the general public, I think, aren’t too aware of him up until now. So can you just tell us about him and how he rose to prominence inside Iran?
This is someone who came from a very average background in Iran. And he rose through the ranks. He was an officer in the military during the Iran-Iraq War. And he’s, you know, served his entire life in some form of military service to the Iranian state, since, you know, he was basically 20 years old, until his death a few days ago. By the late ’90s, he rose to prominence in the Quds Force, which is a part of the Revolutionary Guard. So there is also a distinction in the IRGC in the Revolutionary Guard that Quds Force, which is where he was a general of, is focused on external threats to the state. So the domestic policies, the domestic repression that the IRGC has certainly committed within Iran is not really within the purview of the Quds Force, which is focused, like I said, on borders. That’s why, you know, the Soleimani and the IRGC were part of the forces that were fighting against ISIS in Iraq. This is something that the United States is clearly you know, it’s not, there’s no secret to that. That’s a major role that he has played in the last several years was fighting ISIS in Iraq. So this is the person—in Iran he actually didn’t rise to becoming such a known public figure until recent years as well, he’s not really someone who has claimed the limelight. He had never tried to run for any kind of political office. He was very just dedicated to his military position within the state.
People have described some of his brutal tactics, and you know, he’s obviously referred to as a ‘bad guy’ here in the U.S., So, can you just explain his role in some particularly tragic events?
So, of course, when you look at the—he’s dealing with all Iranian foreign policy, in terms of his position as a general, and part of Iranian foreign policy was to support Bashar Al Assad in Syria. And of course, Asad is dictator, he’s, you know, killed his own people. And support for that is part of where we get this idea that he’s a ‘bad guy.’ And of course, he’s carried out really—to talk about militaries in terms of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ is often interesting to me. The actions in Syria are the biggest reason why I would say he’s a bad guy, because you’re supporting a dictatorship in Syria that is targeting its own people. And it the civil war in Syria saw, you know, hundreds of thousands of casualties, millions of people displaced. And that has to be something that we clearly can’t ignore. Also, internally, domestically in Iran, he’s still a pillar of that regime, right? Regardless of his position of being part of the defensive structure. He’s still a pillar of a system that people see as oppressive, because in very many ways, it is oppressive. It is an authoritarian state. And so that aspect is part of the reason why people also within Iran and certainly outside of Iran, see him as a negative figure.
In response to his death, we saw thousands mourn Soleimani. But there’s also a considerable number of Iranians who disagree with his tactics and what the regime has done, both at home and internationally. So what’s the political dynamic like in Iran?
Well, like any other political dynamic, it’s very complicated. Iran is not a monolith in any way, whether you’re talking about religion, ethnicity, political views, there are groups that absolutely hate and despise the regime, there are groups that actually like it, because not surprisingly, they benefit from it. And you know, there’s a lot of people somewhere in between. Of course, we have seen protests decade after decade in Iran, since the revolution, and decade after decade before the revolution, which is what led to revolution. So Iranians, the story of their national self-determination and wanting democracy and freedom has been ongoing for a very long time. And they continue to do that. And this, what is sort of, I don’t know if you want to call it tragic or frustrating, about the action that the Trump administration took, is there was pressure actually building on the Iranian government, as we saw two months ago when there were protests against the government. Now those protests have died down. And we’ve created with our actions in the United States, a sort of rally around the flag moment, where you probably wouldn’t have gotten a similar reaction to almost any other figure in the country. And that’s why I said he’s a complicated figure. While he has people who hate him and see him as a bad guy, within the country, he’s actually, he was, I should say, a very popular public figure. Poll after poll has shown that, and we can now see that sort of visually with the outpouring. This has been seen by many, many Iranians as a blow to their sovereignty, to their national pride, and coupled with the rhetoric that has come from the United States, right. So you’ve assassinated this top official. And you follow it up by saying, if you’re President Trump, by tweeting that you’re going to target Iranian cultural sites. That’s a direct threat to not, you know, it’s not a military threat. It’s a threat to their culture, to their heritage. And again, these all become internalized as attacks on their identity and their nation-state.
NB[The reaction] to the assassination isn’t just about Soleimani, but it could also be what it represents concerning Trump, what he’s been saying on Twitter and all the other actions that they’ve done?
Absolutely, and you know, you have to consider it, there are many Americans who take issue with our current president. But if one of our most important political figures was assassinated, I have no doubt that Americans who disagree or don’t even like Trump, or have said things like ‘This is not my president,’ would still rally around behind this country and this president because the sense would be that we have come under attack.
You touched on this a little bit previously, the anti-government protesters: What do the Iranian people want? And also, I think what’s lost a lot of times in the discussions on mainstream media is what the impact these economic sanctions have had on them.
Like I said earlier, I had a difficult time saying anything, you know, ‘This is what the Iranian people want.’ The Iranian people are not one block. There are people who want regime change. There are people who want reform, there are people who would like to sustain at least parts of what exists now. So you know, if you look at the the way that the government operates, it’s almost like two separate governments, you have a democratically elected body, which is represented by their legislative branch and an executive branch. And then there’s the supreme leadership, which is a non-elected [position]. And in the case of the Supreme Leader himself, it’s a lifelong position. So that’s where there’s an authoritarian state that overlays what is like a democratic apparatus somewhere underneath it, if that makes sense. So there are people, for instance, who would support the democratically elected portion of the government but don’t take issue with the leadership, with the supreme leadership. And there’s the reverse. There are people who, again, if you benefit from the state, the way that it’s laid out, then you would oftentimes support it, if there are policies or policies that you support, then you support it. And this is the case with any state, but in terms of the economy, in terms of economic sanctions, that’s something that affects everyone, that’s affected people from just broadly speaking, the fact that the currency has devalued to the extent that it has, inflation, you know, this is going to cause problems with pricing of food. I know people who are very comfortable middle-class, upper middle-class, who will say things to me like—and they say it with the caveat that like, ‘This is not even a big deal that we’re saying it, but for the first time, you know, we can’t afford meat. And we’re well off.’ And their concern isn’t to say, ‘Oh, feel sorry for me because I can’t afford meat.’ But they’re imagining how people who are much worse off than them are feeling now. So it is affecting the the whole of the country except for, to be fair—again you can’t make an entire generalization—there’s still people who are very well off and they’re doing fine despite sanctions, but the vast majority of the people in the country are suffering through sanctions.
What has been your visceral reaction to the latest eruptions in this conflict?
Well, last week, after news of the assassination, the initial reaction was just being scared, if I’m to be honest. It’s just fear of finally hitting this red line or crossing this line that we can’t go back from, and that’s a full-scale conflict. And for me when I was an undergrad, that’s when we invaded Iraq. And I remember this feeling. I remember this feeling, all of the build-up all of the rhetoric, and I remember then, people who were in my generation, at least who had witnessed 9/11 at a very young age, were shaken by those events. And so now it’s sort of this redundant, ‘Here we go again’ kind of a moment, but as someone who has family in Iran, it has an extra layer of fear, because the people who are in danger are directly, you know, they’re your own family members, it’s like your aunts, your uncles, your cousins. But of course, I felt very similarly when we were on the path to invade Iraq. And I would say 17 years later, justifiably so, because you know, that war has done nothing but cause destruction. And so, there’s a very real—I’m happy to say that so far the reaction we see after Iran’s retaliation is restraint. And I’m hoping that we can maintain that restraint, because in reality, there’s no benefit to be had on any side. Like everyone will suffer in this kind of a situation. So hopefully, cool heads will prevail, and we’ll be able to go back to, you know, going back to the JCPOA—that’s why we had the JCPOA in place, and had we stayed in it, we would not be in the situation that we’re in right now.
Just moving forward, you’ve mentioned that we sort of leveled off now on the surface, but we know that the U.S. is still going to be in the Middle East, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries, in North Africa. So, the entire region. And you know, Iran has considerable influence, and there’s other actors in the region. And Iran has also mastered this asymmetrical warfare through proxies. So is it short-sighted to think that this is just going to end here with a couple dozen ballistic missiles targeting Iraqi bases?
Well, it’s short-sighted as long as we stay within the same ideological framing of how we look at international relations, and especially from the side of the United States. I mean, there’s no question to the fact that the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world. Comparing U.S. strength and Iranian strength is laughable. They are not comparable states, but the U.S. can make a choice as to how we move forward in our entire foreign policy. Are we going to continue, you brought up, you know, Iraq, Syria, all these other places that we have troops. But this particular president, interestingly enough, ran on a platform saying ‘I want to bring the troops home.’ So we can hope that the U.S. actually does do something like that, does remove troops from the Middle East, because so far our presence there has not led to—it certainly hasn’t led to stability. That argument is, just looking at it, the argument is clearly false. It hasn’t led to democratic movements. It hasn’t led to any of those things. It’s in fact, continuously led to more instability. And more destruction. And one other thing, I know I’m harping on the JCPOA, but because I think there’s a point that’s often lost on it. This wasn’t about the United States and Iran have detente. That’s a big deal. I’m not saying it’s not, but there’s a larger implication to it. It really was an international effort. It was a model for diplomacy and cooperation between adversaries. And that’s the key point, it doesn’t mean that the world is going to, you know, suddenly everyone’s just going to get along and be friends. But there is a rational and intelligent way we can move forward when we know that the impact is global. And what it was about was nuclear non-proliferation. So we have two things that are very important to our species, doesn’t concern any nation-states. One is climate change. The other is nuclear proliferation, right? These are things that can actually threaten our entire planet in terms of our human life on this planet. So that requires global cooperation. There’s no way to tackle those issues with sort of one nation-state or power dynamics as they exist today. So if we want to tackle those issues, this can be a model of how to move forward.