The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” approach to Iran brought the Middle East to the brink of another imperialist attack on 20 June. The president claims to have approved military strikes, only to call them off at the last minute. 

The trigger was the Revolutionary Guard Corps shooting down a US drone over the Strait of Hormuz. Debate raged over whether it was in Iranian airspace or above international waters at the time. But US media outlets and politicians spoke as one about an “act of aggression” by the Islamic Republic. Missing was any questioning of the right of the US armed forces to be anywhere near the Persian Gulf, let alone whether it had a right to deploy advanced surveillance systems against Iran. For a media and political establishment that has spent the better part of two and a half years denouncing shadows of “foreign interference” and hacking, the hypocrisy is, as they say, breathtaking.

Iran is surrounded, with US forces operating out of Bahrain, Djibouti, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Afghanistan. Yet we’re told that the Islamic Republic is “escalating” tensions. Imagine for a moment a US adversary establishing military bases, and stationing tens of thousands of troops in Canada, Mexico, Cuba, the Bahamas, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Bermuda. Then imagine it flying surveillance drones off the Florida coast. If Washington shot one down and the protagonist of all this aggression screamed “escalation”, you would roll your eyes at the ridiculousness of the allegation. But in the real world, where the US military is almost unchallengeable and has in recent memory obliterated and occupied Iran’s neighbour Iraq, the media are regurgitating every Pentagon talking point as considered commentary or fact.

Trump has ordered another round of sanctions – acts of economic warfare designed to further cripple the country’s economy and freeze billions of dollars in assets. Sanctions were reimposed last year after the US unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear deal agreed to by Iran. Since then, oil exports have dropped from 2.5 million barrels per day to about 500,000, according to Reuters. Inflation is approaching 40 percent and the country is in recession. Iranian workers are hardest hit, with food and medicine prices up by 40 to 60 percent.

Trump says all this is necessary to prevent or dissuade Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. However, according to the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency, there is no evidence it has been trying to move beyond its civilian nuclear power program. The one regional power with nuclear weapons is Israel, which has been supported down the line in its colonisation of Palestine and military aggressions against neighbouring states. And the only force to have used nuclear weapons in the region is the US military, which routinely used depleted uranium shells in its destruction of Iraq. 

To understand what is going on, we have to look beyond White House talking points to two historic developments, which are the basis of US hostility: the breakdown in relations between Iran and the West following the revolution of 1979 and the more recent expansion of Iranian regional influence in the wake of US imperialism’s relative decline.

“In the turbulent world of the Middle East, there have been few islands of political stability that have been able to survive the storms of revolutionary change”, James A. Bill wrote in a 1978 piece for Foreign Affairs, the preeminent US journal of international relations. “Iran, with its political system directed by an absolute monarch and an enormous wealth of natural resources, has been widely viewed in the Western world as the most important such refuge in the area ... In seeking a reliable partner and client state upon which to rest US political and economic interests, American decision-makers chose to place their bets on Iran.”

Bordering the Soviet Union, the country was viewed as particularly important during the Cold War – so important that the Central Intelligence Agency orchestrated a coup against the government of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. A secular nationalist who aimed to democratise the country, Mossadegh nationalised Iran’s oil wealth soon after becoming prime minister in 1951. “With the oil revenues, we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease and backwardness among our people”, he argued in a speech that year. “We would also eliminate corruption and intrigue, by means of which the internal affairs of our country have been influenced. Once this tutelage has ceased, Iran will have achieved its economic and political independence.”

This independent reforming was too much for US and British authorities. The CIA in 2013 confirmed its involvement in ousting the prime minister, when the National Security Archive posted declassified documents outlining Operation Ajax, the stated goal of which was “to effect the fall of the [Mossadegh] government and to replace it with a pro-Western government under the Shah’s [king’s] leadership”. In those documents, there is a striking absence of the modern talk about “democracy promotion” as a US goal – for an obvious reason: the West wanted the country’s ruler to be a cooperative anti-leftist monarch, not a champion of the Iranian people.

While this was a tremendous victory for Western imperialism, the resentment it fermented within Iranian society later bubbled over. US-backed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi would be the last shah. (More precisely, he would be the last shahanshah – the modestly titled “king of kings”.) His downfall at the hands of the 1979 revolution ended centuries of dynastic rule and broke a decades-long alliance between the monarchy and the British and US governments, dramatically undermining the latter’s strategy for Middle Eastern dominance. 

The historic antipathy of the US toward the Iranian regime stems almost entirely from this episode. The new regime was soon under crippling sanctions and an arms embargo. Then Iraq invaded, militarily backed by both the West and the Soviet Union. The frosty relations thawed occasionally when the US found opportunities to work with the Iranian regime. Yet hostilities always resumed in US threats and sanctions.

The reason for more recent US fixation on Iran has been the rise of Iranian and Russian influence in the Middle East as US weaknesses have been exposed over the last decade and a half. The botched occupation of Iraq after 2003, the mass democratic revolutionary outpouring across the region in 2011 and the rise of the Islamic State in 2014 all strengthened the regional position of Iran. Writing four decades after Bill pleaded with Washington strategists and diplomats to ingratiate themselves with the shah’s opponents so as not to cede the coming revolution to “anti-American” forces, Payam Mohseni and Hussein Kalout, again in Foreign Affairs, noted “a fundamental reconfiguration of the contemporary Middle East order” that resulted from these 21st century developments: 

“Arab elites, grappling with the consequences of an eroding Arab state system, poor governance and the delegitimisation of authoritarian states ... enabled Iran and its partners, including Russia, to build a new regional political and security architecture from the ground up. With the support of Tehran as the undisputed centre of the axis, Shiite armed movements in Iraq and across the [region] have created a transnational, multiethnic, and cross-confessional political and security network that has made the axis more muscular and effective than ever before ... The pluralisation of military and security forces, trained and organised by Iran, has revitalised and localised institution building and patronage from the bottom up, giving way to new elites with mass support from across Iraq and Syria, and even more recently, from Yemen.” 

The context of burgeoning Iranian influence and resurgent Russian interventionism led the administration of president Barack Obama to salvage something for US imperialism out of the regional mess to which it had contributed. His predecessor, George W. Bush, labelled the Iranian government part of an “axis of evil” to be toppled through US military action. But it was clear from the Iraq disaster there would be nothing to gain and much to lose by running headlong into another attempt at regime change. The best the US could hope for was to neutralise the perceived threat by thawing relations – lifting sanctions in exchange for guarantees that the Islamic Republic would not attempt to gain a weapon of mass destruction.

That at least was the stated rationale of the nuclear agreement that Trump called “the worst deal ever negotiated”. More farsighted imperialists viewed it as the only reasonable step to rebuild US influence in the region. War hawks in the US, such as national security adviser John Bolton, attacked relentlessly the negotiated settlement. For them, nothing short of toppling the Iranian government is good enough. These are the same people who to this day argue that they were right to invade Iraq and that the only mistake was not leaving hundreds of thousands of US troops to occupy the country indefinitely.

Trump says he doesn’t want a military conflict, but everything the US government is doing pushes in that direction: escalating sanctions, threats of annihilation and pushing Tehran into a corner from which it is more likely, justifiably, to lash out. While the bellicose posturing and economic warfare are an immediate departure from the approach adopted by the Obama administration, they accord with the long term pattern of engagement. US imperialism’s Middle East strategy has been entirely consistent for the last 70 years: cultivate compliant regimes and isolate or destroy any that do not submit to its power. Fundamentally, that is what this new US escalation is all about.