February 20, 2020

The Background to the Iran Crisis: Arabs, Americans, and a “Nuclear Deal”

Anti-US sentiment dominated in Ayatollah Khamenei’s religious sermon in Tehran in late January 2020.
Anti-US sentiment dominated in Ayatollah Khamenei’s religious sermon in Tehran in late January 2020.

In many ways, Iran’s politics and isolation are due to its own foreign-policy mistakes

Iran’s International Situation

Founded in 1979 by the Islamic Revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran, where power is in the hands of high-ranking Shia clerics (ayatollahs), is one of the richest countries in terms of natural resources, and has a well-educated population, a rich cultural heritage and a glorious history. But it has been struggling for five decades with pariah status, as viewed by the West, and plagued by international sanctions.

The attitude towards Iran of Arab countries populated predominantly by Sunnis has been characterised for millennia by fear and resentment, due to historical hostility toward Shi’ism and Iran’s grandiose ambitions: Egypt has repeatedly belonged to the “Aryan Empire” and ancient Shahs of Iran waged war against the people of the Arabian Peninsula so energetically that chroniclers characterised them thus: “… the flowing blood of the Bedouins was like a downpour in a thunderstorm”.

Indeed, Iran can only consider as friends those Arab countries that, for ideological reasons, do not fit in with other Arabs, such as that relic of socialism Algeria or the Libya of Gaddafi, and with some qualification also the Islamist Sudan and the sectarian Oman of the Ibadis. But over the past decade, Iran has gained more Arab friends by significant geopolitical victories: Syria and Iraq have now essentially become Shi’ite provinces of Iran, and the intense struggle is continuing to expand its influence—in Lebanon with the help of the Shi’ite Hizbollah created there by Iran, and in Yemen through the Houthis.

But among the Arab countries that are also Iran’s biggest enemies are the hardcore Sunni Saudis and its Wahhabi descendants, the Gulf states, with which they argue over ideological differences and tussle over unresolved territorial disputes. Iran’s ayatollahs have generally been able to communicate with Egypt only during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012–13: the separate peace with Israel in the 1970s and the organisation of a state funeral for the exiled Shah of Iran in Cairo in 1980 were regarded by Iranian clerics as such a betrayal of the “great cause of Islam” that in 1981 they renamed a street in Tehran in honour of the Islamic terrorist who had murdered Anwar Sadat.

Iran has historically close and predominantly friendly relations with the part of Central Asia belonging to the Persian cultural space, Afghanistan and the Caucasus. Among the powerhouses of the Islamic world, Iran has normal relations with Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan.

The ideological foundations of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy are the struggle against the wicked West, especially the Great Satan (the US) and the Little Satan (Israel), whose “global imperialist tentacles” it threatened to cut off, according to large posters at Tehran Airport at least a decade ago. Indeed, Iran sees itself as the leader of the Islamic world against imperialism, considering Russia, China and India—true loyal allies that have called for Iran to be relieved of its international pariah status—as its allies in this sacred cause.

Theoretically, the Islamic Republic of Iran is indeed a formidable theocratic Sharia state, in which all the actual power is vested in a supreme religious leader (who, according to the Iranian constitution, represents the last Shi’ite Imam who went “into hiding” in the ninth century and whose return would bring about a prompt end of the world). But besides Islamic ideals, a nice tribute is paid to real politics: Iranian foreign policy is characterised by a pragmatism that goes beyond religious principles, including by taking full account of the interests of its main “non-believer” allies. For example, Iran will never criticise Russia for what is going on in Chechnya, or China over the Uighur issue, but the Alawite regime of the Assads, the biggest enemy of Sunni Islam, is the ayatollahs ’closest ally. This kind of alliance also manifests itself in everyday life: citizens of these countries can feel much less anxious in situations where others would be afraid of corporal punishment for “sexual indecency” or consumption of intoxicating beverages; even insignificant local beat cops and activists from the revolutionary guard must also take into account that, by exposing the sinfulness of citizens of certain countries instead of sucking up to the authorities, they may get into trouble with their superiors.

In the case of Iran, it is astonishing how the Islamist Sharia state is a very secular regime in daily life: only a formal fee is payable for ideological icons; people praying and observing religious norms make up a tiny part of the population; Iranians pride themselves in being Iranian, not in being Muslims—even in an Islamic state, there are ordinary people who care about the clerics proclaiming Shi’ite ideology just about as much as we cared about the “mummies” running up to the ziggurat in Red Square in 1980.

One of the things that stands out for the first time in Iran is the great freedom of women and their active participation in society. And whoever speaks about human rights, and ethnic and religious minorities in Iran should say at least ten words about major Western allies like Saudi Arabia or its Wahhabi client countries!

Iran vs. Arabs and Saudis

Iran has a completely unique form of Islam in Shi’ism. Outwardly, the Shi’ites are more or less the same as other Muslims, but they believe that the Sunnis usurped power after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, creating an incomprehensible formation, the caliphate, while religious leaders (imams) of Muhammad’s family should have had the power, unifying all Muslims in the Imamate. There has been hostility between the Shi’ites and the Sunni over the issue of power since the beginning of Islam, both seeing each other pretty much as heretics. Mutual political interaction is awkward and they gang up with each other’s ideological opponents, as illustrated by, for example, the alliance of earnest Saudi Sunnis with the Americans or the friendship of the Islamic Republic of Iran with Chinese communists.

Iran has two ancient geopolitical enemies: the steppe inhabited by Turkish tribes from the north and the east, and the Arab desert to the south. The bloodiest pages of human history written by the steppe nations, in the form of the Mongols, are now forgotten even in Iran. But Iranian hostility to the Arabs to the south is one of the most enduring confrontations in human history, which has now reached another of its peaks. Every Persian today has heard, at the everyday level, in politics and in fiction, the derogatory statements in ancient, even Zoroastrian texts about the Arabs. The definitions of Arabs in Iranian religious and historical texts and folklore can be summed up as: “barbaric barefoot lizard-eaters, grasshopper-eaters, camel-milk-gorging Arabs as a nadir of cultural decline”.1

In the 1930s, the purification of the Persian language from “Arab foreign loans” began in Iran, replacing these with “real Iranian Aryan” words from the Achaemenid era, which was the first empire of Iranian civilisation. Following the Islamic Revolution, the image of Iran’s own Islam in the form of Shia began to be emphasised. A new impetus for anti-Arabism came in 1980–88: the bloody war with Arabic-speaking Iraq.2 The 1980s are also a milestone in the emergence of contradictory views of history in the Islamic world, as exemplified by the Battle of al-Qadisiyyah in 636CE, in which the newly created Arab Caliphate crushed the Iranian Sassanid Empire: in Iran’s official approach, not to mention its nationalists, thesis a great tragedy due to being forced to surrender to the “barbarians”, while in Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraq it was portrayed as an Arab triumph over “Persian tyrants”.

Sadegh Zibakalam (b. 1948), a professor at the University of Tehran, summarises the eternal animosity between the two nations by saying that, while in the rest of the world racism is primarily based on a low level of education, in Iran it characterises the intellectuals:

I think the majority of Iranians of all types hate Arabs, and I believe they hate us, too.… The phenomenon of hating Arabs is very common among intellectuals in Iran. … Whenever Iran issues any fiery statement about our neighbours in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, or Kuwait, you can easily detect that they revolve around a belief that Persians are superior. Listen to our foreign minister, parliament speaker, or even mosque imams, and you will notice that derogatory tone they use and which focuses on the racial and not the political superiority of Persians.3

Thus, we should not be surprised by the popularity of the 2015 song “Arab-kosh” (Killer of Arabs) by Iranian rapper Behzad Pax and the inability—and perhaps the deliberate reluctance—of the authorities to limit its spread among young people.

Iran’s Relations with the Saudis

While the secular Pahlavi dynasty that ruled Iran between 1925 and 1979 had more or less normal relations with Saudi Arabia, the relationship deteriorated sharply immediately after the Islamic Revolution, when Iranian politicians began to launch acrimonious attacks on Saudi Arabia, which at the same time began to spread around the world the ideology of Wahhabism, which sees Shi’ism as nothing short of heresy. Thus, the path to further tensions was open, so we should not be surprised about the statement of the Saudi king in 2010: “There are two countries in the world that do not deserve to exist: Iran and Israel”.4

Although Saudi Arabia’s military budget exceeds Iran’s by a factor of four, and the Saudis indiscriminately buy advanced military technology, it is unlikely that the Saudis would be a significant challenge to a more motivated Iran, experienced in war with Iraq and successfully conducting a stealth war in Syria and Iraq. Admittedly, the Saudis are well trained by their allies the US, Pakistan and others, but the army lacks any experience of war and its sheer lack of skill has been demonstrated even in recent years in Yemen operating against the Houthi rebels. Saddam Hussein considered Saudi Arabia a weak adversary and thought the oilfields in its north-eastern region would be easy to conquer, and nothing but scorn can be heard about the Saudi military capabilities from the Iranian military too.

However, through stealth wars, the two countries have clashed in Afghanistan, where the Saudis recognised and supported the Taliban and Iran supports the local Shi’ite minorities, and since 2011 also in Syria, where Saudi money and Sunni extremists backed by them clashed with Iranian military advisers and numerous Shi’ite volunteers. Already tense relations reached a low point in early 2016 when, after the killing of about 50 Shi’ites by Saudi authorities, Iranians attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran, diplomatic relations were broken off, and the Shi’ite community in Saudi Arabia was almost declared an internal enemy; there is now essentially a state of war between the two countries.

US-Iran and the Nuclear Agreement

It is no exaggeration to ask whether the global stronghold of extreme Islamism, Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, would even exist without US military and diplomatic support since the 1990 Gulf War. Following the conquest of Kuwait within hours, the oilfields in Saudi Arabia’s north-east would have fallen to Saddam Hussein in a matter of weeks, while Iran would have had free rein to push for secessionist efforts in Shi’ite-populated eastern Saudi Arabia, as well as in Qatar, Bahrain and the Emirates; even worse, al-Qaeda might have taken power on the peninsula.

It is difficult to disagree with the Iranians over the blatant hypocrisy of the Saudi-US alliance in terms of contemporary values: the Americans have chosen as their main strategic ally one of the world’s most anti-democratic, medieval legal systems that hates women, Jews, and religious and sexual minorities.

US policy in the Middle East cannot be considered anything other than an egregious failure in everything that is not related to defending the world’s most xenophobic regime, the Saudi Wahhabi dictatorship. The 600,000 deaths resulting from the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the rapid spread of global Islamic extremism; pulling the plug from the bubbling migration from Africa as a result of throwing Libya into chaos in 2011; and supporting Islamists against the secular Assad at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives in Syria since 2012—these are the fruits of US Middle East policy. Not to mention repeated betrayal of Washington’s allies, exemplified by president Barack Obama’s public sacrifice of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, which is almost as contemptible as Jimmy Carter’s betrayal of the Shah of Iran, the second-largest US ally in the Middle East, three decades earlier in 1978: Sorry, guys—human rights and democracy require Islamists to come to power.

Washington’s battle with the ayatollahs who came to power in Iran is a well-known topic. One of the main emotions in the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1978–9 was hatred of the West, especially the United States, which in a special CIA operation in 1953 had overthrown the Mosaddeq government that was viewed as endangering American and British geostrategic interests, and supported the Shah, who they now refused to hand over „to the people for a fair trial”. Presumably due to fears that the Islamic Revolution would-be stifled by a new special CIA operation, the clergy who came to power organised the November 1979occupationof the US Embassy in Tehran and the taking of 66 officials within as hostages. In response, the US encouraged its then ally, Iraq, to attack Iran, and in the subsequent gruelling Iran–Iraq war of 1980–8, not only did the West fully support the aggressor Iraq, but the US, West Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, France and other Western countries supplied Saddam Hussein with conventional weapons and large quantities of raw materials for the production of chemical weapons. Iran is one of the few countries to have been attacked by chemical weapons since World War I—at the direct encouragement of the “civilised” West. In addition, one of the worst incidents in international communications of the past century was the  shooting down on 3 July 1988of an Iranian airliner (with 290 fatalities)on its way from Tehran to Dubai as a show of force by a US warship patrolling the Persian Gulf, and the subsequent awards to the crew for “outstanding service”.

Iran responded to these insults with an annual ceremony in which elite troops march ostentatiously over the US and Israeli flags placed on the ground on 4 November (the day on which the US Embassy was occupied).

Since the 1980s, Iran has supported Shi’ite extremist groups in the Middle East, and Lebanon in particular, and in the 1990sthe ayatollahs have been accused of organising a series of large-scale terrorist attacks and exterminating exiled Iranian dissidents; the “proudest” achievement can be considered the attack on a Jewish cultural centre in Buenos Aires in 1994 that claimed 85 lives. However, the issuing of a fatwa in 1989 by the then supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, calling for the death of Salman Rushdie (b. 1947), author of The Satanic Verses, a book “insulting Islam”, can be considered a public invasion by the Islamic supremacy into the West.

The West, led by the United States, has responded to this policy by Iran since 1979 through sanctions, tightened with every passing decade to the extent that they have now begun to throttle one of the world’s best-endowed countries in terms of natural resources.

But the prospects for relations between the two powers, the US and Iran, is not hopeless, as there are plenty of potential points of contact. Iran is as hostile to the Taliban as the US and is fighting heroically against both al-Qaeda and ISIS. Iran is backing a number of US allies: the initial aid to the Kurds and Iraq against ISIS came from Iran—specifically from the same general Soleimani who was killed on the orders of Donald Trump on 3 January 2020. And, who interested in Iran doesn’t remember the fascination with moderate Iranian president Mohammad Khatami that (although he had no real power at all) spread throughout the international community, or the historic football match between Iran and the US in the 1998 World Cup, when sport overcame narrow-minded political ambitions? It is no wonder, therefore, that, since the 1990s, there have been repeated attempts to improve relations, mainly at Iran’s initiative.

The 2015 Nuclear Agreement

The best moment for the normalisation of relations between the two countries came during the second term of the most anti-Israel president in US history, Barack Obama (2013–17), when the convergence between the two regimes began as telephone conversations and meetings of senior officials paving the way for the historic 2015 nuclear deal. The proposed deal meant taking Iran back into the family of nations and leaving the “axis of evil”, letting the powerful but nuclear-free genie out of the bottle as an equal partner on the international scene with its state-of-the-art long-range missiles and global terrorist network supporting the Shi’ites. The parties to the agreement were Iran on the one hand and the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the EU on the other. The deal provided a control mechanism that would only allow Iran to develop peaceful nuclear technology, to alleviate the fears of the Western world and its Wahhabi ally, Saudi Arabia. In return, “for the sake of Iran’s humanity” it was promised to phase out sanctions that caused Iran to lose half a billion dollars a year and to release hundreds of billions of dollars-worth of seized Iranian assets.

Arabs and westerners have long been suspicious of Iran’s plans to acquire nuclear weapons—from the beginning of the 21st century, sensationalist media reports along the lines of “Iran is a year away from establishing a nuclear weapon” kept being published. Iran’s desire for a nuclear weapon is perfectly understandable: it is the best deterrent, especially for Iran, whose mid- and long-range missiles have impressive capability; the long-range missile Soumar (named to commemorate the victims of the Iranian village subjected to chemical attack by Saddam Hussein) can reach Italy in the west and our neighbour Latvia in the north. Even if only half of this is true, all of Iran’s main political opponents in the region are within the direct range of attack—all the more so because a dozen other different types of mid-range rocket have been successfully tested and deployed. Thus, there is a real measure to carry out the nuclear threat.

The world saw an international absurdist scenario when, under the leadership of the United States and the United Kingdom, Iraq was attacked in 2003 with a perfectly crafted argument about the “45-minute WMD launch programme“; who but a mercilessly cornered pariah state would not fear a repeat of such a performance? The acquisition of a nuclear weapon by Pakistan, which came as a shock to the international community in 1998, was motivated by national shame over losing Bangladesh in 1972 and the threat from India. After about the same length of time since the beginning of Iran’s walk of shame—with gassing by an Iraqi chemical weapon, international isolation and being placed on the list of pariah states—it is impossible to doubt that the country would not be pursuing a nuclear bomb at any cost. So I dare say that, if the nuclear deal somehow actually prevented Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, it would not have been signed by the ayatollahs.

Marin Mõttus, Estonia’s former ambassador to Iran, has aptly described the position of the West in its dealings with Tehran: “The Iranians … had a good understanding of Western lifestyle and temperaments and could predict their opponents’ steps more skilfully than vice versa. The internal affairs of the Islamic Republic are unknown territory for westerners.”5 This statement characterises the situation very precisely concerning the “nuclear fatwa” issued by the Iranian ayatollahs, which became one of the central arguments in the nuclear deal concluded in 2015.

Obama validated the peacefulness of Iran’s nuclear programme with a fatwa banning the use of nuclear weapons issued by Ali Khamenei, arguing: “…Iran’s supreme religious leader has issued a fatwa against the development of nuclear weapons …”.6 A fatwa is a regulation issued by both Sunni and Shi’ite leaders, a text that the Muslim community, or an entire country, takes as the basis for action. Of particular importance in Shi’ism, however, is that fatwas by the supreme religious leader are considered to be the positions of ultimate authority, to be implemented nationally. Thus, at first sight, it seems to be a very serious issue.

But as we look more closely at the circumstances of this fatwa, it turns out that president Obama’s claim that Iran’s religious leader had banned the development of nuclear weapons was in fact wishful thinking, blinded by Islamophilia and very poor knowledge of conditions in Iran and of the institution of fatwa in particular—because there are three big problems with this “nuclear fatwa”.

First of all, on security issues, the Shi’ites can say anything to non-believers under the guise of religious pretence (taqiya)in this case, that “our religious leader has issued a decree banning the use of nuclear weapons”. Second, Khamenei (b. 1939) is an old and sick man, and his immediate successor may issue a completely contrary fatwa. Moreover, Khamenei himself may issue a new and different fatwa on the same subject—there have been cases in Islamic history where, over the years, an Islamic scholar later supplements his fatwa very significantly, or even issues a regulation contradicting his previous fatwa.

Third, no one has ever seen this nuclear ban allegedly issued by Khamenei, nor does anyone know where it is; some people place it “in the early nineties” while others refer to the years preceding the 2015 nuclear deal. I can say with absolute conviction that no such order has ever been issued by Iran’s supreme religious leader, because as you search for information on the subject, it becomes clear that neither the Americans nor the Iranians themselves can find—or even quote—this, one of the world’s most crucial fatwas!

The issue of fatwas by senior Iranian clerics is a well-regulated process: regulations must follow the requirements of classical Islam in content and form, are printed in both Persian and Arabic, and are signed and sealed by the issuing cleric. Moreover, these fatwas are registered, collected, and regularly published in printed collections. What’s more, for decades, the fatwas of all the leading Iranian imams appear on their own websites—the advances in Iran’s IT on the ideological issues of Islamic dissemination are astounding. Nowhere do we find such a regulation, not even on Khamenei’s official website, where all of his fatwas since 1991 can conveniently be found! Neither the English nor the Farsi scientific literature has directly referred to this fatwa. Thus, Iran’s own political scientists are also forced to admit that, as a specific regulation, the text does not exist and that the “nuclear fatwa” is, in fact, a set of Ayatollah Khamenei’s statements along the lines that nuclear weapons are really bad things!7

But let us return from Islamic theological twists to the real world: if the West actually believes that Iran’s religious leaders have imposed a fatwa on themselves on the question of nuclear weapons, why did they need all that international nuclear-deal drama and oaths from the Iranians on the peacefulness of the nuclear programme and offering them a heavenly reward for it?

So, we have to agree with Trump: this nuclear war is yet another scam by the ayatollahs! The Obama administration, and in particular Secretary of State John Kerry, sought, through this extraordinary deal, to record themselves in the history books as an unrivalled international achievement, but they were taken for fools by Iranians claiming that the use and even possession of nuclear weapons were prohibited. It is not prohibited: in the famous words of the Prophet Muhammad: “War is a deception!”


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.


1 Touraj Daryaee, “Food, Purity and Pollution: Zoroastrian Views on the Eating Habits of Others”, Iranian Studies 45 (2)(2012), pp. 229–42; Joya Blondel Saad, The Image of Arabs in Modern Persian Literature (Lanham,MD: University Press of America, 1996), pp. 6–7.

2 A good introduction to the anti-Arabism of Iranians and to the anti-Iran attitude of the Iraqis on a cultural level can be found in the collection of articles in Arta Khakpour, Mohammad Mehdi Khorrami and Shouleh Vatanabadi (eds.), Moments of Silence: Authenticity in the Cultural Expressions of the Iran-Iraq War, 1980–1988(New York: NYU Press, 2016).

3 “Hatred of Arabs deeply rooted in Persians, says Iranian intellectual”, Al Arabiaya, 9 October 2011.https://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2011/10/09/170927.html.

4 David Kenner, “King Abdullah wants to wipe Israel and Iran off the map”, Foreign Policy, 29 June 2010. https://foreignpolicy.com/2010/06/29/king-abdullah-wants-to-wipe-israel-and-iran-off-the-map/.

5 Marin Mõttus, “Iran and the West: A Journey with Stopovers”, Diplomaatia 194, 24 October 2019. http://icds.ee/iran-and-the-west-a-journey-with-stopovers/.

6 “Statement by the President on the Framework to Prevent Iran from Obtaining a Nuclear Weapon”, The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 2 April 2015. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/04/02/statement-president-framework-prevent-iran-obtaining-nuclear-weapon.

7 For one of the most comprehensive manipulations by the Iranians to bring a non-existent nuclear fatwa into circulation, see Sirjani, Farhad Shahabi,“Iran’s Nuclear Fatwa”,Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Summer 2013), pp. 57–80 (particularly page 66). http://www.isrjournals.com/images/pdf/3.Shahabi%20Sirjani.pdf.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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