Did Bill Clinton Create the Iranian Nuclear Crisis?

There has been a lot said both here and elsewhere about the situation in Iran.  Problems with human rights as well as concern over Iran’s nuclear tensions have led relations between Tehran and Washington to bottom out – with some in the US calling for military action or even regime change.  While both military action (Israeli or American) and regime change would be devastating for the general good of the region, it is not hard to see the Persian state and Washington are not seeing eye to eye.  It would be easy to place all of the blame on Iranian intransigence (and, indeed, Tehran deserves some blame), but why and how did relations between Iran and the US reach such a dangerous level.  The surprising answer might just be former American President Bill Clinton.

During the Iraq-Iran war, the Reagan Administration avoided direct confrontation by playing both sides against each other

America has a very checkered past with Iran.  From 1953 to 1979, relations were considered very healthy – as Iran was led by the American installed shah.  After the Islamic revolution, however, the countries have been constantly and mutually suspicious.  In the 1980’s the Iranian regime was embroiled in the long and costly Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988) – a war which decreased the perceived Iranian threat to the US and its Middle Eastern ally, Israel.  The Iraq-Iran war exemplified the strategy that the US had used in the region for years – pick sides and play one regime against the other to prevent one country from becoming more powerful than the others.  During the war, the Reagan Administration support Saddam Hussein against Iran in order to prolong the war and prevent a quick Iranian victory.  The Bush senior Administration then turned against Iraq in the first Gulf war.

This strategy worked well because it directed Middle Eastern animosity towards other Middle Eastern countries.  Of course, there was overt anti-Americanism, but – in the case of Iran and Iraq – it prevented America from being the enemy and kept the adversarial focus of Iraq on Iran and vice versa.

This policy changed during the Clinton Administration in the mid-1990’s to one of ‘dual containment,’ in which the US deployed considerable military force in the region and singularly tried to restrain Iraq and Iran.  The downfall to the new policy is  evident – America was seen as the enemy by both Iraq and Iran.  The decision to switch policies was justified by several factors.  Most paramount, perhaps, was the relative weakness of Iraq after the first Gulf war (Saddam could not counter Iran), the renaissance of a Iranian nuclear program (the Iranian nuclear program took a backseat during the Iraq-Iran war) and the relative security of Israel (with a weak Iraq and a burgeoning nuclear Iran, Israel wanted American pressure on Tehran).

The sagacity of the policy change can be debated, but it instigated clear shift in the US national attitude on the Middle East.  Along with the implementation of the dual containment strategy, a large push was made within the US to try to frame Tehran and Baghdad as irresponsible threats to the US and Israel.  The efficacy of the American view of Iran is manifested in its refusal to accept motions of peace by the former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani – elected in 1989 – and former President Mohammad Khatami – elected in 1997.  Significant sanctions were also slapped on Iran for the first time in the mid-1990’s.

The policy of dual containment led to a general acceptance in the US of direct American military action. This attitude led to the decision to invade Baghdad.

The change in policy arguably played an enormous role in the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.  If Washington had followed the policy of playing Iraq and Iran against each other, it is not a far leap to assume that the US would have been hesitant to have a more substantial military presence in the region.  Of course, there are many factors that led to the US invasion of Iraq, but the change in mentality of the US government during the Clinton Administration cannot be discredited – although it is not often discussed.  Before Clinton decided to change the American policy, the US was content to passively try to control the balance of power in the region by simply supporting the underdog.  Dual containment required an active and aggressive US that was not afraid to use military power.

Currently, it is not hard to see that Iran has a much more influential role in the Middle East since the fall of Baghdad in 2003.  Although dual containment led Iranian and Iraqi animosity towards Washington, Baghdad remained a counter-weight to Tehran in the region.  Without a semi-powerful Iraqi government, Tehran today faces little challenge to the regional power that the US gave it by invading Baghdad.  Such unchallenged authority has led to some band-wagoning in the Middle East – perhaps led by Saudi Arabia – but there is no regional power that has the ability to force Iran to develop more passive policies.  Tehran’s regional domination has allowed it to continue funding groups like Hezbollah and Hamas with little meaningful objection.

[tweetmeme] Currently, the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been creating severe headaches for Tel Aviv – which accurately sees a nuclear Iran as a threat – and Washington.  There is a clear majority within the international community that sees a nuclear Tehran as a threat to peace.  It is easy to postulate that an Iraq led by Saddam would have been among the most vocal of the opposition – perhaps even resorting to military means to prevent the acquisition of WMD’s by Iran.  It is unknown if the current Iraqi regime opposes a nuclear Iranian state; the move towards a Shi’a dominated sectarianism in the country has led some observers to hypothesize that Iraq is now under the thumb of Tehran.

Of course, this is not an argument that Saddam Hussein’s regime was a net good; the atrocities committed by Saddam are well documented.  It is doubtful, though, that Saddam would have permitted a nuclear armed Iran.  In addition to sanctions, military aggression or engagement (the current options regarding Iran), the US would have been able to push Iraq to confront Iran – like it did in the 1980’s.  Such a policy would force Iran to rethink or postpone its nuclear ambitions while preventing America from playing the role of aggressor.

It is impossible to say how the nuclear question will be resolved, but it will undoubtedly be difficult.  Sanctions have questionable efficacy and results of engagement can never be assured.  While some are calling for military action or regime change do so because it is the most predictable way to halt or postpone Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons.  These same proponents of war are not (and cannot) predicting all the consequences – just as the supporters of the second Gulf war did not predict the relative rise of Iran.  It is far from surprising, though, that there are many who are calling for direct, aggressive military action in Iran.  Given the current national perception of the need for direct American action – catalyzed by the Clinton policy change to dual containment – inevitably results in such a mindset.

Blaming Clinton for the current problems with Iran is preposterous; he could have never predicted the future evolution of his policy change.  However, the need for direct American involvement in the Middle East – that led to the second Gulf war and is provoking calls for action against Iran – is a clear descendant of Clinton’s (perhaps unwise) decision to accept the policy of dual containment.

Photos from UMich and UPI

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