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Americans have been fed a simplified tale about Iran and Soleimani — it's time to rewrite that

Context for the Soleimani death is important. So let's talk about why Iran is really angry with America

Carli Pierson
Monday 06 January 2020 17:49 GMT
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei weeps at Soleimani prayers

More major news came out of Iran and Iraq over the weekend. Overnight thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets of Tehran to mourn General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in Iraq last week while part of an official envoy sent to help elect a new Iraqi prime minister. On Sunday, the Iraqi parliament approved a humiliating resolution to expel American troops from Iraq after the US assassination. Meanwhile, Iran’s government announced yesterday that it would be pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The Nuclear Deal was brokered by the five permanent UN Security Council members and Germany – also known as the P5+1 and finalized in 2015 under the Obama administration. In Sunday’s announcement, Iranian officials said while they would continue to work with the UN, they wouldn’t adhere to any limits on the amount of uranium they could enrich, nor would they limit nuclear research and development. Iran conditioned its return to the original terms of the deal on the US dropping sanctions.

The US was the first to walk away from the deal in 2018, saying the JCOPA didn’t address Iran’s ballistic missile program or its role in regional conflicts. When I asked Rutgers University professor of Middle Eastern studies, Dr Neda Bolourchi, about the tension between the two nations after the US left the deal, she told me: “Iran has every right to be angry… Tehran engaged in good faith negotiations with the P5+1… When it found out that the full benefits of that agreement would not be forthcoming because the US still listed the country under terror sanctions the government was frustrated again…The US could have worked with Iran in a different way.”

But the White House didn’t stop there – it reinstated sanctions from before the 2015 deal. I spoke with Dr Hamid Zangeneh, an Iranian American professor of economics, about the difference between the sanctions during earlier presidencies and Trump’s sanctions. He told me that Trump’s sanctions were, well, significantly worse: “During the Bush and Clinton presidencies, Iran was allowed to sell a certain percentage of its oil to buy medicines and pay for infrastructure,” he said. But when the US left the deal, Trump criminalized the purchase of Iranian petroleum exports and blacklisted banks and other commercial and state entities who dared do business with the western Asian nation. The treasury department began to specialize in hunting down anyone who dared to buy Iranian oil. In other words, the Trump administration aimed to obliterate the Iranian economy.

And as the wheels of the legitimate sectors of Iran’s economy ground to a halt, millions were forced to barter for goods, or pay 30 to 40 per cent over market price. Zangeneh went on to say that people in Iran today can’t afford to buy food or medicine and the demise of a legitimate economy has created a powerful smuggling industry.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s rambling justification for last week’s killing of Iran’s top military official was that Soleimani had killed American soldiers in Iraq and was supposedly plotting an “imminent attack” on American lives. Pompeo claims that Soleimani organized a similar attack that killed an American contractor in late December. Evidence for an alleged “imminent threat” against American lives has yet to be proven; however, Trump’s threats to attack sites “important to Iran and Iranian culture” would fall under the definition of a war crime under rules 38 and 40 of the Geneva Convention.

Pompeo has been gunning for conflict with Iran since he was appointed Secretary of State. And his simplified excuse for the killing Soleimani conveniently forgets two major issues with the US invasion of Iraq, including the 500,000 Iraqi people killed in the war and the legal precedent for killing them – lies read to the American people by then-president Bush and members of his administration that Saddam Hussain possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction. We all know how that turned out.

Speaking with Bolourchi about Pompeo’s excuses for possibly instigating a war with Iran, she noted that Soleimani’s participation in the killings of American soldiers was after the invasion of Iraq between 2005 and 2011. Bolourchi also said that Soleimani began fighting Isis after the US left Iraq in 2014, “and then there was a bit of a truce [between the two countries].” She added, “That in no way excuses Soleimani’s acts and decisions that resulted in the deaths of civilians” but noted that the additional context was important to understanding the conflict.

Indeed, context is critical. While most Americans can’t find Iran on a map, they’ve been sold the most simplified storyline of all times: that the US is the benevolent promoter of democracy worldwide, while Iran is a belligerent nation filled with religious extremists. In fact, the US has been meddling non-benevolently with Iranian lives since 1953, when it helped to remove that country’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, replacing him with the brutal Shah of Iran who was eventually overthrown. In the 1980s, the US government provided then-ally Saddam Hussein with weapons to use against Iran, including chemical weapons, resulting in the deaths of over a million Iranian citizens in the Iraq-Iran war. Sanctions were instituted during the Bush and Clinton presidencies until, after 20 months of negotiations, President Obama was able to walk them back with a historic nuclear deal that gave the Iranian economy room to grow legitimately. In 2018, Trump reinstituted significantly harsher sanctions in what was really an act of economic violence. That decision affected government and everyday civilians equally.

What choice do we give Iran when we overthrow their democratically elected officials, arm their enemies, destroy their economy, starve their people, and threaten their cultural sites? I am in no way justifying the civilian deaths or human rights abuses perpetrated by Iran’s government. What I am saying, however, is that the story of Iran’s belligerence has an important backdrop of violence perpetrated against it from the US.

As Trump tries to navigate the latest crisis he created with fewer allies and less experienced advisers than previous administrations, it will be Iranian civilians and American troops that will suffer the consequences. Are we, as everyday Americans, happy with that?

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