After President Donald Trump killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in an airstrike recently, the world seemed to be waiting to see how the Iranian government would respond to an attack on one of its most celebrated military leaders.
That response seemed to come on Tuesday when Iran fired more than a dozen missiles at US military buildings in Iraq. So far, no casualties have been announced in the wake of the strike, but political pundits have been wary to speculate about an American response that could possibly escalate the severe tensions that already exist between the two rival countries.
To understand the Iranian government’s show of force, however, it is necessary to first familiarize oneself with the long and tense history that has existed between the US and Iran for generations. In 1953, for example, US and British intelligence agencies successfully overthrew the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a monarch on the country’s throne.
The move came as Mosaddegh attempted to nationalize the country’s lucrative oil industry; Western oil conglomerates were not happy with this outcome and worked in tandem with the CIA and MI6 (British foreign intelligence) to have Mosaddegh deposed.
This plan worked for some time; as Iran’s new leader, the country’s Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) ran the Iranian public and private sectors as essentially wings of Western governments and their corporate interests. So long as international oil companies got their share of Iran’s oil industry profits, in other words, the Shah was left to his own devices. However fulsome he was to Western interests, however, during his reign, he was known for his brutal crackdowns on political dissidents and personal enemies.
But the Shah’s cozy relationship with Western powers also had the effect of alienating much of the Iranian populace: During its 1979 revolution, the country exiled the Shah and placed an ultra-traditional theocratic leadership class in power. It was the end of an Iranian monarchial system that had been in place for some 2000 years.
At the top of the country’s new power structure was the Grand Ayatollah and Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini; a hardline and ultra-orthodox religious fundamentalist, this divisive figure would later famously refer to the US as the “Great Satan.” Khomeini was also an instrumental person in the Iranian hostage crisis that developed for two years in the wake of the revolution.
From the hostage crisis forward, Iran was portrayed as a fierce enemy of the United States, and its Grand Ayatollah was widely seen as the bête noire of American political and business interests. Under the administrations of Presidents like Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, in fact, Iran was portrayed as everything from a fierce cold war adversary to a leading member of the so-called “Axis of Evil.”
Until this year, however, little has been done in the way of military confrontation with regard to Iran’s government. Under President Trump, however, that all changed in the blink of an eye.
Undoubtedly, this cultural context is key to understanding Tuesday’s airstrikes and their place in history. In standing up to what it sees as an exploitative Western power, the Iranian government may be hoping to settle old scores with an old rival. But the true consequences of these military exercises on the part of both the US and Iran are undoubtedly yet to be seen.