For decades, since the Iranian Revolution, the United States has engaged in a quasi-war with Tehran. Washington backed Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War, described Iran as being part of an “axis of evil” alongside Iraq and North Korea, launched the Stuxnet cyberattack on Iranian nuclear facilities in 2009, and provided weapons for Saudi Arabia to fight a proxy war against Iran in Yemen. Today, the United States and Iran still lack formal diplomatic relations. President Donald Trump described Iran as “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” with a “sinister vision of the future.” Meanwhile, Iranian propaganda pushes a narrative of resistance against the United States—the “great Satan”—as well as Israel.
It’s striking, then, that since 9/11, major U.S. foreign-policy gambits in the Middle East have consistently aided Iranian interests. America is not so much Iran’s frenemy as its fremesis: a supposedly mortal adversary that unintentionally gives critical support. By scrapping the Iran nuclear deal, Trump is following an established U.S. playbook of helping Tehran.
America’s puzzling tendency to further Iranian interests began in 2001 with the removal of the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. Of course, Washington’s goal was not to help Iran, but instead to fight al-Qaeda and its state sponsors. Nevertheless, the effect of the intervention was to topple one of Iran’s major opponents. At the time, Iran backed rebel groups fighting the Taliban, and almost launched a full-scale war against the Islamist group in 1998 following the killing of Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan. Today, as Washington looks to exit Afghanistan, Tehran has performed a diplomatic pirouette by providing backing to the Taliban, in order to speed up the American departure and maximize Iranian influence.