That Iran hasn’t invaded anyone or, indeed, started a war in more than two centuries has become a talking point for those advocating trust and outreach to Iran.
Here’s University of Michigan professor and polemicist Juan Cole, for example:
Iran has not launched an aggressive war in modern history (unlike the US or Israel), and its leaders have a doctrine of “no first strike.” This is true of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as well as of Revolutionary Guards commanders
Retired Congressman Ron Paul likewise declared, “There’s no history to show that Iran are aggressive people. When’s the last time they invaded a country? Over 200 years ago!” Richard Falk, an emeritus Princeton professor and early advocate for Ayatollah Khomeini and later a UN official (and 9/11 conspiracy theorist), likewise repeated the trope.
The Iranian regime knows when it has got a good thing going. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif yesterday tweeted, “Iran hasn’t attacked any country in 250 years. But when Saddam rained missiles on us and gassed our people for 8 yrs, no one helped us.”
But is it true that “Iran hasn’t attacked any country in 250 years” as Zarif and his fellow travelers insist? Not quite.
Between 1804 and 1813, Iran and Russia fought a bloody conflict in the Caucasus which ended with the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan. Iran’s Qajar dynasty leader, Fath Ali Shah, admittedly at the goading of the British and tempted by promised aid, broke the treaty and re-invaded the territory 13 years later. It was a disastrous move; Russia pushed back Iranian forces and ended up taking what now is Armenia and the southern portion of independent Azerbaijan.
Then there was the Anglo-Persian War of 1856-1857. Persian forces invaded western Afghanistan to press their claim to Herat. British-Indian forces invaded Iran at Bushehr to compel the withdrawal of Persian forces, which they successfully did. (One of the what-if’s of history is what might have happened if the India Mutiny had occurred a year earlier; after all, the British utilized forces which had been in Persia the previous year and cannons seized during the campaign to put down the 1858 revolt in their prize colony). In addition, border skirmishes at the southern tip of the Shatt al-Arab were common in the first decade of the twentieth century as Iranian forces sought both to consolidate control over their territory and, at times, push into Basra, southern Iraq’s major city.
But that’s ancient history, right? After all, isn’t it quibbling to say that Iran actually hasn’t waged aggressive war in 150 years rather 250 years? Maybe Zarif was just confused.
Alas, Iranian aggression has a longer history. In 1968, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced that Britain would withdraw “from east of Suez” within a few years. As the British Navy pulled back from the Persian Gulf in 1970, Iranian forces seized Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tonbs, islands that legally belonged to Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates. At the time, the United States turned a blind eye toward Iranian aggression. After all, under the Nixon Doctrine, Iran was a pivotal state through which the United States hoped to bring stability to the Middle East. The Islamic Republic has only doubled down on that occupation, transforming those islands—and Abu Musa in particular—into Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) bases. Indeed, in the course of talk about returning Abu Musa (though not its waters) to the United Arab Emirates, it transpired that the IRGC has used the island as a chemical weapons depot.
Then, there’s the case of Bahrain. Let’s put aside the current sectarian struggle. As Britain prepared to withdraw from the Persian Gulf, the shah laid claim to the entirety of Bahrain, which it considered a wayward province that should return to the fold. The shah agreed to abide by a referendum to determine whether Bahrainis sought to be part of Iran or have their independence. They overwhelmingly chose the latter. Iranian revolutionary leader Khomeini was not so magnanimous, however. As Bahrain approached its tenth anniversary as an independent state, Iran sought to use a proxy group it trained—the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB)—to overthrow the monarchy and return Bahrain to Iran. Lest any apologist dismiss Iranian involvement as Arab propaganda, the Library of Congress has a full set of IFLB magazines with photo essays depicting Iran’s Revolutionary Guards training the group and IFLB officials swearing allegiance to Khomeini.
Then there’s Hezbollah. About a decade ago, the Islamic Republic’s first two ambassadors to Lebanon gave a lengthy interview to Asharq al-Awsat, the largest circulation pan-Arab newspaper, in which they detailed Iranian involvement in the creation of Hezbollah. In its initial years, Hezbollah focused just as much on attacking other Lebanese groups as it did Israel. Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 (and the United Nations certified its withdrawal) but Hezbollah precipitated a war in 2006 by staging a cross-border raid into Israel. While Hezbollah has constantly framed itself as a resistance organization, it turned its guns on fellow Lebanese in 2008 in a fight for control over revenue. More recently, it has carried out aggressive ethnic and sectarian cleansing inside Syria on behalf of the Assad regime. It is an Iranian proxy through and through. I’ve been to Hezbollah bunkers before at Mlitta, in southern Lebanon. That they are decorated with posters of Khomeini and Khamenei, rather than any Lebanese figures, should put to rest the notion that Hezbollah is a Lebanese nationalist organization.
And, of course, there’s the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam Hussein certainly started that conflict, but the Islamic Republic sought more than to return to the status quo. In 1982, Iran had more or less pushed the Iraqi invaders out of its territory. Khomeini was considering a ceasefire but, according to former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s memoirs, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps pressured/convinced Khomeini to keep the war going until they met the goal of “liberating Jerusalem.” There followed six more years of bloodshed at the cost of perhaps a half million more lives. And, while pedantic, Zarif might want to remember that the missiles flew both ways during the Iran-Iraq War, as did the chemical weapons (although, admittedly, Iraq used them first).
Then there’s the issue of “Export of Revolution,” defined in both the Iranian constitution and the founding statute of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as an essential part of the Islamic Republic. In 2008, according to the Iranian newspaper Emruz (Today), former President Mohammad Khatami suggested “Export of Revolution” was just a call to utilize soft power to show the superiority of the Islamic Republic’s system:
What did the Imam [Khomeini] want, and what was his purpose of exporting the revolution? [Did he wish that] we should export revolution by means of gunpowder or groups sabotaging other countries?” Khatami asked, in effect acknowledging that Iran had used violence to undermine other countries. He answered his own rhetorical questions, declaring, “He meant to establish a role model here, which means people should see that in this society, the economy, science, and dignity of man are respected….
That would be all well and good if the matter dropped there. But the IRGC was outraged and protested Khatami’s remarks. Three weeks later, Ayatollah Shahroudi, one of the Supreme Leader’s closest associates, ended the debate once and for all, declaring to a group of IRGC, “Know your worth since today you are the hope of Islamic national and Islamic liberation movements.”
Then, of course, there’s the fact that not only has Iran become the largest state-sponsor of terrorism, but it also continues its efforts to attack Israel with a declared goal of eradicating the Jewish state. This isn’t simply the case of the most recent Iranian ballistic missile launch. Years ago, despite Juan Cole’s mistranslation, Iranian leaders did call for “wiping Israel off the face of the world.” Don’t take my word for it: take Iran’s. And when the father of the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile program died in an explosion at an IRGC missile base, the Iranian press revealed that his will requested his epitaph read, “The man who enabled Israel’s destruction.”
So is it true that Iran hasn’t invaded anyone in the last 200 or 250 years? No. Zarif has long had trouble with the truth. And Juan Cole has always looked at tenure as security to engage in political polemic unencumbered by fact. But even if that statement were to be amended to 150 or 100 or 45 years, to suggest Iran hasn’t been the aggressor is to ignore its sponsorship of terrorism and insurgency.
It’s one thing to pursue deals with Iran. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) probably won’t stand the test of time any more than did the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, but elections matter as do Congressional compromises. It’s quite another, however, to whitewash if not outright falsify Iran’s historical record in order to justify trust where none is deserved. Certainly, over the centuries, Iran has been a victim of imperialism but it has also been the aggressor. Indeed, since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has been perhaps the most aggressive state in the Middle East, launching more attacks against neighbors and deploying its military far more widely and aggressively than any other country. It’s time to get real.