As the fortieth anniversary of the Iranian revolution approached, American media and policymakers reflected on the continuing enmity between the U.S. and Tehran’s rulers. National Public Radio, for example, aired a retrospective on the 1953 CIA-backed coup against Iran’s elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. “The 1953 coup was later invoked by students and the political class in Iran as a justification for overthrowing the Shah,” the report observed, “… [It] forever changed the relationship between the country and the U.S.”
The Tehran government, for its part, is celebrated its fortieth with a show of self-confidence. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei Tweeted on February 7th that some 50,000 prisoners in the country would receive pardons, which he dubbed “Islamic clemency.” It is not clear at this writing whether the beneficiaries will include political prisoners, or any of the dual nationals from the U.S. UK, Austria, Canada, and France who are also behind bars.
Another focus of festivity appears to have been a series of military tests in Iran, some designed to send a message to the international community. On February 7, Iran launched a ballistic missile with a range of 621 miles, despite international calls for it to end its missile program. The semi-official Fars news agency released images of an underground missile production facility, and boasted its missiles could reach America military bases in the region as well as the state of Israel. In the same week, Iran aired a flippant cartoon video in which one of its submarines sinks a U.S. navy aircraft-carrier strike group. Military affairs experts in the U.S. noted that Washington has neglected to invest in new initiatives to protect carriers from torpedoes, but opined that Iran still does not pose a serious threat to the American vessels. At the same time, for all Tehran’s bluster, evidence also surfaced that some of its military efforts have come to naught. According to the Jerusalem Post, two space imaging companies — DigitalGlobe and Planet — released pictures showing scorch marks from a blast on an Iranian air base, suggesting a failed attempt to launch a satellite into space. The State Department, reacting to the report, called on Tehran to halt space vehicle launches, as they were “inconsistent with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231.”
On February 5, President Trump referred to Iran in his State of the Union address, crediting his administration with having “acted decisively to confront the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, the radical regime in Iran. . . . To ensure this corrupt dictatorship never acquires nuclear weapons …” Critics of the president, for their part, warn that beyond backing out of the nuclear deal, the possibility of American military action against Tehran may be growing. A Washington Post opinion piece published on February 7 pointed significantly to the replacement of national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — both of whom had cautioned against withdrawing from the nuclear deal — with Iran hawk John Bolton at NSC and Patrick Shanahan as acting Defense Secretary. Shanahan, the article noted, has signaled that the Pentagon will no longer strive to block the president’s instincts on military matters.
On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board argued that Trump’s tough line on Iran had come none too soon. The article quoted Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Tehran’s nuclear agency, in a television interview last month in which he asserted in substance that Iran had been preparing for a nuclear “breakout” capacity from the start of the P5+1 nuclear negotiations. In other words, the government had never intended to honor its commitment not to build a nuclear weapons program.