On July 4, 1982, a car with diplomatic plates carrying senior Iranian envoys was stopped outside of Beirut by members of a right-wing Christian militia. Among the four passengers was Ahmad Motevaselian, the military attaché at Iran’s Embassy in Lebanon and a well-known hero of Iran’s war with Iraq. He had also overseen the deployment of more than a thousand Iranian Revolutionary Guards, in response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon four weeks earlier. Their car was later found abandoned. Iran appealed for international action—especially from the Christian militia and its U.S. and Israeli allies—to find the Iranian hostages. Nothing happened. On July 19th, gunmen abducted David Dodge, the acting president of American University of Beirut, from the campus grounds, overlooking the Mediterranean. Dodge was the first American hostage in Beirut. He spent exactly a year, to the day, in an Iranian prison. Syria intervened to help free Dodge, partly to curry favor with the United States at Damascus’s own moment of weakness.
That eye-for-an-eye exchange between Iran and the United States was the beginning of a hostage saga that sucked in more and more victims over the next decade. It also typified revolutionary Iran’s strategy in dealing with what it perceived as threats. “We always respond,” the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told me on Thursday, in New York. The lesson, he said, is “don’t play with Iran.”
Since May 3rd, the United States has faced yet another round of tensions with the Islamic Republic. The two nations are again in a troubling tit-for-tat cycle. On Thursday, the U.S. Navy destroyed an Iranian drone over the strategically important Strait of Hormuz. The drone came within a thousand feet of the U.S.S. Boxer, an amphibious assault vessel, and ignored repeated communications to move away, President Trump said. “This is the latest of many provocative and hostile actions by Iran against vessels operating in international waters,” he said. “The United States reserves the right to defend our personnel, our facilities, and interests, and calls upon all nations to condemn Iran’s attempts to disrupt freedom of navigation and global commerce.” Roughly a third of the world’s seaborne oil is shipped via the strait, some of which falls within Iranian waters.
On Friday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard announced the seizure of a British-flagged oil tanker sailing in the Gulf for failing to comply with “international maritime laws and regulations.” The ship’s owner said it had been unable to make contact with the Stena Impero and its twenty-three-man crew since it was surrounded by unidentified ships and a helicopter. U.S. officials told CNN that Iran also captured a second oil tanker, the Liberian-flagged MV Mesdar, on Friday. The latest crisis in the Gulf follows Britain’s seizure of an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar on July 4th. Britain claimed that the Grace 1 was carrying oil to Syria in violation of European sanctions. The Iranian actions followed a court decision, on Friday, in Gibraltar, a British territory, to extend the detention of the Grace 1 for another thirty days. The episodes seriously escalate tensions between Iran and the West and potentially threaten the security of tankers exporting oil through the strait. Unlike the United States, Britain has so far continued to honor the 2015 nuclear deal—and tried to broker a deal that would circumvent punitive U.S. sanctions on Iran. “This only goes to show what I’m saying about Iran. Trouble. Nothing but trouble,” President Trump told reporters Friday afternoon. “It goes to show you I was right about Iran.”
The Trump Administration blames Iran for the recent tensions, including attacks on six foreign tankers just beyond the strait, in the Gulf of Oman. On June 20th, Iran also shot down a U.S. drone with a surface-to-air missile. It claimed that the unmanned drone—a Global Hawk, one of the largest in the U.S. fleet—was in Iranian airspace; large chunks of it were retrieved in Iranian waters. The United States claimed that the drone was in international airspace. Trump reportedly approved a retaliatory strike on Iranian missile batteries linked to the downing of the drone, but then pulled back because of the possibility of killing dozens of Iranians.
From Iran’s perspective, however, the current cycle was initiated by Trump, in May of last year, when he withdrew the U.S. from a historic nuclear deal brokered by the world’s six major powers and Iran—after two years of tortuous diplomacy—in mid-2015. In November, he reimposed economic sanctions that had been lifted as an incentive for Iran to limit its controversial nuclear program. The Administration has now pledged to cut off all Iranian oil exports—down to zero—to force it to make further concessions on its nuclear program and support for extremist groups, missile development, intervention in the Middle East, and human-rights abuses. Iran has responded by vowing that others will suffer if it is not allowed to export oil, which is critical to its economy.
It’s only the latest chicken-and-egg crisis between the two nations. The same dynamics have played out repeatedly in Iran’s confrontations with regional and international adversaries since the 1979 revolution. Some of these conflicts are ongoing; each has added a layer that further complicates the resolution of any of them.
In the nineteen-eighties, Iran persisted in demanding freedom for its missing diplomats. Meanwhile, Americans kept disappearing off the streets of Beirut. Many U.S. officials believed that Iranian proxies were carrying out the abductions. In 1988, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the powerful speaker of Iran’s parliament, offered a swap—the four Iranians for, by then, the nine American hostages in Lebanon. “If you are interested in having your people held hostage in Lebanon released, then tell the [Christian] Phalangists to release our people who have been in their hands for years, and of whom we do not have any news,” he said, during a Friday prayer sermon. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush committed to helping locate them. “This is something they feel strongly about,” he said, of the Iranians. “It’s something I’d like to do. And I think they would consider this a gesture of good will” that could lead to Tehran helping with the release of the last Americans in Lebanon.
Iran’s eye-for-an-eye strategy was particularly visible during its eight-year war with Iraq. In 1981, the Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, opened a new front by launching air strikes on Iranian tankers in the Gulf. In 1984, he went big, hitting Kharg Island, Iran’s major oil terminal in the Gulf, and several tankers. Iran, which had held back, began to counterstrike. The “tanker war” became a threat to international energy. The United States was sucked in to protect ships ferrying Saddam Hussein’s oil—at a price. In 1987, Iraqi warplanes mistakenly struck the U.S.S. Stark when it was on patrol in the Gulf on Iraq’s behalf. Thirty-seven American sailors were killed. By the time the war ended, in 1988, Iraq had hit more than two hundred and eighty Iranian tankers. Iran struck a hundred and sixty-eight tankers doing business with Iraq or its Arab allies in the Gulf.
The same pattern played out between the two nations during the so-called war of the cities. Hussein expected a quick military victory against Iran, given the way the Shah’s Army had been decimated after the revolution. As the war dragged on—ultimately, for eight years—Iraq began targeting Iranian cities well beyond the front lines, such as Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, and Tabriz. I covered the war and remember the incoming missiles, the rows of sandbags high in front of homes and businesses, and the tape criss-crossing windows to diminish the impact of the blasts. Iran hit back in kind. By 1988, Iraq had fired more than five hundred missiles into civilian areas. Iran fired a hundred and seventeen Scuds on Iraqi cities, notably Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Basra. Hundreds of thousands died on both sides of the conflict. In total, there were more than a million casualties.
“We say, ‘You may start a war, but you won’t be the ones who end it,’ ” Zarif told me this week.
The pattern was repeated during the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, after the 9/11 attacks, in 2001, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Tehran viewed the deployment of tens of thousands of American troops on its western and eastern borders as a threat to its own security. In both countries, Iran reportedly provided materiel—notably improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.s—to insurgents as pressure to get the United States to withdraw. Although it cost American lives, the military support was not sufficient for Washington to justify an invasion of Iran. The Trump Administration has claimed that Iran was responsible for the deaths of more than six hundred Americans in Iraq.
In dealing with the Islamic Republic, the challenge is finding the key to break the eye-for-an-eye cycle. Iranians have a long history—and long memories. “We will survive, we will prosper, long after President Trump is gone,” Zarif said, at a second session I attended with a small group of journalists, on Thursday. “Our time slots are in millennia.”
Even as tensions escalate, key players in both Washington and Tehran appear interested in preventing a war. This week, Politico reported that the President agreed (during a weekend golf game) to a proposal by Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky, to meet Zarif during his U.N. visit. Trump has pushed back against more hawkish advice, notably from the national-security adviser, John Bolton, who had advocated for regime change in Tehran before taking his current job, at the White House. Zarif, who was educated in the U.S., usually meets with current and former members of the Senate or House during his U.N. visits. On Thursday, he acknowledged that he was again meeting members of Congress, but he declined to name them or confirm that he’d met Paul. He also had rare praise for the President. “I believe we were a few minutes away from a war after Iran downed the U.S. drone last month,” he said. “Prudence prevailed, and we’re not fighting. So that gives reason for us to be optimists. If we work, if we are serious, then we can find a way forward.”
Zarif offered the rough outlines of a deal to end the diplomatic impasse. Iran would be willing to sign the Additional Protocol, which provides the International Atomic Energy Agency more tools to verify Iran’s peaceful use of nuclear materials. It would provide a way to address concerns about so-called “sunset clauses” in the 2015 nuclear deal that lift restrictions on Iran’s program. In exchange, he said, the U.S. would lift economic sanctions on Iran, even if it did not sign on again to the original nuclear deal. In effect, the new arrangements would supersede it.
Iran’s proposal does not, however, cover the other issues that the Trump Administration wants addressed—Tehran’s support for extremist movements, intervention in the Middle East, missile tests, and human-rights abuses. And neither initiative defuses other issues, much less the flash points of the past.
The four Iranians who disappeared in Beirut have never been found, but the Bush Administration did investigate the case. It concluded—and relayed to Iran—that the men were executed by the Christian militia, American diplomats told me. But, without the bodies, Iran has balked at believing that the men are dead. Their disappearance is now commemorated annually on July 4th in Iran; conspiracy theories about their fate have abounded over time. Officials have claimed even recently that the Christian militia handed the men to Israel, where they have been imprisoned since 1982. This month, on the thirty-seventh anniversary of the kidnapping, Iran’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement blaming the United States, in part, for their fate. “Since Lebanon was under the U.S.-backed Israeli occupation at that time, Iran holds the Zionist regime and its sponsors legally and politically responsible for the abduction,” it said. If a case so straightforward can’t be resolved, it’s hard to envision imminent progress on far weightier problems—nuclear programs, the safety of the world’s energy supplies, and regional conflicts—that have led the U.S. over the past few weeks to deploy more troops, warships, and bombers to the world’s most volatile region.
This post has been updated to include details about Iran’s seizure of British and Liberian tankers in the Gulf.
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