Voters must educate themselves about the complex history of the US and Iran

Guest column authored by Patrick Ryan. 

“The Tennessean”

January 6, 2020

Iran remains no match for America’s economic and military power, but it does have the capacity for much more than mischief making.

Patrick W. Ryan

Guest columnist

  • Patrick W. Ryan is founding president of the Tennessee World Affairs Council.

The U.S. drone strike killing of murderous Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani on a dusty road near the Baghdad airport on Jan. 2 and the resulting furor and counter strike by the armed forces of Iran are not a new chapter in a recent book but a new volume in the compendium of conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran spanning decades.

The opening of the seventh decade of lukewarm war with Iran has no perfect analog but does have a “The Guns of August” feel to it. Historian Barbara W. Tuchman expertly set the scene in that book for the “War to End All Wars.”

It’s beyond imagination that a looming war with Iran would approach the magnitude of death and destruction of World War I. We do, however, see two sides that, while professing no desire for high-intensity war, are both recklessly stumbling toward a hot war of immense proportions.

While he was no Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Soleimani was a cult figure in Iran, the most senior official in Tehran’s national security apparatus. If a new war with Iran comes, it will be his killing that will be recorded as the proximate fuse that was lit. 

Indeed, the Iranian representative to the United Nations told CNN on Jan. 3, “In fact it was an act of war on the part of the United States against the Iranian people.” He promised “harsh revenge.” The missile volley launched Tuesday night was not yet it.

‘The Great Satan’ and the ‘axis of evil’

It wasn’t always that way. As a young sailor assigned in the 1970s to the Navy’s flagship in the Gulf, I recall working closely with Iranian forces under the CENTO (Central Treaty Organization) military pact, an alliance akin to NATO, designed to deter Soviet designs on the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean. That pact and our relationship was destroyed by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the rise of a regime hostile to the West, generally, and to the United States, specifically. America became the “Great Satan” in Tehran; Iran was part of an “axis of evil” in Washington. 

The convulsion on the Middle East landscape that was the Iranian revolution was followed by decades of political, economic and military conflict, the later through both Tehran-backed proxies and military engagements. Such was the 1980s tanker war in the shadow of the catastrophic Iran-Iraq war that claimed over a million casualties — in case you doubt Iranian capacity for wartime suffering. 

Iran does not back down

At one point in the tanker war, a campaign I witnessed from the bridge of a cruiser in the Gulf, the U.S. retaliated over Iran’s placement of sea mines that damaged an American frigate by destroying a number of Iranian offshore oil platforms. Iran dispatched warships to respond, but they were outgunned in what was the largest naval engagement for the U.S. Navy since World War II.

Five Iranian vessels were sunk and others damaged. Few Americans are familiar with this battle. A takeaway from the engagement for Iran was the need to develop tactics to take on the U.S. Navy; for the U.S. it should have been that Iran does not back down. 

The relationship is littered with more belligerency: American hostage-taking in Lebanon by Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah; the provision of deadly munitions in direct support of insurgents battling Americans in Iraq; and more. I was the intelligence officer overseeing terrorism analyses in the U.S. Central Command headquarters when a U.S. Air Force dormitory in Saudi Arabia was truck-bombed, killing 19 servicemen and wounding 500 others. Iran was culpable in the attack. There is no question we have unsettled scores with Tehran. 

So, the 2020s open with the scene set for a hot war with Iran of yet undefined parameters. Iran certainly remains no match for America’s economic and military power but it does have the capacity for much more than mischief making. Tehran’s vow to shed American blood is no empty threat notwithstanding the barrage of Iranian missiles – widely thought to be aimed to miss.

Troubles at home

As the winds of war strengthen in the Gulf, at home we have troubles of our own making. A 2015 deal with Tehran – along with Russia, China and European partners – to stanch nuclear weapons development was trashed by Trump.  It was replaced with a campaign of “maximum pressure” that some say is designed to precipitate regime change in Iran. It was met with Iran’s campaign of “maximum resistance” and a cycle of escalation that brought us to the edge of an abyss of catastrophic potential.

The past week of strike, counter strike is not the end of it. Iran has acted boldly by attacking U.S. bases in Iraq, but not provocatively enough to bring an immediate American attack. Despite President Trump’s tweet “All is well!” in response, all is not well. Maximum pressure and maximum resistance continue. It will be only days or weeks before an attack, probably non-conventional and lacking Persian fingerprints, has us back at the brink of war.

Meanwhile there is uncertainty about our national security apparatus. We have a mendacious commander in chief who is unsettling in his approach to foreign policy, his relationship with his own Intelligence Community and Diplomatic Corps, his inability to consult and work with Congress and his obsession with blaming his failures on his predecessor.

The impending historic Senate trial of President Trump is an immeasurable complication to clear headed decision making and invites suspicions as to the president’s motives. There are questions about the veracity of the “imminent threat” warning that brought the escalation, the role of Congress in making war and the ability of our leaders to adhere to international law and the laws of war.

So, what to do? Our tortuous history with Iran and the recklessness of this administration has given us a “guns of January” moment. 

Too many of us, unfortunately, do not appreciate or care to investigate the background and context of the complexities that have us poised to spend more American blood and treasure on another Middle East war. I challenge you to get smart. You have a vote coming up. 

Lt. Commander Patrick W. Ryan, U.S. Navy (retired), served as a submariner and intelligence officer during a 26-year U.S. Navy career. He published newsletters on Persian Gulf affairs for 15 years. He is founding president of the Tennessee World Affairs Council, a nonpartisan educational organization dedicated to increasing global affairs awareness in the community ( These views are his own.