America’s Standard of “Normal Nation” in the Middle East

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, King Salman, Melania Trump, and Donald Trump (Wikimedia Commons)

by Pouya Alimagham

On June 2, 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the United States would be willing to engage with Iran as long as “the Iranians…behave like a normal nation.”

Aside from the condescension of talking to Iranians as if they are children who need to “behave,” Pompeo’s remark begs the question as to what it means to act like a “normal nation.” A brief look at US-Iran relations before the Iranian Revolution and a short survey of America’s long-time allies in the Middle East today help shed light on how America’s foreign policy establishment defines “normal” behavior.

Iran under the Shah

Before the revolution in 1979, Iran was ruled by Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi—an autocrat installed by the United States and UK after they orchestrated the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953. Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq had defied imperial Britain by nationalizing the country’s oil resources for the benefit of the underdeveloped nation. A trained lawyer, he even successfully defended his case at the World Court—a legal decision that the British rejected.

After the coup, the United States helped the shah establish the notorious internal intelligence agency, SAVAK. The CIA trained SAVAK personnel in the most brutal forms of modern, scientific torture to ensure the longevity of the shah’s rule against a population that increasingly saw him as an American puppet. As a result, according to Amnesty International, the shah’s regime became one of the world’s worst violators of human rights. The Iranian opposition, which had long reeled under SAVAK’s heavy boot, predictably blamed the United States for the shah’s repression.

After Britain announced the withdrawal of its naval forces east of the Suez, then-President Nixon went to Iran in 1972 to meet with the shah to ensure that America’s ally in the Persian Gulf would fill the void. President Nixon offered to sell the shah the most sophisticated American military hardware short of nuclear weapons to become the policeman of the Persian Gulf. The shah eagerly obliged by building the most powerful military in the region. By 1976, the United States was selling more weapons to Iran than any other country in the world. In turn, the Iranian opposition criticized the shah’s multi-billion-dollar arms purchases as a waste of the country’s wealth.

The shah also had an interventionist record that aligned with American strategy during the Cold War. Bogged down in Vietnam, the United States looked to outsource the fight against Communism to right-wing regimes like the shah’s. In the early 1970s, Iran dispatched soldiers across the Persian Gulf to help put down Marxist insurrections in places like Dhofar, Oman—interventions that were supported at the time not only by the Americans, but the Saudis as well.

In sum, a “normal” Iran before 1979 was an autocracy that ruthlessly repressed dissent, bought billions in American weapons, protected U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf by intervening in other countries, and even had a Western-backed nuclear program.

Other “Normal Nations” in the Region

Cold War strategic considerations perhaps prompted the United States to consider such “behavior” as “normal.” Yet, a survey of America’s allies in the post-Cold War Middle East illustrates how the precedent of the shah is very much consistent with what the United States considers to be “normal” today.

Saudi Arabia is an apt starting point given that U.S.-Saudi relations go back as far as Roosevelt’s presidency. Today, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—with the backing of the Trump administration—are spearheading the bombing of the poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen, contributing to what the UN considers the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. The Saudis and Emiratis are also the leading force in the blockade of America’s other ally in the Persian Gulf, Qatar. They are supporting some of the most extreme jihadis in Syria—though this support has lessened after the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen diverted resources and attention. Mohammad bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, is also credited with ordering the assassination of the U.S.-based Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, when he visited a Saudi consulate in Turkey.

Long before the upstart crown prince, Saudi Arabia had been deploying its oil wealth to spread its puritanical, hard-line interpretation of Islam across the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State were born, in part, from this ubiquitous Saudi ideological conditioning.

Moreover, although President Trump alleges that the Iran nuclear agreement was not stringent enough, his administration quietly signed agreements to sell nuclear technology to the Saudis. What’s more, two American allies in the region, Pakistan and Israel, the former of which borders Iran, possess nuclear arsenals.

In terms of other “normal nations,” Israel’s military occupation of Palestinian territories has endured for more than half a century with no signs of abating. Instead, the Israeli government frequently announces plans to build more settlements in the West Bank.

America sends billions of dollars in annual military aid to Israel and Egypt. The latter has jailed thousands of dissidents since the overthrow of its democratically elected government in 2013. The home to one of the most iconic uprisings in the Arab Spring has become its seeming deathbed. The current Egyptian government is exponentially more authoritarian than the one preceding 2011. According to Human Rights Watch:

Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi secured a second term in a largely unfree and unfair presidential election in March, his security forces have escalated a campaign of intimidation, violence, and arrests against political opponents, civil society activists, and many others who have simply voiced mild criticism of the government. The Egyptian government and state media have framed this repression under the guise of combating terrorism, and al-Sisi has increasingly invoked terrorism and the country’s state of emergency law to silence peaceful activists.

The coup at home was not enough. Egypt, along with the Emiratis and the Saudis, are backing the renegade general, Khalifa Haftar, whom Trump has endorsed, as he attempts to topple the UN-recognized government in neighboring Libya.

Another “normal nation,” Bahrain—with the aid of Saudi Arabia and the UAE—repressed the most peaceful Arab Spring uprising of all. American support for the government, however, remained steadfast since the island country is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

As such, “normal” today, as in the past, means pro-U.S. dictators, Islamist governments but of the pro-American kind, military occupations, regimes that violate human rights, hosts to U.S. armed forces and high-end customers of the American arms industry, and governments that intervene in the affairs of their neighbors. To be sure, none of this should actually be considered normal.

In reality, Iran’s conduct is not different from its regional counterparts. It violates human rights, intervenes in other countries either directly or by supporting armed groups, and is authoritarian like its pro-American neighbors. The only thing not “normal” about Iran’s actions is that they do not align with U.S. foreign policy goals as they did in the past. In fact, they often obstruct them, and that’s the point—a “normal nation” is allowed to do seemingly anything as long as its actions accord with U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Pouya Alimagham is a historian of the modern Middle East at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and author of the forthcoming Contesting the Iranian Revolution: The Green Uprisings (Cambridge University Press). Follow him on Twitter @iPouya.

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  1. Why not write a word about the Communists in Iran next time. That would be your forte. Using Communist point of view, to explain the history of Iran, is just wrong. Not one sentence is correct from other points of view.

  2. Pouya Alimagham

    You could not expect the Americans to publicly state; “We want to destroy Iran’s Power because

    1. We want to gain total political control over ME so as to able to starve Chinese of oil if we so decide. And to cause the Russian Federation to be bankrupted.

    2. We are fundies that love Israel and are willing to defend her at all cost. For many of us, fundies et al., Israel should exist so that it could be destroyed in the Last Days so White people like us could go to Heaven”.

    Take your pick!

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