by John Limbert
At some time in the future, when officials in Washington and Tehran finally stop yelling at each other and start talking, they will ask themselves: “Why did we waste so much time hating each other?”
They are not there yet. Until they are, denunciations, accusations, and threats are still the order of the day. Several years ago, an honest Iranian diplomat told my students, “The basis of our foreign policy is opposition to you.” Iranian political scientist Mahmoud Sariolghalam recently wrote, “Anti-Americanism continues to serve as the raison d’etre of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This has less to do with the nature of the American system and more to do with the fact that Iran has turned anti-Americanism into an identity.”
The result of these skewed Iranian priorities has been policy based on empty slogans and threats, inept diplomacy that—despite the efforts of some skilled individuals—has made Iran many enemies and few friends. Among the latter are the murderous regime in Damascus, and, ironically, the small and isolated Christian state of Armenia.
Things are no better on the American side. Ask an Iranian woman how she became pregnant and she may tell you “feshaar-e-atraafiaan“ (pressure from those around me). This U.S. administration has also been both pressured and conned by those around it. This bizarre coalition includes opportunistic right-wing Israeli politicians as well as Saudis who, encouraged by those who would sell them expensive weapons, find Iranian threats everywhere. There are also some odd groups of diaspora Iranians—and their hired American shills—whose motives and grasp of conditions at home are problematic at best. All of these constituencies detested Obama for his efforts to establish civil discourse with a hostile Iran and change decades of futility into something more productive. They loudly denounce him and his policies, and thus both exploit President Trump’s fixations and play sweet music to his ears.
American officials’ foreign policy speeches on Iran, such as that of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Heritage Foundation last May, devote more words to denouncing Obama’s policies than proposing anything coherent. Indeed, it’s difficult to know if the enemy is the Islamic Republic of Iran or Barack Obama. The former is an adversary, the latter an obsession.
The Trump administration has decreed that Iran is the embodiment of all evil. As such, it must be both feared and destroyed. If such a description requires stretching the truth and overstating the threat from Iran’s isolated and incompetent regime, then so be it. Facts do not matter. For example, according to a writer for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), Iran and its paramilitary Quds Force pose “a significant threat to the American homeland.” Borrowing a term long-beloved by the American military, this administration has declared that Iran is “malign” (i.e. a cancer to be eliminated).
Last May, Pompeo listed 12 U.S. demands of Iran. His list was not a list. It was not an opening negotiating position. It was an ultimatum calling for complete surrender. If 12 demands were not enough, in recent Foreign Affairs article, he added a thirteenth: that Iran improve its human rights record.
About these demands, retired Foreign Service Officer Mark Fitzpatrick writes, “Imposing so many demands suggests a lack of focus. Having a dozen priorities means having none.” He adds that Trump administration statements suggest a “hidden agenda” of regime change for Iran.
In reality there is nothing hidden about this agenda. For whatever reasons, the Trump administration has decided that the Islamic Republic should not exist.
It is clear that this administration does not do irony. In his list of grievances against Iran, Pompeo accused Iran’s rulers of being a “mafia” that has enriched itself at public expense. Might he not find a similar group just a few blocks east of the State Department? He ends his Foreign Affairs article with a section called “The Power of Moral Clarity” in which he writes, “President Trump’s actions in confronting outlaw regimes stem from the belief that moral confrontation leads to diplomatic conciliation.”
Really? It does? Tell that to the ghost of Jamal Khashoggi. If you can find it.
Sources of Anger
There is no reason and there is every reason for this enmity. On the Iranian side, Sariolghalam has well identified the cause. The aging political elite—which has been in power almost 40 years—has decided that anti-Americanism will keep it in its offices and palaces a little longer. It has long exploited Iran’s historical grievances, real and imagined—the CIA-sponsored coup d’etat of 1953, the subsequent support for an autocratic Shah, support for Iraq during the ruinous Iran-Iraq war, the shooting down of an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, and rumors of American support for separatist movements among Iran’s ethnic minorities.
The endless repetition of stale slogans has had unintended consequences among Iran’s young and well-educated population. “Any country our government denounces so adamantly,” goes the reasoning, “can’t be all bad. In fact, it must be pretty good if our regime dislikes it so much.” Long gone are the mass marches and demonstrations of the 1980s when millions would turn out to chant “death to” this or that on instruction.
On the American side, in addition to “pressure from those around us” and the president’s insecurities and inferiority complex vis-à-vis his predecessor, there is a third factor: Iran humiliated the United States 40 years ago during the 1979-81 hostage crisis. Although many anti-Iranian chest-beaters remember little from that time, if they were alive at all, the grievance remains and they want revenge. They are not ready to forgive, forget, or understand. Their basic problem is not that Iranians acted shamefully and refuse to admit it. Their real issue is that the Iranians refused to act as they were expected to—as an inferior species of human being who would accept domination by outside powers. When they insisted, in the words of Arthur Miller’s Linda in Death of a Salesman that “attention must be paid,” they made people angry.
It does not help matters that the Islamic Republic has created its own blind spot for that episode. It still pretends that the event is either something to celebrate or something unrelated to today that happened “a long time ago in a galaxy far away.” As long as one side nurses its humiliation and the other side refuses to acknowledge a disgraceful history, the sore continues to fester and the two sides will wallow in enmity and self-righteousness, enjoying what President Obama aptly called “the satisfying purity of indignation.”
Despite all this blind enmity, there still may be a way off this road to nowhere on which both sides have been stuck for so long. There was a glimpse of a better way at an October 2018 event at Harvard’s Belfer Center, when an Iranian-American in the audience politely asked Wendy Sherman, former undersecretary of state for political affairs, about her ill-considered 2013 remark at a Senate hearing that “deception is in Iranians’ DNA.” Without hesitation, Sherman replied, “I screwed up.”
How powerful (and how difficult to say) are those three words. One never hears them in today’s political climate, where the preferred discourse is “I’m right and you’re an idiot/thief/fool/terrorist.” But in acknowledging mistakes, as difficult as it might be, lies great power and wisdom—and a first step on a path out of the swamp of futility and pointless hostility for these two nations.
John Limbert is a retired Foreign Service Officer. A former deputy assistant secretary of state for Iranian affairs, he also served at the US Embassy in Tehran where was held hostage for 14 months.