by Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet
President Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) comes as the culmination of years of flawed conversations about Iran’s involvement in the Middle East. Yesterday, he stated that the deal was “defective at its core.” In reality, the actual core defect lies in the political narrative on Iran in the United States, which predictably has resulted in the failure of the nuclear deal.
History can serve as a guide. Iran was territorially diminished and politically isolated at the turn of the twentieth century as a result of British and later American imperial policies. British colonial administrators viewed Iran, one of two independent states in the Middle East before World War I, as a nuisance, a weak state that imperiled British interests. This image of Iran as an annoyance has persisted, creating a biased narrative that has undermined Iran’s legitimate security concerns.
By contrast, Britain extended the power and influence of the Arabian Peninsula in the same time period. First it gave the Hashemite family Syria, then Iraq (which for much of the twentieth century pursued a staunch program of Arabization and Sunnification), and finally Transjordan. In addition, migratory tribes originating in the Arabian Peninsula forged protective alliances with Britain in the Persian Gulf that advanced their territorial, sectarian, ethnic, and dynastic ambitions. As a result, a disproportionate amount of the region’s wealth also went to the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula.
The shah’s cooperation with the West did little to win him points with Britain and the United States in the Persian Gulf. Although Iran had legitimate security concerns and territorial claims in contiguous territories, Britain’s lop-sided support for Arabian communities silenced Iranian objections. A false narrative of Arabian dominance, based on flimsy notions of race and ethnicity emerged, accompanied by British attempts to create new facts on the ground that resulted in citizenship and Arabization policies intended to bolster the Arabian presence. These moves simultaneously enforced the expulsion of Iranians and the erasure of Persianate culture in Iraq, Pakistan, and especially in the southern littoral of the Persian Gulf, mainly Kuwait and Bahrain.
To make this statement is not to argue for the recreation of a Persian Empire—as Iran’s detractors often mistakenly claim. It is simply to point out that Iranians remain minority communities in many newly created states. Yet they are rarely identified as such by scholars and policy makers, who remain woefully ignorant of this past and have largely encountered British and Arabist historical accounts in their textbooks and university classrooms.
This “defective” narrative has persisted, creating a skewed perspective on Iran’s actions and security concerns in the region. The Islamic Republic, unlike the West, knows this history, and has learned once again that it cannot rely on the United States—the major superpower in the region—to protect its interests. Iranians still remember that as their fellow citizens were being gassed in the Iran-Iraq war, the world watched silently, while Saudi Arabia and its proxy states funneled billions to Iraq and created the Gulf Cooperation Council to isolate Iran and delegitimize its grievances.
This realpolitik and “defective” history-making have not resulted in regional stability. If anything, they have exacerbated the region’s unrest, which Iran alone has not created. Iran’s (and Turkey’s) exclusion from post-World War I territorial settlements created a preponderance of power for predominantly Sunni Arab communities, which after over a century of rule, neglected to create effective power-sharing arrangements with their multi-confessional and multi-ethnic citizens. Of course, successive Shia-dominant states have not done better either, and Iran has similarly progressed on an inexorable path of Persianization and support for Shi‘a groups.
Although Iran has been held accountable for its shortcomings, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain, for example, have not. Clearly, some of Iran’s posturing is a backlash against decades of the region’s subjugation to top-down, lop-sided, and often anti-Persian Arabization and Sunnification state programs, which have not been widely challenged by scholars or policymakers in the West.
As historian Sukru Hanioglu points out, as late as 1911 when “the Union of All Ottoman Empires,” publicized a call for Ottoman subjects to unite themselves, “it did so in nine languages: Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, Armenian, Bulgarian, Greek, Ladino, Serbian, Syriac (jn two different scripts, Nestorian and Serta), and French.” Clearly, there was a lot of linguistic diversity in the Levant and elsewhere. The regions of the former Ottoman Empire in the Middle East went from being multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-confessional entities to being labeled monolingual, often “Arab,” nation-states.
Yet great ethnic and linguistic diversity remains in the Middle East even now despite efforts to craft uniform citizens of one stripe or another. Herein lies the failure of Sykes-Picot and the post-World War I world order in the Middle East. For Iran (and similarly Turkey) the post-World War I order has meant territorial retreat and isolation. Like Israel, Iran finds itself enclosed by hostile states and confronts nuclear threats from neighboring Pakistan and Russia.
Iran, too, is a minority state in the region, whose inhabitants have not even been legitimately recognized as marginalized communities outside of its current national borders. To be clear, Iranians have never just lived on the plateau. They have, like Turks and Arabs, also historically inhabited the southern littoral of the Persian Gulf, Iraq, India, regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, and present-day Turkey. The governor of Yemen before the conquest of Islam was a Persian.
This is not to suggest that Iranians (which includes Persians, as well as other groups) should embark on a reckless nationalist crusade to reclaim their history. But Arabian nationalist narratives lacking in historicity and accuracy—and long embraced by successive American and British regimes—must also be confronted.
It is polemical to argue that the Islamic Republic—with its many shortcomings and incendiary rhetoric—is the sole cause of Iran’s current woes. Recent events show that Iran has partly been pushed toward Russia and other questionable alliances because of long-standing American and British policies, which have deliberately weakened its security and ignored its interests and at the same time favored those of its rivals.
To date, the Iran nuclear deal was perhaps the best hope for allaying Iran’s territorial fears and convincing a skeptical international community that Iran has no intention of commencing a nuclear arms race despite being subjected to repeated hostilities. Although Iran has indeed expanded its regional linkages, it has had little choice, given the vast expenditures by other states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to extend their even more wide-ranging networks.
The failure of the JCPOA shows once again that Iran must stand on its own. The country’s territorial vulnerability makes a strong argument in favor of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. This time, the United States and its anti-Iranian allies are equally—if not more—responsible for this outcome.
Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet is Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History and Director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Frontier Fictions: Shaping the Iranian Nation, 1804-1946and Conceiving Citizens: Women and the Politics of Motherhood in Iran. She has currently completed a manuscript entitled: “Between Heroes and Hostages: Key Moments in US-Iranian Relations,” and is finishing another book project, tentatively titled Tales of Trespassing: Borderland Histories of Iran, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf.