by John Limbert
The shameful episode of Trump’s January 27 executive order and Muslim travel ban has turned on its head decades of American messages about Iran. This step—apparently the brainchild of the “torturer’s apprentice” Steve Bannon—has been a bizarre reversal of America’s policy. We now say nothing about the Islamic Republic’s government but express our public disdain for its people.
For better or worse, until 2009 American official statements about Iran were full of kind words about the Iranian people and their great culture and full of denunciations of the government that (mis)ruled them. The message to Iranians was: “We love you, but we hate your regime.” From some quarters the corollary was, “We love you so much we may have to bomb you. But don’t worry. The bombs will just prove how much we love you.”
As could be expected, such words failed to persuade the Islamic Republic to stop following hostile policies or mistreating its citizens, particularly its women and intellectuals. Nor did this song inspire ordinary Iranians to pour into the streets and overthrow the theocracy. The best that could be said about such a message is that it let American officials indulge in what President Obama aptly called “the satisfying [and futile] purity of indignation.”
Beginning with his Nowruz (Persian New Year’s) greeting of March 2009, President Obama changed the American message into something more productive that also recognized reality. When he said, “I want to speak directly to the people and government of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he was abandoning the old formula and trying something new. He was saying in effect: “We still love you, the Iranian people, and admire your great culture. I will even quote some poetry from your beloved Sa’adi. Whatever we think of your government, we are not going to delude ourselves that it is going to disappear soon or waste any more breath on useless denunciations. Like or dislike each other, we have things to talk about.”
This new approach first caught the Iranians off balance. To American condemnations they knew well how to respond and had been doing so for decades. To this new message they had no answer. For four years, between 2009 and 2013, the Iranians could not take “yes” for an answer. In meetings had nothing to say and, knowing they had nothing to say, spent their time avoiding talking with their American counterparts.
Donald Trump’s misguided executive order officially applies to citizens of seven countries. Iranians are most affected, however, because of their large population, the size of their community in the United States and because of that community’s frequent international travel. It also sends a message that contradicts what Obama and his predecessors were saying. Now the message is: “We don’t care about your appalling government. Instead we will now punish you for being Iranian.”
In this strange world of alternative facts, keeping out the Iranian scientist, the businessperson, the professor, the Oscar-winning film director, the grandparent, and the child now somehow becomes a means to keep Americans safe. Compounding the damage is the obvious hypocrisy of claiming that the order is not a ban on Muslims’ entry. Such statements only insult a world audience by assuming it is so stupid that it would believe such an obvious untruth.
John Limbert served 34 years in the Foreign Service, including 14 months as a hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran and as a senior state department official responsible for Iranian affairs. He has recently authored Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History for the US Institute of Peace. Photo of DC demonstration against travel ban by Stephen Melkisethian via Flickr.