What U.S. Enmity has Wrought in Iran

by Paul R. Pillar

An important consequence of the unrelenting, unqualified hostility toward Iran that Donald Trump has made a centerpiece of his foreign policy is described in an article by Thomas Erdbrink of The New York Times about the impact of that policy on the Iranian public. Erdbrink summarizes the overall effect: “In short, it appears that Mr. Trump and the Saudis have helped the government achieve what years of repression could never accomplish: widespread public support for the hard-line view that the United States and Riyadh cannot be trusted and that Iran is now a strong and capable state capable of staring down its enemies.”

Such an effect is unsurprising. Nor are the underlying dynamics unique to Iran. Two fundamental processes are at work in Iran to produce the effect Erdbrink is observing. Both are foreshadowed by many earlier experiences of countries that felt especially threatened by a foreign power.

One is the tendency of nations to unite and to overcome internal differences in the face of such a threat. This is the familiar phenomenon of rallying around the flag. Iranians are rallying around their flag today.

A variant of this first phenomenon—again with numerous examples throughout history—is the picking of fights with outsiders as a way for a ruler to muster more united domestic support than he otherwise would enjoy. Mohammed bin Salman, the young authoritarian prince who now makes Saudi Arabia’s policies, is picking fights with Iran—the other day he likened Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to Hitler—partly in the hope of making his remarkably audacious internal power grab succeed. There may be something of the same motivation for Donald Trump, although as with his domestic policies, he is more interested in the loyalty of a narrow political base than in winning broader support.

The other fundamental process is the tendency of hardline views, and those who propound them, to prevail against more moderate alternatives in the face of an external threat. To preach about the malevolence and untrustworthiness of a foreign power is, in Iran as in the United States and other countries, a defining characteristic of being a hardliner. Erdbrink quotes a hardline Iranian political analyst named Hamidreza Taraghi as saying, “Thanks to Trump’s dishonest, cheating and crazy remarks, he has proved what we have said for a long time: America cannot be trusted. Many didn’t believe us, but now they do.”

This is not just a claim that the hardliners themselves make. A liberal-minded theater director in Tehran observes, “We need to understand that the U.S. has been playing with us all along. Trump is proving that our hard-liners were right all these years, to say that America cannot be trusted.”

A major effect of the Trump administration’s vehement hatred of Iran—and his efforts to confront it—is thus to make Iranians more determined than ever to stay their current course, with more internal unity and political support than ever before. The administration’s hostility naturally engenders negative feelings about the United States in return; it would hardly be a human reaction if they did not. So the administration’s drumbeat message, that Iran is supposedly an implacable and irredeemable foe, is not only counterproductive but also to some degree self-fulfilling.

The popular sentiment in Iranian streets and salons is much more than a product of regime propaganda. Despite Trump’s calling a “dictatorship” an Iranian political system that actually is more democratic than most in the Middle East, he is confronting not just a “fanatical regime” but instead a nation that is exhibiting nationalism very similar to what other nations have exhibited, especially in times of externally imposed stress.

Iranians also constitute a relatively well-educated nation and can easily see through such Trumpian falsehoods as the allegation that Iran is in cahoots with the Sunni terrorists of al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) rather than carrying much of the burden of fighting against them. Erdbrink notes how one Revolutionary Guard soldier that IS captured and beheaded has become a national hero. The reporter goes on to quote a self-described reformist in his early thirties: “There are many here like me, who don’t care for the Islamic Republic and its rules. But today is about something bigger than that; one of us has been killed. At the same time this American president is breaking our hearts with his rhetoric and threats. We have to choose sides. I choose for my country.”

Much of what the Trump administration and some others in the United States routinely label as the “nefarious, malign, destabilizing behavior” of Iran in the Middle East is supported by, and is even a source of pride for, most ordinary Iranians. They understandably see much of this Iranian activity—certainly including the military action against IS—as necessary for national defense and/or a laudable contribution to a larger cause of international security. The same goes for Iran’s development of ballistic missiles. An Iranian sociology professor who is a leading reformist notes that many Iranians, “even those who are completely secular,” cheer missile tests because the tests “are making them feel strong and safe” in the face of growing threats from the United States and Saudi Arabia.

What U.S. policy is doing to Iranian public sentiment represents a huge missed opportunity with a proud and intelligent people who otherwise could have been willing and able partners in much that the United States has hoped to accomplish. This follows earlier missed opportunities, especially when the George W. Bush administration slammed the door in the face of an Iran that had been working effectively with the United States against al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. Now the Trump administration, egged on by the rulers of Israel and Saudi Arabia to whom Trump has surrendered the initiative on policy for this part of the world, is trashing rather than building upon the agreement that has successfully restricted the Iranian nuclear program. In this way, the United States is sliding down an endless spiral of conflict, confrontation, and perhaps war.

Photo: Anti-American mural in Iran (Wikimedia Commons).

Paul Pillar

Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy. He retired in 2005 from a 28-year career in the U.S. intelligence community. His senior positions included National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia, Deputy Chief of the DCI Counterterrorist Center, and Executive Assistant to the Director of Central Intelligence. He is a Vietnam War veteran and a retired officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Dr. Pillar's degrees are from Dartmouth College, Oxford University, and Princeton University. His books include Negotiating Peace (1983), Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2001), Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy (2011), and Why America Misunderstands the World (2016).



  1. In closely related news, investigative historian Eric Zuesse has a new article up on the Strategic Culture Foundation’s web site thoroughly bebunking the U.S. claim that Iran is the top state sponsor of terrorism.

  2. We can assume Trump knows next to nothing about Iran’s history or culture. For now at least, Trump is not blundering into a war in Syria.

  3. US enmity toward Iran has also had an external effect. Iran has for years been an example for other nations to inspire them to shrug off US hegemony and American exceptionalism. Iran was head of the Non-aligned Movement where it inspired other small nations with its refusal to buckle under to US threats and demands, and the lesson was not lost on large nations like India and China either.

    Regarding Iran as the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism, go to the US Counter Terrorism Office, the State Department and the FBI and see many terrorist organizations and individuals listed who have no connection with Iran — al Qaeda, ISIS, etc. But there’s always the mention of Hezbollah and Hamas who are “terrorists” because they oppose Israeli aggression — “With backing from its patron, the Iranian regime, Hizballah remains one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations.” Yes, dangerous to Israel when Hez defeated Israeli aggression in Lebanon in 2006, and supported Syrian independence against US-sponsored aggression recently, is what they mean. So “terrorism” has lost all meaning, which makes the “war on terrorism” even more stupid.

  4. Politics and the politicians aside, what about the future interactions between the American People and the Iranian People? Neither the Israeli politicians nor the Americans or Saudis and their media seem to think of a future interaction between their respective nations and the Iranian people – that the politicians and political situation will eventually change but what about the ‘collective memory’ of the Iranian public? For example, the resentment among my ordinary neighbors in Tehran towards Israel, for the assassination of the Iranian scientists, is so strong, so strong, as if the crime had happened an hour ago!

    As we can never negate our patriotic national identity we can never negate one of its essential components: our culture of hospitality and friendship when meeting foreign nationals. It is sad to say that the impact of the three decades of Israeli-American and Saudi dirty ‘Psychological Warfare’ has ‘culturally’ reduced these undoubtedly intelligent nations to the level of primitive bloodthirsty cavemen – an important issue that does not seem to have merited the attention of the Israeli and American Intelligence community.

    Being culturally sensitive to linguistic abuse and cultural depravity often demonstrated by American politicians and Presidents since 1979, I should say their political speeches and deplorable actions and complicity in war crimes have deeply offended us – they might have seemed musing to their media but too spiteful to be forgotten by the Iranian People. To define ‘peace’ mainly in terms of agreements/disagreements between certain politicians and their counterparts, is an evidence of total ignorance of the crucial role played by ‘ordinary people’ as ‘peacemakers’.

  5. I read the nyt article here discussed, it was very remarkable in that it completely failed to mention Israel, which has been the head cheerleader for demonization/destruction of Iran. Please correct me if I am wrong.

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