January 12, 2018

Five Myths About Iran

For the past four decades, the United States and Iran have demonized each other to no end. According to Tehran, America is “the Great Satan” whose imperialist designs have destabilized the Middle East and brought nothing but misery to the people of the region. Washington, meanwhile, depicts Iran as the “leading state sponsor of terrorism” and a member of the “Axis of Evil” whose “evil hand” is behind every conflict in the region. But somewhere along the way, America’s and Iran’s knowledge about each other was edged out by myths. “Don’t know thy enemy” became the mantra. Here are some common American myths about Iran.

The nuclear deal only delays an inevitable Iranian bomb.
This has been a common criticism of the Iran nuclear deal, a.k.a. the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). As Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put it: “The JCPOA fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran; it only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state.”

This misconception is based on the fact that some of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program — namely, limits on the number of centrifuges it can have, the advanced research it can conduct and the amount of energy-grade uranium it can stockpile — expire after 10 to 15 years (as is the case with most arms-control treaties). However, the most important aspects of the deal — the intrusive inspections regime and the transparency and verification mechanisms — are permanent. Iran will be expected to abide indefinitely by the Additional Protocol to the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and those inspections are the strongest guarantees possible to render an Iranian nuclear bomb an impossibility.

There’s one catch, though. Iran must live up to its end of the bargain only as long as the United States lives up to its end. If Washington violates the deal or “terminates” it, as Trump vowed to do again on Friday, the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program will be lost.

Killing the deal would help support Iranian protesters.
By some accounts, abandoning the pact would be the best way to support the demands of protesters who have been demonstrating across Iran this month. “The deal has emboldened Iran’s ruling mullahs to continue the nation’s international isolation, as Tehran spends billions of dollars on expensive belligerent activities, money that was made available to it through sanctions relief and that it could have spent to shore up the civilian economy,” Fred Fleitz, a George W. Bush administration national security official, wrote for National Review.

It’s true that the protests have been driven by economic grievances and that Iranians, especially the working poor, have been frustrated that sanctions relief hasn’t improved the economy. But jettisoning the deal and reimposing broad economic sanctions would only further punish the Iranian people.

Promoting Iran’s integration in the global economy is a better way of empowering Iran’s working and middle classes — and striking a blow against reactionary forces within the regime whose main source of power is its stranglehold on the economy. Indeed, numerous polls show that Iranians overwhelmingly supported the nuclear deal precisely because they are desperate to break free from Iran’s isolation and reconnect with the outside world.

Those in Iran who would like to see the nuclear deal collapse are the very hard-line elements the United States shouldn’t be helping.

Iran’s Green Movement was a failure.
Practically every commentary on the recent demonstrations has compared them with the protests of 2009, frequently suggesting that the Green Movement, while valiant, failed. Typical was Vice President Pence’s op-ed in The Washington Post: “The Green Revolution was ruthlessly put down, and the deadly silence on the streets of Iran matched the deafening silence from the White House.”

Iran’s clerical government did indeed brutally suppress those protests, putting Green Movement leaders under house arrest. And the movement’s immediate demands were not met: Accusations of voter fraud were not properly addressed, political prisoners were not released, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went on to serve another four years as president.

But the Greens got some vengeance in 2013 through the election of Hassan Rouhani. Without the support of the Green voters, Rouhani — who lacked a clear political base — could not have won the presidency. And in 2017, reformists swept almost all seats in city council elections in Iran’s largest cities. In the conservative city of Mashhad, a woman ran on a platform of opposing the patriarchy. Her slogan was “Elect more women!” She won.

Iran’s enmity with Israel is ideological and immutable.
The Israeli-Iranian confrontation “is a sweeping ideological conflict,” proclaims Israeli political commentator Aluf Benn. “And history teaches that such conflicts end only when one side has been knocked out.”

Iranian leaders, too, often frame the clash as ideological, which enables them to pose as champions of the Palestinians and defenders of Islam against the West. In reality, though, the conflict is driven by geopolitical factors.

Historically, Iran and Israel enjoyed strong relations born out of common threats they faced: from the Soviet Union and from powerful Arab states, such as Egypt and Iraq. Although Iranian leaders turned against Israel rhetorically with the birth of Iran’s theocracy in 1979, the strategic reality did not change, and the two nations continued to collaborate behind the scenes. In fact, as I detail in “Treacherous Alliance,” Israel lobbied Washington to talk to Iran, sell arms to Iran (remember the Iran-contra scandal?) and disregard Iran’s anti-Western rhetoric.

But tension escalated in 1991 because of two geopolitical shocks: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Persian Gulf War. The common threats that had brought Israel and Iran together evaporated. And in the struggle to define the new balance of power in the Middle East, Iran and Israel were no longer allies but rivals. That struggle has yet to be resolved.

Iranians hate Americans.
“When someone chants, ‘Yes, certainly, death to America,’ we should take him at his word,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But while the Iranian government’s hostility toward the United States (and vice versa) is unmistakable, the Iranian populace tends to hold positive views about American people, culture and values. It’s become almost cliche for American travelers to express surprise at the tremendous hospitality of Iranians toward Westerners in general and Americans in particular.

The admiration, curiosity and friendliness usually do not extend to the policies of the American government, however. From U.S. support for Saudi Arabia to President Trump’s ban on travelers from some Muslim nations, American policies don’t tend to get high approval ratings from the Iranian people. But just as Iranians make a distinction between themselves and their government, they do the same when it comes to America and Americans.

Originally published in The Washington Post

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