Trump made a statement in a recent interview with the Post that illustrates his use of selective outrage and moralizing rhetoric when it suits his purpose:

“I would love if [Mohammed bin Salman] wasn’t responsible,” he said of MBS. “I think it’s a very important ally for us. Especially when you have Iran doing so many bad things in the world, it’s a good counterbalance to the world. Iran, they’re as evil as it gets. They’re probably laughing at this situation as they see it. Iran is as evil as it gets. [bold mine-DL]”

It isn’t news that Trump has an extremely simplistic and entirely negative view of Iran, but the striking thing here is that he chooses to say that Iran is the quintessence of evil in the world. This is the language of fanaticism, and I’m sure that Trump is being fed stuff like this by Bolton and the other hard-liners in his administration. In addition to that, he uses this warped view of Iran to justify maintaining a close relationship with an odious regime in Riyadh. The problem isn’t just that it exaggerates Iranian wrongdoing while whitewashing Saudi wrongdoing, but also that it gives Trump and his officials an excuse to rationalize any crime, no matter how horrible, because they think it is necessary to oppose Iran.

The Iranian government is certainly guilty of many abuses and crimes, including and especially against the Iranian people, but to declare an entire country to be “as evil as it gets” is usually an attempt to dehumanize everyone there and to lay the groundwork for doing terrible things to the people that have been demonized. This is often what political leaders say about another country when they mean to attack it. Even if we assume that Trump was referring only to the government, this is reckless and irresponsible rhetoric that will strengthen Iranian hard-liners and stoke regional tensions. If Bush’s destructive “axis of evil” rhetoric sabotaged the brief U.S.-Iranian thaw in 2002, Trump’s claim that Iran is “as evil as it gets” is likely to poison relations even further.

We know Trump doesn’t hold other states to the same standard he’s applying to Iran. Paul Pillar puts Trump’s eagerness to cover for the Saudis in the context of his approach to the wider region:

Trump’s approach has been part of his administration’s tribalist approach to policy in the Middle East, in which Saudi Arabia serves as one of the supposed good guys on the U.S. side of the line and, on the other side of the line, its cross-gulf rival Iran is depicted as the source of all evil in the region.

Trump’s hostility to Iran started out as the usual mix of threat inflation, arrogance, and moralizing rhetoric that warps our foreign policy debates, but it has mutated into an obsession that is poisoning and consuming U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East to the detriment of both U.S. interests and regional security.