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The Iranian People Are Not Our Enemy

The Iranian people are not and never have been our enemy.
iran green movement green revolution

Ardeshir Zahedi and Ali Vaez have written a very thoughtful and important op-ed pleading for a change in U.S. Iran policy before it is too late:

Bullying and crude threats will achieve little beyond entangling the United States and the region in another senseless war while deepening the two countries’ 40-year estrangement. The United States should strive for an Iran that is stable with a strong middle class and highly educated youths connected to the moderating influence of the outside world [bold mine-DL]. The Iranian people want to restore the friendship between Iran and the United States, two countries that enjoyed 123 years of cordial ties before 1979. But the path to their hearts and minds is not through sanctions and military intervention.

It is not too late for this administration to cease demonizing and threatening Iran, and step aside from its maximalist demands. One of Iran’s most renowned poets, Rumi, offers a better way forward: “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

The Trump administration should follow these recommendations, but I fear it is so far down the path of belligerence and confrontation that the president and his officials wouldn’t know how to stop at this point. Most U.S. administrations are loath to give up on failed policies even when it is obvious to everyone else that they cannot succeed, and the Trump administration is more resistant to admitting failure than most. If the president opts for de-escalation and climbing down from the unrealistic and excessive demands that his administration has made, we should encourage him in making that change and support that effort at de-escalation. If he continues to follow the toxic advice of Iran hawks to intensify the pressure campaign, he should be opposed every step of the way.

The U.S. and Iran lurch from misunderstanding to abortive engagement to crisis in no small part because our governments never directly communicate with each other and our nations have comparatively little contact. Opening regular channels of communication wouldn’t eliminate disagreements and disputes, but it would allow for those disputes to be addressed through dialogue rather than through clashes and incidents at sea. Establishing normal relations should be a goal of U.S. policy within the next few years. It is bizarre that the U.S. and Iran have been without normal diplomatic relations for my entire lifetime, especially when the U.S. has more often directly negotiated with and exchanged ambassadors with former enemies that the U.S. fought major wars against. If we are capable of burying the hatchet with Vietnam, China, Japan, Italy, and Germany within 20 years of fighting them or less, and if we could have normal relations with the Soviet Union and its communist allies throughout the Cold War, we can certainly have normal relations with Iran after all this time.

Zahedi and Vaez are making a lot of sense, and they write with a depth of understanding of Iran that our government desperately needs to learn from. They point out that the cost of repeatedly showing contempt for the Iranian people has been to turn them against the U.S.:

The administration’s list of public missteps toward the Iranian people is as long as it is regrettable. It includes preventing almost all Iranians from visiting the United States; misstating the historic name of the Persian Gulf; failing to express sympathy with Iranians after terrorist attacks by the Islamic State and separatist groups; and, perhaps most consequentially, withdrawing from the nuclear deal that remains popular in Iran and to which many there had pinned their hopes for a better life.

These mistakes have helped transform top-down anti-Americanism in Iran into a bottom-up phenomenon. Nothing spurs a rally-around-the-flag effect among 83 million Iranians more than humiliation and threats of foreign aggression.

The Iranian people are not and never have been our enemy, but our Iran policy doesn’t reflect that in practice. When the Iranian government was aligned with the U.S., our government backed the regime despite the harm that it was doing to the people. After the revolution, our government reflexively backed Iran’s enemies in the hopes of getting at their government. The effect was to cause massive suffering and death among the people. Our government regularly claims that our quarrel is not with the people, but it is always the people that bear the brunt of our policies. One of the main themes in U.S.-Iranian relations over the decades has been our government’s inability or unwillingness to treat Iranians with respect, and under the Trump administration that lack of respect has turned into contempt. We see that with the travel ban and the indulgence of the Mujahideen-e Khalq by prominent U.S. officials and politicians, and we see it with the suffocating oppression of sanctions imposed on the entire country. Iranians are not our enemy, but our government has insisted on treating them as enemies all the same.

Zahedi and Vaez correctly warn that the “maximum pressure” campaign is achieving nothing good, but has instead impoverished the Iranian people, wrecked the middle class, and empowered cronies of the regime:

The suffocating sanctions that the United States is slapping unilaterally on Iran have pushed the country into a deep inflationary recession, impoverishing its middle class and enriching state-affiliated actors, especially men with guns and experience in circumventing restrictions.

Our policy should never be to suffocate the civilian population of another country with ruinous sanctions. In addition to being unjust and cruel, it hardens attitudes against the U.S. and provokes stronger resistance. No genuine U.S. interests are served by immiserating tens of millions of people for the actions of their government, and by inflicting collective punishment on an entire nation our government commits a terrible injustice that should shame us all. If the Iranian people are not our enemy, we must halt the economic war our government is waging against them and pursue a course of diplomatic and economic engagement instead.