Learn from history, they said. Seventeen years after the decision to invade Iraq did more harm to America’s global interests than any other since the Vietnam War, a similar confrontation with Iran remains one of the Republican Party’s most cherished hopes. It is a desire often expressed in strange ways or at odd moments. In the weeks after September 11, Iran signaled its support for the American military campaign in Afghanistan, and the US secretary of state Colin Powell shook hands with Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharazi at the UN — engagement between the two countries had not happened on such a high level for more than two decades. Two months later, George W. Bush declared Iran part of the “axis of evil.” In 2007, an audience member at one of John McCain’s campaign stops asked the Arizona senator when America was going to stop tolerating Iranian support for Shia extremist groups in the Middle East. McCain responded by repurposing a Beach Boys song: “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.” In 2015, as the Obama Administration negotiated its nuclear deal with Iran, Republican House speaker John Boehner invited Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress. America’s legislators showered the foreign head of state with twenty-six standing ovations as he accused their President of all but handing nuclear weapons to the Iranian government, whose members he characterized as the functional equivalents of Nazis.
After withdrawing the United States from the nuclear deal in 2018, Donald Trump spent two years alternately threatening Iran’s final destruction and attempting to convince President Hassan Rouhani of his deal-making prowess, with his national security adviser John Bolton piping up to amplify any threats and grumbling ominously in response to any gestures of conciliation. Trump reportedly had Bolton removed in September 2019 because of serious disagreements on foreign policy — Bolton seems to have been a bit too principled about his rabid militarism for Trump’s liking — but in the first week of 2020, the President made Bolton very happy by ordering the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force and one of the country’s three most powerful people. This brought the US and Iran closer to war than at any point in the past forty years. At a private fundraiser with campaign donors in January, Trump said he had approved the drone strike because Soleimani was “saying bad things about our country.” This didn’t sit well with Trump. “How much of this shit do we have to listen to?” he said to the crowd at Mar-a-Lago. “How much are we going to listen to?”
The unruliness of the Republican desire for this particular war — the theatricality of its expression, the obsessiveness with which it’s pursued, and the willingness to do and say the ridiculous in pursuit of it — suggests some degree of awareness that war with Iran would be insane. When Republicans talk about cutting corporate taxes, they talk like people making a policy proposal. When they talk about war with Iran, they sound like people daring themselves to ride a barrel over the falls. The invasion of Iraq is the best model for what a war with Iran would look like, and that was a disaster for everyone other than oil company executives and, ironically, the Iranian government. There is every reason to believe that a full-scale military confrontation with Iran would be worse. Iran today has a stronger military, economy, and political system than Iraq did in 2003. Its armed forces are among the most formidable in the Middle East, and they have been built and trained specifically to wage a defensive war that would be as costly as possible for any invader. Iran has the second-largest oil reserves in the region (behind Saudi Arabia), and whereas American economic sanctions had totally cut off pre-invasion Iraq from the world economy, similar sanctions levied against Iran have not yet had the same crippling effect. (They have, however, both pushed the country’s economy into a still-deepening recession and seriously hampered its efforts to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.) Public political life in Iraq had atrophied to nothing under the dictatorial rule of Saddam Hussein; the same cannot be said of Iran’s political system, no matter how many times Lindsey Graham tries to say it. Iran’s government is insufficiently responsive to democratic input, and it often suppresses dissident political activity with deadly violence. It is clear that these two facts make many Iranians furious, but there is no evidence that most Iranians want their government overthrown, least of all by the United States. Something on the order of a million people took to the streets of Tehran for Soleimani’s funeral procession the week after his killing. This extraordinary demonstration of national solidarity should not be any kind of surprise. Plenty of Americans feel similarly excluded from the institutions responsible for their own governance, and you can ask those who protested in Ferguson, Missouri, or who found themselves “disappeared” to a black site run by Chicago police, about their own encounters with deadly violence. For all that, there is little clamor in the US for a foreign invasion.
It is not just that a military confrontation with Iran would be more difficult and more costly than its 2003 predecessor. Leaving aside, if only briefly, the moral outrage of the death and destruction that any war with Iran would entail, at the moment there is no plausible case to be made that such a war would serve even the most Manichean conception of American interests. The argument for war with Iraq was fatally flawed and based on lies, but it had a coherent internal logic. Saddam Hussein’s government lacked both regional and internal popular support, which meant it could be brought down without too much opposition. Once Saddam was overthrown, America could install and oversee a democratic government, and foreign investment would ensure the privatization of Iraq’s economy and its integration into the world market. Joining Saudi Arabia and Israel, a prosperous, US-allied Iraq would allow America to stabilize politics in the Middle East and then manage the region for decades.
None of that happened. Reality utterly discredited the idea that the US could simply ship secular, democratic government and liberal market economics to the Middle East and then assemble them like so much IKEA flat-pack furniture. Yet America’s neoconservatives, loitering furtively around the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations or the Fox News studios in the hope that Donald Trump will catch one of their appearances, have not even bothered trying to explain how Iran would be different. The likeliest outcome of war with Iran is a hellish regional power vacuum, one that countries like Russia and China would be better positioned to exploit than the United States. The drumbeat goes on anyway: the insistence that Iran cannot be “tolerated,” that the solution to its malign influence must be military, that “the mullahs” must pay. The persistence of this fantasy reveals something irrational in the practice of American foreign policy, some impulse that asserts itself independent of the usual questions of proportionality and geopolitical strategy. If a war with Iran is to be avoided — and it must be avoided — it is that impulse that has to be understood.
America’s current hostility toward Iran stems in part from a simple and acute feeling of betrayal. For the first three decades of the postwar period, Iran was America’s most reliable and valued ally in the Persian Gulf. The US inaugurated this special relationship in 1953 by working with the British to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected government. That government’s leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, had nationalized the country’s oil industry, a situation Western oil companies naturally found unacceptable. In Mossadegh’s place, the coup’s organizers settled on Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He had become shah of Iran in 1941, but until the coup his political power was subordinate to that of the prime minister and the Majlis, the country’s legislative body. The shah was chosen to replace Mossadegh not because of any particular charisma or leadership ability, but because none of the four Iranian military generals who would officially lead the coup had the necessary standing and prestige.
“We used to run this country,” one US diplomat told a New York Times reporter on his way out of Iran. “Now we don’t even run our own embassy.”Tweet
Henry Kissinger wrote in the first of his three memoirs (on page 1,261) that the shah “was for us that rarest of leaders, an unconditional ally.” He readily agreed to Western demands for fifty-fifty profit sharing in Iranian oil operations and cracked down hard on internal opposition, arresting more than three thousand members of the communist Tudeh Party in the year or so following the coup and imprisoning a handful of officials for decades (he also granted American military advisers immunity from Iranian law). The shah worked with the CIA to set up a secret police force, SAVAK, that carried out the day-to-day work of political repression. He also became an avid purchaser, even a connoisseur, of American arms. By 1977, 35 percent of Iran’s annual budget was going to the military; a joke circulated among arms dealers that the shah read defense equipment manuals the way other men read Playboy. He placed orders for F-16 fighter jets, naval destroyers, nuclear-powered submarines, and more than a thousand tanks. The US even agreed to throw in nuclear reactors, with the shah reassuring American officials that he had no interest in pursuing nuclear weapons. Congress appreciatively estimated that Iran’s arms purchases from the US were “the largest in the world.”
The shah’s military buildup went hand in hand with a series of initiatives that he called the White Revolution, a project of rapid state expansion, land reform, and industrialization that began in 1963. Results were mixed. The industrialization had to be financed by oil, making Iran increasingly dependent on the success or failure of a single export, and the land reform created an underclass of more than a million sharecroppers who did not own enough land to survive, while failing to materially improve Iran’s agricultural capabilities. Iran’s economic growth during the 1960s was impressive, but most Iranians never saw its benefits, and the shah had no talent for managing the social fissures that opened up as a result. By the 1970s, migrating unemployed workers had tripled the population of Tehran, most of Iran’s food came from outside its borders, and wealth was more unequally distributed than in almost any other country in the world.
With not much to show in the way of domestic achievements that benefited his people, the shah doubled down on monarchy, styling himself as a descendant of the ancient rulers of the Persian Empire. In a global period of nationalism, republicanism, and communism, this was a quixotic project. In 1971, he spent at least $100 million celebrating twenty-five hundred years of monarchy in Iran, feting important heads of state and other foreigners in enormous air-conditioned tents at the historic sites of Persepolis and Pasargadae, with catering by Maxim’s of Paris, twenty-five thousand bottles of imported wine, and the premiere of an electro-acoustic composition by the avant-garde composer Iannis Xenakis. This spectacular orgy didn’t make much of a positive impression on Iranians, who identified more with Shia Islam than with ancient Persia, but Westerners came away impressed. In 1974, a US task force evaluated relations with Iran and concluded the following:
Iran is the most powerful, politically most stable, and economically most developed state on the Persian Gulf. It shares with us an interest in promoting moderate elements in the area and in limiting the influence of the Soviet Union and radical forces. Prospects are good for Iran’s long-term stability and a continuation of its present international orientation, even if its present leadership leaves the scene.
President Jimmy Carter came to Tehran for a state dinner on New Year’s Eve, 1977. “Iran, because of the great leadership of the shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world,” he said. “This is a great tribute to you, your majesty, and to your leadership and to the respect and admiration and love which your people give to you.”
His majesty would flee Iran just over a year later. During the 1970s, as the shah lurched from one initiative to the next in a doomed effort to alleviate Iran’s social tensions and stabilize its deteriorating political system, the sociologist Ali Shariati and a cleric named Ruhollah Khomeini were articulating a new kind of populist, nationalist, religious radicalism that eventually culminated in the world’s first Islamic revolution. Shariati’s writings, addressed to the students and intelligentsia who had always counted among the shah’s fiercest opponents, advanced a vision of Shia Islam as a revolutionary force opposing all forms of oppression, especially capitalism and imperialism, with the goal of bringing a classless society into being. To Shariati, the Iranian clergy were apologists for capitalism who, in the words of historian Ervand Abrahamian, “[diluted] Islam’s radicalism into watered-down paternalism.” Khomeini had been exiled in 1964 because of his opposition to the shah’s White Revolution and pro-Western policies, but as a member of the clergy, he wasn’t going to sign on to Shariati’s specific denunciations. Still, both men saw Islam as the only force in Iranian society capable of forcing out monarchism and the West’s decades-long grip on the country. The shah was attempting to suppress politics as such in Iran. In Islam, Iranians found an avenue by which politics could breathe once again.
In early 1978, a government newspaper published an editorial denouncing Khomeini. Iranian students in the city of Qom flooded into the streets in response. Some of them were killed by police, and what followed was a cycle of protest and mourning, every forty days, that swept across the country. The shah did what he could to crack down, but it was too late: his regime, and monarchy as a system of government, were finished. The revolution was a period of violence and uncertainty. Rallies, strikes, marches, and clashes with police steadily ground down what remained of the shah’s ability to govern. But it was not a revolution like Russia’s in 1917, in which the government was ultimately overthrown only because of the tactical ingenuity of a small cadre. The shah had ignored the needs of the majority of Iranians for so long, and alienated so many sectors of Iranian society, that his downfall was inevitable. When Khomeini returned from exile in February 1979, some three million people were on the streets to greet him.
In the space of little more than a year, the foundation of American influence in the Middle East had crumbled to nothing, and America had not seen it coming. “We used to run this country,” one US diplomat told a New York Times reporter on his way out of Iran. “Now we don’t even run our own embassy.” That was in February 1979 — the diplomat didn’t know how right he was about to be. For most of that year, American policy makers stewed in their bewilderment over what had happened, while the Iranian Revolution’s victors hashed out a new constitution. The result was a hybrid system of government, tilted steeply if not quite decisively in favor of the religious radicals. It was a full-fledged theocracy alongside robust elements of representative democracy, a mostly authoritarian system that was unusual in carving out space for serious debate and the operations of various political interest groups. As supreme leader and imam of the Muslim ummah, Khomeini could declare war and peace, “determine the interests of Islam,” and appoint half of the members of the Guardian Council, itself endowed with the power to veto bills passed by the legislature if it judged them to violate either the constitution or Islamic law. As a counterbalance, all Iranians were given the power to elect the president, members of the legislature, regional and local councils, and so on. The president, limited to two terms over eight years in office, was granted the authority to appoint cabinet members, ambassadors, and the head of the national bank, among other offices. The legislature could debate any issue it wanted, call a referendum to change the constitution, and appoint the other half of the Guardian Council.
Tensions between the near infallibility of religious rule and popular demands for democracy had been present throughout the revolution, and the drafting of the constitution brought them to a high pitch. Sticking with the insensitivity to Iranian domestic politics that had characterized America’s relationship to the country in the years leading up to the revolution, President Carter picked this fraught moment to allow the shah to enter the US for cancer treatment, thanks in part to an intense lobbying campaign organized by executives at Chase Manhattan Bank, of which the shah was a highly valued client. (Not satisfied with securing his entry, the Chase team, led by bank chairman David Rockefeller, also acquired visas for the shah’s associates and found a mansion for him to live in.) American officials justified the decision on humanitarian grounds, but they treat cancer in other countries, too. Politically, it was idiotic, providing a boost to the militant wing of the Iranian government at a moment when the shape that government would take was still unclear. Hard-liners seized on the gesture as evidence of a plot: America was biding its time and preparing to reinstall the shah, with the CIA running operations out of the American embassy in Tehran. On November 4, 1979, some four hundred university students overran the embassy and took the Americans hostage.
The crisis would last for 444 days, and if the revolution had caught US officials by surprise, this was something worse. It was an abject humiliation, an indictment of both the State Department’s alleged expertise and the capabilities of America’s security forces that crystallized, in especially mediagenic fashion, the damage the revolution had done to America’s strategic interests in the Middle East. Leading up to the revolution, the American embassy in Tehran had a staff of almost a thousand people, and some forty thousand US civilians prowled the streets of the capital on behalf of American defense contractors. Now there were just fifty-two Americans left, held against their will and unable to do anything about it. A BBC documentary about the crisis, made decades later, features interviews with a number of the hostages, and even with all those years behind them, they still vibrate with confusion and anger. “To actually come onto the grounds, take the embassy hostage, and take the diplomats hostage — I mean, this was the worst part of all,” says Charles Jones, who was there working as a communications officer. “It was like being raped.”
The hostage crisis was a boon to Iran’s religious radicals. Khomeini hadn’t organized the taking of the embassy or even been aware of the plan beforehand, but on November 5 he announced his support for the students; Iran’s moderate prime minister, Mehdi Bazargan, resigned the next day. Purges followed, as documents found at the embassy revealed that this or that moderate Iranian political official had met with a representative of the US government. In early 1980, negotiations to secure the hostages’ release progressed to the point that Vice President Walter Mondale felt able to discuss them with journalists, but then Khomeini delivered a radio address praising the students and demanding the return of the shah to Iran so that he could face justice. That hadn’t been part of the deal, and negotiations fell apart. In April, President Carter approved Operation Eagle Claw, a special-forces raid on the compound that would kill or subdue the students and free the hostages. The helicopters never even made it to Tehran — three broke down in the desert, and one crashed after the mission had been aborted, killing all its occupants. The operation’s only achievement inside Iran was to provide Khomeini with further evidence of America’s disdain for negotiations and determination to impose its will by force.
Inside the US, the crisis was experienced as a collective trauma, the intensity of which can be difficult to understand in retrospect. People started tying yellow ribbons around trees — a ritual practice that has persisted through the Gulf and Iraq Wars — and the ABC news program Nightline was cooked up specifically to provide updates on the crisis. Nightline’s original title was The Iran Crisis — America Held Hostage: Day X. An on-screen counter made sure viewers never forgot how many days it had been since the crisis began. “The State Department is doing what it can,” Ted Koppel said in his first televised report on the crisis, “but for the moment at least, that doesn’t appear to be much.” These reports were saturated with what have become stock elements of American news coverage of Islamic extremism: shots of chanting crowds and references to fanatics and madness. Each new day on the counter was a blow to the US and to President Carter, and Iran knew it. Carter’s administration did eventually succeed in negotiating for the hostages’ release in January 1981, after he lost reelection to Ronald Reagan. (The shah, who died in Egypt in July 1980, was by then a moot point.) Iran didn’t announce the release of the hostages until January 20, the day of Reagan’s swearing in. By refusing to release the hostages while Carter still held the White House, Iran drove the point home: not only had the revolutionary government successfully defied its longtime nemesis by deposing Iran’s autocratic ruler, it had ended the political career of a US President.
The end of the crisis was followed by a frantic effort to recast trauma as a redeeming triumph. “America was looking for a reason to be proud, or a reason to be American again,” one of the hostages told an interviewer years later. “We had lost it.” Another hostage said that the American people had used the end of the crisis “to release itself of this burden of Vietnam.” It had been less than a decade since the last American civilian and military personnel had been evacuated from Saigon via helicopter — undoing, or at least papering over, this string of retreats would in some ways constitute the whole project of Reagan’s presidency. Ten days after the inauguration, hundreds of thousands turned out for a ticker-tape parade in New York, with yellow ribbons and American flags waving in the air as twenty-one of the former hostages cruised down Broadway, waving back.
Bruce Laingen, the chargé d’affaires for the Tehran embassy, said of the crisis that “the American people as a whole . . . were all hostage to that drama.” What were they hostage to, exactly? For all the election-cycle rhetoric about how domestic issues are the only ones Americans care about, foreign affairs have determined much of America’s self-image over the past century, with greater or lesser degrees of mythologizing lacquered onto the story as circumstances demand. Broadly speaking, many Americans believe that their country is both perfectly dominant and perfectly benevolent. This self-image originated in World War II, when America sought to justify its new and very real position of global preeminence — and especially economic preeminence — with the myth that it alone had “saved the world from fascism.” The story went through many permutations: the anticommunism of the ’50s and ’60s, which pitted freedom against soulless repression; the Carter Doctrine, which militarized America’s relationship to the Middle East so as to prevent the Soviet Union from cutting off the capitalist world’s oil supplies; the Balkans and the notion of humanitarian intervention, which recast America’s pursuit of its own interests as a fight for all of humanity; the war on terror. Each of these has been underpinned, both emotionally and in concrete political terms, by Americans’ twinned beliefs in their country’s supremacy and goodness.
Iran successfully undermined both. America had spent decades pointing at Iran’s growth rates and congratulating itself on supporting the Middle East’s exemplary modernizer, but when the revolution came, it was a genuine popular revolt, and its overriding message was that America had to get out. How could America be benevolent if a mass mobilization said otherwise? On its own, this challenge was serious but probably manageable; many countries have cast doubt on the nobility of America’s international intentions since World War II without being able to do much about it. But now here was an entirely new form of government that could back up its anti-American rhetoric with resistance, physically imprisoning dozens of representatives of the world’s most powerful country. The US was helpless. American diplomats failed to achieve the sought-for breakthroughs, the military literally crashed and burned, and the revolutionary government refused to budge in the face of an embargo on Iranian oil. In her memoir, First Lady Rosalynn Carter recalled helplessly pleading with her husband: “Do something! Do something!” Not just Carter but the office of the presidency itself seemed to be diminished.
The end of the Carter era is understood to be the nadir of 20th-century American self-confidence. The recession that began in 1973 ended the country’s post–World War II expansion — and in a particularly painful way, with high unemployment and high inflation battering economic growth from both sides. The trauma of Vietnam also loomed over everything; like Iran, the North Vietnamese Army had successfully undermined both of America’s cherished myths about itself. Under the surface, however, things were not quite as dire as they seemed, and in some ways the prospects for American global dominance were actually improving. Nixon’s triumphant 1972 visit to China inaugurated a process that would culminate in the reestablishment of full diplomatic relations in 1979, gradually depriving the Soviet Union of the support of its most important cold-war ally. The Nasserite dream of secular Pan-Arabism had begun its long retreat in 1967, when the Six-Day War established Israel as a pro-American military power in the Middle East. And though Marxist heads of state sporadically popped up to trouble the picture, as Salvador Allende did with his 1970 election as president of Chile, a little economic warfare and covert CIA support for a coup could usually take care of things. Even the failure of the Vietnam War didn’t lead to what its most fervent proponents feared: communism wasn’t going to conquer the world just because it had conquered Saigon. By no means was the US successful across the board in the 1970s, but being the preeminent global power doesn’t mean you don’t have any problems — it just means that you can handle them.
Iran was different. An international revolutionary movement based not on nationalism or Marxism but religion, Khomeini’s pan-Islamism is the major political innovation of the last half century. It exploded many categories of “modern” political thought, including both the liberal democratic ideal of secular government and the Marxist characterization of religion as the opiate of the masses. Foucault was in Iran before the shah’s overthrow to report on the spreading protests for an Italian newspaper, and in his view, Islam was providing the revolutionaries not with a set of rules but with a means of political organization: “a way of being together, a way of speaking and listening, a means of understanding each other and sharing each other’s desires.” That view was excessively rosy — with theocracy in place, Islam in Iran would very much turn toward providing people with a set of rules. But Foucault’s point about Islam as a conduit for politics, in a country where other conduits to politics had been systematically repressed by the shah, remains.
Khomeini’s political aspirations were not limited to Iran. He wanted Islam to foment revolution throughout the Middle East, so that Muslim-majority countries might be able to step outside of the cold-war system structured by the two great external powers and inhabit a geopolitical space of their own. The Soviet Union never came to grips with political Islam over the course of its final ten years of existence, and the US hasn’t done much better in the three decades since. But Khomeini’s project to unite the world’s Muslims hit a snag almost immediately, when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in September 1980. Saddam had come to power as Iraq’s president the year before as a secular nationalist leader ruling over a country with a Shia-majority population. Worried that the Iranian Revolution would inspire Iraqi Shias to overthrow his government (and also interested in annexing Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province), Saddam attacked quickly in the hope of capitalizing on the chaos of Iran’s immediate postrevolutionary period. That worked for a little while.
By the middle of 1982, Iran had retaken all of the territory lost to the initial invasion, and what followed were six more years of ugly fighting as Khomeini tried to overthrow Saddam: trench warfare, bayonet attacks, chemical weapons. Iran resorted to full mobilization in the style of World War I, and the conflict allowed the state to both expand and consolidate its power in ways that may have otherwise been impossible. Militias were transformed into the now notorious Revolutionary Guard, a force that numbered some one hundred and twenty thousand by the war’s end. Public support for the government surged, price controls and ration cards were introduced so that the poor did not go hungry, and the industries ministry nationalized dozens of factories that had been abandoned by their wealthy owners in the run-up to the revolution. The war decisively swept away the world of the shah, and an intense Islamicization of Iranian society followed, with the censorship of all media, the enforcement of an Islamic dress code, and the removal of women from the judiciary. Political purges brought about the deaths of hundreds of dissidents and former government officials in the first years of the revolution, and then again just after the end of the war, in 1988, on an awful scale. Khomeini organized the execution of twenty-eight hundred prisoners, many of them leftists. “We are not liberals like Allende,” a prominent figure of the revolution named Ali Khamenei had warned in 1979, “whom the CIA can snuff out.”
The US adopted an official position of neutrality at the war’s outset but soon pivoted to supporting Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld traveled there to shake Saddam’s hand in 1983, and full diplomatic relations between the two countries were restored the next year. Coming out of the war with Iran’s national borders unchanged, Khomeini could now claim to have repelled the world’s superpower yet again, and this time on an enormous scale. But if the 1980s allowed Iran’s revolutionary government to consolidate power, it also required the country to scale back its international ambitions. Iran’s economy was in terrible shape after eight years of continuous war, with insufficient foreign currency reserves and declining oil revenues, on which Iran was financially dependent. Khomeini’s dream of a pan-Islamic revolutionary movement was also dead: a conflict pitting the Middle East’s most powerful Shia government against its most powerful Sunni government had deepened the region’s sectarian divide.
Having lost confidence in its ability to manage the situation through proxy governments, the United States had begun the process of militarizing its relationship to the Middle East. Billions of dollars poured into Afghanistan to help the mujahideen fight the Soviets, who had invaded in 1979. CENTCOM, or United States Central Command, was founded in 1983 to manage America’s military commitments across the region. The US sought and received access to ports and airfields in North and East Africa, and kept military equipment stored on cargo ships in the Indian Ocean, ready to deploy if needed. Diplomacy still played a role, of course, but the Iranian Revolution had scrambled the region’s dynamics to an extent that made it difficult for the US to get a handle on things, as was highlighted by the “Iran” component of the Iran-Contra affair. In its final shape, the Reagan Administration’s scheme involved selling arms to Israel, which in turn sold those arms to the Iranian government, with the US funneling some of the proceeds to the Contras, right-wing rebel forces fighting the leftist government of Nicaragua. This was so Reagan could get around an explicit congressional prohibition on materially aiding the Contras in any way.
Bush’s decisions to invade Iraq and Afghanistan were obviously the most consequential of his presidency, but the decision to include Iran in the axis of evil may be his dumbest.Tweet
But the Contra issue had nothing to do with why the US decided to facilitate the sale of arms to Iran in the first place, which was also prohibited under America’s own embargo on Iranian arms sales. The US was originally approached about selling arms to Iran by an Israeli diplomat and an Iranian intermediary. Israel wanted to sell arms to Iran because it was interested in keeping the Iran-Iraq war at a stalemate for as long as possible. The Iranian intermediary, Manucher Ghorbanifar, was a freelance arms dealer and former agent with the shah’s secret police. And despite being such a notorious liar that the CIA itself issued a “burn notice” against him in 1984, he was able to get the Reagan Administration’s attention by claiming access to a “moderate” faction, led by one of Khomeini’s advisers, Hassan Karoubi, that hoped to slowly reorient Iran toward open markets and the West. Using arms sales to inaugurate a working relationship with this faction was tantalizing, but Ghorbanifar’s unreliability made for a very unstable foundation on which to justify covert and illegal arms sales, as Reagan would discover when Iran-Contra became public in late 1986. When it came to Middle East diplomacy in the 1980s, the US was in over its head, and so it was America’s military footprint in the region that continued to expand. The original justification was the need to counter a broader Soviet invasion that never actually materialized, but once Iraq invaded Kuwait and the Soviet threat disappeared for good in 1991, the pretext changed. Now Saddam was the great regional bogeyman against whom Saudi Arabia’s oilfields had to be protected.
Iran’s leaders understood that a direct confrontation with this American show of force was hopeless. Instead they turned to regional proxy groups, a strategy on which Iran has relied ever since. The Iranian government founded Hezbollah in the early 1980s to fight the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, where Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization was based. A kind of umbrella organization for Shia militant groups, Hezbollah became one of Iran’s primary means of projecting its regional influence, engaging in guerrilla warfare against Israel — which Khomeini had termed the “Little Satan” for its support of the shah, treatment of the Palestinians, and dependence on the US — and carrying out, or working closely with affiliated groups that carried out, terror attacks against Israeli and American forces. The most spectacular of these killed 241 American military personnel in Beirut in 1983. This support for proxy groups allowed Iran to oppose America’s growing military presence in the Middle East without having to risk an unwinnable conventional war. And if Hezbollah and other militant groups like Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine weren’t capable of forcing the United States out of the region, that was fine. As the 20th century neared its end, it increasingly seemed that you didn’t actually have to defeat the United States to disrupt the smooth functioning of its foreign policy machine — all you had to do was throw a few wrenches into the gears. It was as though American power got more brittle even as it grew.
Khomeini died in 1989. Ali Khamenei, the mullah who had warned that “we are not liberals like Allende,” became Iran’s second supreme leader, and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani became its fourth president. Following the end of the war the pair embarked on a program of economic liberalization that was in tune with the neoliberal policies that were sweeping across the globe: shrinking the government here and there, opening a handful of free-trade zones, printing less money, and lowering business taxes. Wealth inequality increased, and in the mid-’90s a steep drop in oil prices triggered a recession. What emerged out of this economic crisis was a reform movement led by Mohammad Khatami, who won a presidential election in 1997 on promises to cultivate civil society, fix the economy, and replace a “clash of civilizations” with a “dialogue of civilizations.” The cultural transformation that unfolded over the next several years was remarkable. The share of university graduates who were women topped 60 percent, a new generation of intellectuals began to favorably cite Western philosophers, and religion more or less stopped policing the daily lives of most Iranians. By 2000, the Economist was reporting that according to Iran’s own clergy, fewer than 2 percent of Iranians attended mosque on Fridays. On the economic side, the neoliberalization of Iran intensified; small-scale factories were exempted from labor laws, and state-owned industries were privatized (loosening the state’s grip on the economy was thought to be the best way of decreasing state interference in Iranians’ private lives). Iran’s relationships with foreign nations, even the US, also improved considerably. President Clinton eased up on the economic sanctions that Reagan had put in place in 1987, and Khatami appeared on CNN to talk about his admiration for the American nation and people. Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, was met with a massive outpouring of sympathy for America in Tehran, with enormous crowds holding candlelit vigils and some sixty thousand people observing a moment of silence at a soccer match on September 13.
It continues to strain belief that it was this version of Iran, an Iran going out of its way to endear itself to the US and other developed world nations, that George W. Bush described as part of the axis of evil in January 2002. Bush’s decisions to invade Iraq and Afghanistan were obviously the most consequential of his presidency, but the decision to include Iran in the axis of evil may be his dumbest. Nothing more clearly illustrates the Republican Party’s irrational bloodlust with respect to Iran than this move, which alienated a committed enemy of both Saddam Hussein and Sunni extremist groups at a time when the US was simultaneously preparing for war against Saddam Hussein and Sunni extremist groups. Bush’s speech surprised the Iranian government. It surprised America’s allies. It even surprised people at the State Department, who for good reason are accustomed to getting a heads-up about this sort of thing. Overnight, Iran went from a state working assiduously to improve relations with Western powers to, in the Bush Administration’s words, a “totalitarian” nightmare whose citizens were held hostage by “unelected leaders.” The speech demoralized Iran’s reform movement, which soon split over disputes about how to respond to Bush’s provocation, and it provided an enormous boost to the country’s hard-liners, who were once again able to make the case that you couldn’t ever trust the Great Satan.
The invasion of Iraq only accelerated the rightward shift that began after Bush’s speech. Conservatives in Iran campaigned on national security concerns — with the US military wreaking havoc just next door, who wouldn’t be worried about where they might invade next? — and won elections for municipal councils in 2003 and for the Majlis in 2004, with turnout plummeting in urban areas and among women and students. The shift culminated in 2005 when a populist son of a blacksmith named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the presidency. Censorship increased, important government positions went to members of the Revolutionary Guard, and Iran’s foreign policy entered the realm of the grotesque, with Ahmadinejad stating that Israel should be wiped off the map and that the Holocaust was a myth. The fifteen-year-long standoff between Iran and the Western powers over its nuclear program dates from Ahmadinejad’s election. It can be tempting to view this outcome as ironic — Bush gave a speech denouncing the Iranian government as autocratic, which only pushed that government further toward autocracy! But this temptation should be resisted, because it is founded on the myth that all of America’s political parties value representative democracy as such, a myth President Bush may even have tricked himself into believing. The Republican Party works tirelessly to suppress democratic influence on the political process, through gerrymandering, the closure of polling stations, cynical hand-wringing over the nonexistent issue of “voter fraud,” and efforts to dismantle laws that protect voting rights. It clings to the Senate filibuster to ensure that not even majorities in Congress are sufficient to pass legislation. George W. Bush himself was made President not, in the end, because of a vote, but because five unelected judges decided he was President. The success or failure of representative democracy in the Middle East is of little interest to America’s political system as a whole and of no interest whatsoever to the Republican Party. What mattered to the Bush Administration was that the oil keep flowing and the geopolitics of the Middle East remain unchanged, except for the transformation of Iraq into an ally. Just as autocratic regimes like that of Saudi Arabia have been America’s most valued allies in the Middle East, so have autocratic governments been the preferred enemies. Questions of political morality had no bearing on why the Republican Party launched the war on terror, and with Ahmadinejad in power, Bush had an ideal enemy. The differences between the two regimes are less striking than their similarities: Abrahamic religious extremists whose political fortunes were founded and dependent on fossil capital (Bush Jr., of course, got his start as an oilman in Texas). What remained was a conflict waged on the Republican Party’s preferred terms — a naked contest for economic and military power, tipped steeply in favor of the US.
The Iraq war and the larger war on terror constituted a major setback for Iran’s relationships with the Western powers, but America’s destructive crusade also opened up all kinds of opportunities for Iran to expand and solidify its position in the Middle East. The most significant of these appeared in Iraq itself, where Bush Jr.’s troops deposed the Sunni leader of a Shia-majority country without any viable plan for the political aftermath. In the words of the political scientist Amin Saikal, the invasion transformed Iraq “from a strong dictatorial state with suppressed societies to a weak state with strong but rival societies.” In the years since, Iran has devoted enormous resources to Shia Iraqis, investing in everything from infrastructure to tourism to the renovation of holy sites. When US troops left Iraq in 2011, the country was led by a mostly Shia, pro-Iranian government. Iraq and Iran have signed more than a hundred cooperation agreements since the invasion, and Iran is now Iraq’s largest trading partner. The two countries’ regional alignment, after decades of violent hostility, is among the most consequential outcomes of the US invasion.
Looking to put the brakes on Iran’s growing influence, the US escalated its sanctions program and then added a mix of targeted military operations, warmongering, and hysteria over Iran’s nuclear program, none of which has done much to encourage a productive working relationship between Iran and the US. Over the past fifteen years, there has been only one period of relative realism with respect to Iran: Obama’s nuclear deal. The US didn’t get everything it wanted in the deal, and neither did Iran. That’s OK — it’s what usually happens at the end of a negotiation conducted in good faith.
Republicans ostensibly opposed the nuclear agreement on the grounds that it was a “bad deal.” But their idea of a good deal was a total and unconditional capitulation on the part of Iran. The fact that it was a negotiation may be precisely why Republicans found the nuclear deal unacceptable. After all, can you really call yourself the world’s superpower if you have to negotiate with people? This posture is arrogant, to be sure, but arrogance alone can’t explain it. The great historian Ellen Meiksins Wood has described America’s odd investment in what she calls “surplus” imperialism, the belief among America’s foreign policy establishment that it is not enough for America to be the most powerful country in the world — it must be the most powerful country by such a disproportionate margin that the very idea of anyone else overtaking it is unthinkable. In the words of Colin Powell in 1992, the US needs to be powerful enough “to deter any challenger from ever dreaming of challenging us on the world stage” (emphasis added). Or, in the words of George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy, “strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States” (again, emphasis added).
This may sound like the mindset of a comic-book villain, but America’s investment in surplus imperialism has a concrete, material basis. Since the end of World War II, the United States has been not only the world’s most powerful capitalist nation but the global custodian of capitalism itself. (That task had previously fallen to the system of European colonialism, which at its height occupied some 80 percent of the world.) In exchange for the privilege of enjoying the highest rates of consumption on earth, the United States also invests more than any other country in the direction, supervision, and maintenance of global capital flows. These investments take many forms, including the spearheading of free-trade agreements, the establishment of financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), support for governments that adhere to the capitalist consensus and the undermining of those that don’t, and the use of military force to pry open markets in cases where diplomacy and economic pressure aren’t enough. The “surplus” aspect of America’s imperialism is crucial, because capitalism requires stability and predictability through time in order to function smoothly. Investments need months, years, or decades to produce their returns, and people are only willing to invest their capital if they feel confident that the future is going to unfold in the way they expect. You don’t start producing almonds until you’re confident that almond milk isn’t just a passing fad, and you don’t move one of your factories to a new country if there’s a chance a leftist government will come to power and expropriate the factory. Financial markets move every day in response to changes in these ephemeral moods, and the financial press has names for them: uncertainty, consumer confidence, business expectations.
Surplus imperialism is an effort to keep uncertainty to a minimum. It’s good to be strong enough to defeat a country that attempts a military land grab against one of its neighbors (as with Saddam Hussein and Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War). But from the perspective of capital markets, it’s much better for the US to be so strong that nobody even thinks about attempting the land grab in the first place. And in a sense, the surplus imperialist mindset isn’t only or even primarily aimed at America’s enemies. Countries like Venezuela and North Korea are already perfectly aware that they have no hope of equaling American power. Rather, the psychological force of surplus imperialism is aimed squarely at America’s friends — countries on the make, like Turkey, India, and Brazil, which are discouraged from getting any big ideas about creative new alliances even as the brute facts of America’s declining power unfold in full view, year after year — and frenemies like Russia and China, regional powers with whom a full-scale military confrontation remains unimaginable, but only so long as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping agree there’s no upside to imagining it.
American imperialism is not a recent development, and neither are American military interventions in pursuit of imperialist goals. But the kind of surplus imperialism to which the US is now committed, accounting for nearly 40 percent of global military spending on its own, is new. It dates roughly from the end of the cold war, and it has produced a doctrine under which the US can take military action anywhere in the world whenever it wants, with no explanation required. The tradition of “just war,” which previously dominated political rhetoric about military action, was flexible to the point of near incoherence, but at the very least it demanded that war be declared with a specific goal in mind, that it be declared by an appropriate authority, and that the destruction inflicted be proportionate to the aims one hoped to achieve. All of that went out the door with George W. Bush and the global war on terror. The country’s new rationale for military action became a part of American law when Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force in September 2001. As Wood puts it, “military action now requires no specific aim at all.”
It may be, however, that the goals of American war-making haven’t disappeared so much as they have been generalized to such an extent that they are now hard to make out at all. The end of the cold war also produced Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, in which the political theorist argued that the spread of liberal market democracies and the collapse of the Soviet Union signaled “the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” This is probably the most controversial claim made by a political theorist over the past thirty years, and Fukuyama himself has since amended it with so many qualifications and caveats that he may as well have repudiated it entirely. But imagine the “end of history” thesis not so much as a description of the world but as a goal of US foreign policy — something to be achieved, preferably through the movements of global capital, but also by force wherever necessary. As the region on which the capitalist world most depends for its oil supplies, the Middle East can do more to disrupt the smooth functioning of America’s global dominance than anywhere else on the planet — it is the place where history most threatens to break out. And so the United States has gone there, again and again, to stop history in its tracks, to demonstrate, in the paraphrased words of Mark Fisher, that there is no alternative.
The United States has been trying to keep Iran frozen in place for almost seventy-five years, whether by helping to depose Mossadegh, subsidizing the shah even as he lost any semblance of domestic political support, prolonging the Iran-Iraq War by playing each side off the other, or foreclosing real opportunities for diplomatic engagement with the axis of evil speech and the militarization of the Middle East in general. Over the past two decades, the US has worked diligently to maintain its stranglehold on Iranian politics and society, and not just in material terms. American politicians and media personalities have effectively banned any discussion of Iran that tries to move beyond the war on terror binary. To hear Americans tell it, Iranians either support freedom on American terms or favor the tyranny of an Islamic dictatorship. They want nuclear weapons because their leaders want to blow up American cities and wipe Israel off the face of the earth. (If they want nuclear weapons and not just nuclear power, which remains a matter of debate, it is certainly not to embark on a suicidal global offensive.) Homegrown civil rights protests, like the Green movement that convulsed Iran after the disputed results of Ahmadinejad’s reelection in 2009, are described as attempts to overthrow the regime. But the Green movement was nothing of the kind. It was a nonviolent reform project seeking the expansion of Iranian civil rights. Its leaders no more wanted the revolutionary government abolished than Martin Luther King Jr. wanted to abolish Congress and the presidency.
After a decade of boiling tensions between the two countries and military adventurism on both sides throughout the region, Obama decided that the best path was a deal that would at least make a disastrous war with the largest country in the Middle East less likely. Obama made the safe bet that easing up on the international panic around Iran’s nuclear program and reintegrating the country into the world economy could mitigate the Iranian government’s sense of its nuclear program as a key locus of nationalistic pride. The deal was another chance for the United States to allow politics and history to unfreeze in Iran, a chance to give Iran the security and breathing room it needs to address some of its long-simmering political problems. One of Iran’s increasingly urgent problems is the outsize influence of the Revolutionary Guard, the branch of the military specifically focused on protecting Iran’s political system. It is composed of the country’s most dedicated hard-liners, and over the years it has acquired a level of power over Iranian society, including its economy, that may eventually threaten the very political system it was founded to defend. The political sociologist Hazem Kandil has warned that further extension of the guard’s influence “could override all other regime institutions and transform Iran from a popular theocracy to a military dictatorship, or worse, a police state.” By providing a clear path for Iran to politically and culturally reintegrate with the rest of the world, the nuclear deal would have eroded the guard’s influence and boosted the reformist wing of Iran’s government.
Obama even saw the nuclear deal as a means of unfreezing politics in a wider, regional context. Talking about Saudi Arabia and America’s other Sunni Arab allies with the New York Times, Obama said, “I think the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries. . . . That’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have.” It is entirely Obama’s fault that he didn’t do more to help that process along, and that he actually did a lot to hinder it, increasing drone strikes instead of ending them, sending troops to Afghanistan instead of bringing them all home, and doing so little to meaningfully address Israel’s destructive role in regional politics. But the larger point stands — the nuclear deal would have helped. It would not have ended America’s military adventurism at a stroke, but it was a step in that direction and would have set the US on a path to engaging with the region as something other than a violent empire spouting transparently disingenuous rhetoric about self-determination. That outcome is now impossible. Inside Iran, an opportunity for political liberalization has been gutted, and a sharp turn to the right is certain to follow. In pulling the US out of the deal, Trump joined the long tradition of helping out the Iranian right wing by demonstrating once again that only a dupe would put their faith in the goodwill of the United States. His decision was exactly what Republicans wanted, and now that Trump has managed to assassinate Qasem Soleimani, they are salivating for war.
For the Republicans, rejecting the nuclear deal and advocating for war is the correct political decision. Caught off guard by the Tea Party movement in 2009 and lacking even a cursory interest in addressing the wealth inequality that has generated so much fury since the financial crisis, the party is weak. It clings to power thanks to voter suppression, gerrymandering, and, in Donald Trump, a real-life version of a bit player in a sub-Scorsese Mob movie. Domestically, its constituencies are held together by a shared commitment to patriarchy, racism, and the freedom of capitalists to make as much money as they can while treating workers and the environment however they want. But foreign policy platforms have constituencies as well, and a bedrock commitment to imperialist violence as America’s primary means of interacting with the Middle East is also crucial to the Republicans’ political fortunes.
Outside the US, the consensus is clear: international polls consistently show that America is viewed as the world’s most serious threat to peace.Tweet
This constituency has several elements. There are the capitalists, people with an ownership stake in the economy who are looking nervously over their shoulders at a decade of anemic growth and declining rates of profit (our most recent economic expansion, now brought to an end by a global pandemic, was the longest on record but also the slowest). This group will not tolerate any reluctance whatsoever on Republicans’ part to use military force to pry open new markets. Republicans know that capitalist support is provisional—Democrats are committed capitalists, too, and much of Wall Street was happy to throw its support behind Hillary Clinton’s free-market militarism. And so the only way for Republicans to keep the ownership class in their corner is to make sure that Republican militarism remains the gold standard.
There are also the nationalists who provide the party with much of its energy on the ground, the Steve Bannons and Stephen Millers and other adjacent figures who happily assert that America isn’t merely the greatest country on earth, but that all the other countries are, in the words of their hero, shitholes. There isn’t much risk of this group swinging over to the Democrats, but mobilizing them requires that their energy be kept at a fever pitch, a task for which war is useful. Losing the popular vote by three million in 2016 was bad, but it would have been much worse had the Republican Party been run by a group of respectable and well-spoken Mitt Romneys or Jeb Bushes, droning on about values and hard work and the importance of family.
Finally, there are the evangelicals. Abortion may be the main reason they turn out so reliably for Republicans each election cycle, but Christian Zionism, according to which the founding of the state of Israel is a biblically prophesied precursor to the Second Coming of Christ and the Rapture, also plays a role. Secretary of State Pompeo and Vice President Pence are both strong supporters of the Christian Zionist group Christians United for Israel, whose leader claims to have helped in persuading the Trump Administration to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In an interview with a Christian television network given while he was visiting Jerusalem, Pompeo agreed that Trump could be a modern-day Queen Esther, sent to save the Israelis from what the interviewer called the “Iranian menace.” These evangelicals refuse to see America’s Middle East crusade end with a whimper.
Losing the support of any of these groups would be catastrophic for Republicans. Like patriarchy and racism, imperialism is nonnegotiable. It will be at the foundation of the Republican Party’s project for as long as the Republican Party is a national political force.
And what about the Democrats? There is a lot to say about them, but also, there isn’t. Their objections to Republican foreign policy amount to pleas for “smarter,” “more strategic,” “more thoughtful” imperialism. The only thing these pleas signify at the level of the party as a whole is that while Democrats may have begun to perceive the question facing American foreign policy, they have taken no meaningful steps toward answering it. To their credit, they did not join the Republicans in active warmongering after Soleimani’s killing, even after Iran responded by carrying out missile strikes on American bases in Iraq, proportional attacks that injured but did not kill American troops. However, Democrats have raised no meaningful objections to the part of Trump’s Iran policy that most increases the likelihood of war: the economic sanctions. If left in place indefinitely, these sanctions will destroy the Iranian economy, just as similar sanctions did to Iraq in the 1990s.
Under the current sanctions regime, all Iranian assets based in the US have been frozen, and almost all forms of trade between the US and Iran have been banned, including trade in oil, on which the Iranian economy is dependent. The US also has ways to discourage other countries from economic engagement with Iran. After Trump pulled the US out of the nuclear deal, the European Commission encouraged the EU’s main investment bank to invest in Iran as a way to provide the country with some relief. The bank refused, on the grounds that a third of its funds have to be raised on US capital markets, meaning that investing in Iran would expose the bank to crippling sanctions itself. What this means for Iran is that its economy shrank by almost 10 percent in 2019, according to the IMF. To make matters worse, Iran is currently in the midst of a severe coronavirus outbreak, with more than eight thousand dead and some 160 thousand infected. The sanctions program, along with American threats to penalize companies found in violation of it, have hampered the Iranian government’s efforts to increase its stock of crucial medical supplies.
Protests have occurred as a result; in November 2019, Iranians took to the streets to object to an increase in the price of subsidized gasoline, which the government implemented because it is now desperate to raise revenue wherever it can. Mike Pompeo pointed to the protests as evidence that Iranians en masse are finally getting fed up with their own government, but Iranians aren’t idiots. They know who is to blame for their economic problems. Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign is an exact repeat of Bill Clinton’s sanctions against Iraq. If left in place, its only effects will be to make life harder for the people of Iran. Frustration will continue to break out in public, and when it does, the government will continue to send in police to clear the streets and jail protesters. Those protesting will feel their government only wants them to keep quiet in the face of an economy that is increasingly in crisis. The government will feel that their old enemy, the cause of this crisis, has left them with no real choices outside of repression. This will poison the relationship between the two countries to an extent that will make negotiations impossible. If Democrats are sincere in their desire to avoid war with Iran, they will have to work to dismantle America’s sanctions program before it is too late.
Outside the US, the consensus is clear: international polls consistently show that America is viewed as the world’s most serious threat to peace. Inside the US, the myth of America’s benevolence continues to hold sway, especially among those in government, with ritual expressions of wounded outrage in response to any suggestion that America’s intentions could be anything less than pure. Since the Iranian Revolution, a particularly favored ritual of this type has been the furor over the phrase “Death to America,” which Americans associate as closely with Iran as they associate “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” with themselves. “Death to America” was first popularized by Khomeini, and it has since become a staple of Iranian protests and marches. Americans take it literally, seeing it as a call for the destruction of their country, the killing of soldiers based in the Middle East, and attacks against civilians like those carried out on September 11. As the Obama Administration worked to convince Congress to ratify the nuclear deal, Democratic and Republican representatives alike threw the phrase in his face.
In US politics, the persistence of “Death to America” symbolizes all that is supposed to make negotiation with the Iranian regime hopeless: the bloodlust of the Iranian government, the unwillingness of Iranians to see reason, Muslim “fanaticism.” But as with much of American political rhetoric about the Middle East, this reading is willful ignorance at best. The fervor backing the slogan has been wildly overstated. “Saying ‘Death to America!’ has been a permanent fixture of the revolution that we don’t listen to anymore,” a deputy oil minister with the Iranian government said recently. “It comes out as a matter of routine.” A political scientist at the University of Tehran estimated that only a fifth of Iranians bother to chant the phrase at all, and that “only a teeny percent” of that fifth actually believe in it. And in any case, Iranian officials have long insisted that the target of the chant is American policy, not Americans themselves. “These slogans,” President Khatami said in a 1998 interview with Christiane Amanpour, “symbolize a desire to terminate a mode of relations which existed between Iran and the United States.” This understanding is shared by the current Iranian president’s chief of staff: “It’s not the people of America, per se. . . . It’s not a nation. It’s a system of behavior.”
Most Iranians have little or no direct experience with America or the people who live there, and little or no reason to wish them harm. But they do have decades of direct experience with American foreign policy. There can hardly be an Iranian on earth whose life has not been shaped by it in some way. Of course the slogan is incendiary: it came to prominence as Iran ousted a dictator who had the full and explicit backing of the US government, and it has persisted over forty years during which America has been consistent in its view that Iran’s effort at self-determination should be ground into dust. The slogan is outrageous because the American actions that brought it into being have been more outrageous. Also, it’s a slogan, a catchy way to sum up and condense feelings of frustration and anger that are widespread because they are based in experiences that all Iranians have shared. What are they supposed to chant? “We take issue with core aspects of American foreign policy”?
The American government’s refusal or inability to understand what “Death to America” means is symptomatic of a foreign policy that must blind itself to the anger it arouses around the world in order to function. If the US can do the bare minimum of beginning to recognize that anger as reasonable, a different foreign policy is possible. If it can’t, then the US will be just as bewildered by what’s to come as it was when Iranian students stormed the embassy forty years ago.