The demonization of Iran is arguably the most bizarre and self-defeating of all U.S. foreign policies. Americans view Iran not simply as a country with interests that sometimes conflict with ours, but as a relentless font of evil. This is true across the political spectrum, from Hillary Clinton’s assertion in 2008 that she is ready to “totally obliterate” Iran to Sen. Ted Cruz’s recent description of Iranians as “people who want to kill us.” American politicians rarely speak that way about any other country. Iran occupies a unique place in our pantheon.
So what is occurring now between Iran and the United States is hard for many Americans to process. Twice in the past week, on the eve of implementation of the historic Iran nuclear deal—under which certification by the International Atomic Energy Agency will permit a partial lifting of sanctions—Tehran and Washington have behaved as though they are, if not quite like friends, then like something less than enemies. First, 10 American sailors who were captured by the Iranian navy were released after less than 24 hours. Then the Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who had been unjustly imprisoned since July 2014, was freed as part of a prisoner swap, along with three other Americans who had been held in Iranian jails. (On Sunday morning, though, the United States imposed new sanctions on Iran—after the prisoners were released—for Iran’s violation of United Nations resolutions against ballistic missile tests.)
These are considerable victories for American diplomacy, and Secretary of State John Kerry deserves much credit. They may also reflect the growing strength of forces inside Iran that support the rule of law and favor better relations with the West. The nuclear deal seems to be changing the political balance inside Iran, however slowly. It has given embattled President Hassan Rouhani and his American-educated foreign minister, Javad Zarif, steadily growing influence, and eroded the power of hard-liners. The battle between them is hardly over, but engagement between Washington and Tehran is clearly changing not only U.S.-Iran relations, but also Iranian politics.
The only thing that doesn’t seem to be changing is the rhetoric at home. After the U.S. sailors were captured last week, Sen. Marco Rubio jumped to call Iranian behavior “truly horrifying.” One of the retired generals hired by cable-TV networks as paid warmongers, Barry McCaffrey, called Iran “a foreign hostile power” and said the detention of American sailors was “an affront to our military presence in the [Persian] Gulf.” Never mind that the sailors were operating 6,000 miles from the United States and had entered Iran’s territorial waters.
Iran is hardly blameless in this confrontation. Its human right record is atrocious. Anti-Israel rhetoric from its religious leaders is hateful. Its missile tests are destabilizing and provocative. In the 1980s and ’90s, groups it supported carried out attacks on American and pro-American targets.
Nonetheless, it is clear that our perception of Iran as a threat to vital American interests is increasingly disconnected from reality. Iran is the only country in the Middle East that is totally opposed to the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other terror gangs. It is a regional power at best, plagued by internal problems and reeling from the harshest economic sanctions ever imposed on any country. Its military has no ability to project long-range power. Its ballistic missile capacity is considerably weaker than that of nearby countries including India, Pakistan, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Allegations that it threatens the United States with cyberattacks may have some basis in reality, but the United States has also attacked Iran this way. In 2010, Iran was the victim of what may have been the most potent attack in the history of cyberwarfare, aimed at its nuclear program and designed in part by the United States.
History is part of the reason Americans came to view Iran with such exaggerated fear. The overthrow of the Shah in 1979 was a shocking setback for American interests, and the subsequent hostage crisis is still a searing memory for many in Washington. Adding to that passion are relentless pressures from our two longtime partners in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Israel, who drive us toward anti-Iran passion for reasons of their own.
The intensity of anti-Iran feeling in the United States is based only in small part on Iran’s actual behavior. It is the logical result of conditioning: Thirty-five years of relentless anti-Iran rhetoric from across our political spectrum, including both political parties and most of the news media, and the stigmatizing of anyone who dissents from the paradigm of hostility. Beyond that is our lack of experience in dealing with countries that have different interests from ours. We feel good having an enemy, and Iran fits our bill.
Extremist politicians in Iran stoke the conflict. This is an election year in Iran as well as in the United States, and these militants, like their counterparts in the United States, denounce any negotiation as a sellout. “If we lose our strength and walk under the U.S. flag 50 times,” one key militia commander said this month, “other countries would feel that Iran is collapsing and they can do whatever they want.” Moderates and realists in Iran are working to counter this over-the-top rhetoric. Americans who favor a stable Middle East should be doing the same.
How deeply has anti-Iran sentiment penetrated into the American consciousness? I had a graphic answer when I took a trip to the West Coast this month.
My suitcase looks like most others, so like many experienced travelers, I have a way to recognize it on the baggage carousel. It has a large, colorful sticker with the legend, “Hotel Azadi, Tehran, Iran.” When I arrived, I had trouble finding my suitcase on the carousel. The sticker had been torn off, leaving just a sliver. Inside the suitcase was a card saying it had been inspected by the Transportation Security Administration.
The inspector not only tore off my sticker but removed my alarm clock. I have no way of knowing whether this was just pilferage, or if that clock now being inspected for evidence that it is part of an Iran-related plot. What is clear, however, is that even a lowly TSA inspector feels called upon to rip anything with the word “Iran” off a suitcase. Events of the past week may slowly begin to erode the impulse that leads Americans to believe patriotism requires us to hate Iran.