During his speech before the United Nations General Assembly, U.S. President Barack Obama accused Iran of using “violent proxies to advance its interests,” which he claimed served to “fuel sectarian conflict” in the region. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shot back during his speech, decrying what he said were “baseless accusations” against Iran and calling for the United States to halt its “dangerous policies in defense of its regional allies who only cultivate the seeds of division and extremism.”
Obama and Rouhani’s comments highlight a broader issue underlying the troubled U.S.-Iran relationship. In the West, many commentators often portray Iran’s leaders as being unreasonably suspicious about the intentions of outside powers, particularly the United States. Often dovetailing with this mentality is that Iran is irrationally and innately aggressive. While President Obama’s remarks at the UNGA reflect this black-and-white thinking about Iran to a degree, other high-level U.S. officials have been far more brazen in their dishonest condemnations of Iran. For instance, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, remarkably proclaimed in a March 2015 interview that “Iran and radical Islamist extremists” have opposed the United States simply because they “do not like our way of life.”
This astonishingly simplistic worldview reflects not only total ignorance of the realities of Iran’s political system, its foreign policy and Iranian society at large, but also eliminates room for any sort of compromise between Iran and the United States. After all, what dialogue can there be with a foe whose base belief is opposing your fundamental identity?
What dialogue can there be with a foe whose base belief is opposing your fundamental identity?
The reality of how Iran views U.S. regional policy is, of course, far more complex and is shaped by Iran’s historical experience. For U.S. policymakers who seek to advance more sensible U.S. policies in the region, understanding Iran’s positions is critical. Relying on delusions about Iranian policies and aims, as well as about American ones, is not only ineffective, but wholly counterproductive.
At the top of the list of the qualms Iranian leaders have with U.S. Middle East policy is America’s one-sided support for Israel. While U.S. pundits frequently posit that actions by the Assad government in Syria or the Maliki government in Baghdad fueled the radicalism that led to groups like ISIS, they rarely apply this same mode of thinking to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is arguably the root driver of much of the anti-U.S. extremism in the region and throughout the Muslim world, including in Iran. Iranian policymakers believe that the support the United States gives Israel is the key reason why injustices against the Palestinians have continued for so long.
U.S. interventions in the region in the past half-century have had a similar, radicalizing effect. The United States has propped up numerous authoritarian governments in the region, from the Shah of Iran and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in the past, to numerous others today. These current allies of the United States have doubled down on repressing their own populations in the wake of the Arab Spring revolutions, effectively ensuring a new age of exclusion, extremism and terrorism.
Iranian leaders note this U.S. indifference to authoritarianism in the region and believe the overriding U.S. strategic goal in the region has primarily been about controlling natural resources, in particular oil and natural gas. Their experience with the 1953 U.S.-British instigated coup against the democratically-elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh — who had nationalized the country’s oil industry — is of course instructive in this regard. The invasions and military interventions in Iraq and Libya respectively bolstered this view, as has the ever increasing militarization of the Persian Gulf, both by the United States as well as its allies who it has buttressed with tens of billions of dollars in military aid.
Relying on delusions about Iranian policies and aims, as well as about American ones, is not only ineffective, but wholly counterproductive.
Iran’s policymakers are also always quick to jump on and criticize clear signs of U.S. double standards and hypocrisy. The United States talks about supporting democracy but supports dictators; it talks about preventing nuclear proliferation but at the same time says nothing about Israel’s nuclear weapons, actively prevents efforts to establish a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East, and has even embarked on a $1 trillion plan to modernize its own nuclear arsenal and facilities; it purports to be against the use of weapons of mass destruction but abetted Saddam Hussein in using chemical weapons against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War; and lastly, it fights terrorists but at the same time has supported them, whether directly or indirectly, in places like Syria. Iranian leaders point to all these and more when discussing why the United States cannot be trusted.
In short, like many scholars in the United States itself, Iran’s decision makers believe that America’s approach towards the Middle East has been gravely wrongheaded and has been for decades. Despite these Iranian grievances with many U.S. policies, however, a much enhanced U.S.-Iran relationship is imperative and only possible when both sides recognize the others’ complaints and worldview and work to bridge their disputes.
U.S.-Iran cooperation is in fact the prerequisite for solving many of the crises in the Middle East. By abiding by seven principles, the United States and Iran can cooperate on the ongoing conflicts specifically in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. These include:
- Preserving the territorial integrity of all these countries
- Respecting majority rule through a power-sharing system which guarantees minority rights
- Free elections supervised by the United Nations
- Inclusive negotiations between the P5 world powers and the R5 regional powers (Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq)
- Fighting terrorism and its root causes collectively and with no discrimination
- Establishing a regional cooperation system comprised of Iran, Iraq, and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries
- Realizing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East through implementation of the same measures agreed on between Iran, other regional states and world powers.
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