Trump Misunderstands Iran

Most of us will have seen over the past few days images of refugees, green card holders, and travellers, arriving in US airports only to be told that they have been denied entry on the basis of President Trump’s executive order banning entry to citizens of Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Iran. The ban has been widely noted for being both a) capricious, and b) cruel. Of those seven countries, at least five, potentially six, can be considered to be in a state of civil war, while some of the world’s leading exporters of terrorism – both in terms of ideology and the sheer number of citizens who have gone on to become wanted terrorists – were left off the list, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Tunisia.

Thankfully, the court-issued stay on this ban has now ensured that most of those awaiting deportation have been allowed entry into the United States, but the long term future seems particularly unclear. As others have already pointed out, any ban is actually far more likely to serve as a recruiting tool for radical groups, proving to be especially counterproductive at a time when Western countries ought to be reaching to Muslim communities just as daesh moves towards its inevitable battle field defeat in the coming years.

What I find particularly specious in this ‘ban’, though, is the posturing and trivially politically motivated targeting of Iran. Anyone who has watched this video cannot fail to notice that, as the largest diaspora community of those seven countries listed, Iranians living in the United States have become the most visible victims[1]. In a political arena that is awash with symbols and implicit meanings, anyone watching the video embedded in this article from the Guardian cannot fail to note the particular symbolism of turning such a high number of Iranians away at the door, so to speak.

While the action as a whole makes little strategic sense, the targeting of Iran is particularly ignorant, and indicative of the persistent failure of US politicians and diplomatic circles to properly assess and gauge sentiment both on the streets and in the corridors of power in Tehran and across Iran.

Iran hearts America

Iran and the US need not be at each other’s throats. Support for the USA and Americans in general among Middle Eastern Muslim countries is almost certainly at its highest in Iran. Whereas antipathy towards Israel seems to cut across much of the political spectrum in Iranian households, adoration of the US is high, especially the kind of aspirational values that Iranians understand American culture to be committed to.

Even among die-hard fans of the Islamic polity, most will distinguish between problems they have with the US’ foreign policy, versus what they understand to be the average American Joe’s separation from the halls of power. Indeed, most anti-American rhetoric in Iran tends to draw a clear distinction between values and politics, arguing that the Islamic Republic’s issue with the USA largely lies with what they perceive to be neo-colonial aggression, as opposed to a true conflict of values, as is more typically common among Islamist groups elsewhere in the Middle East and elsewhere. Groups within the state who harbour truly aggressive anti-US intentions are a small, if vocal minority.

The countries also share strategic interests in the Middle East. For a President who has made it his aim to both a) put America first, and b) defeat ISIS, no other player in the Middle East is more important in destroying the self-proclaimed caliphate. On this issue, policy both in Tehran and Washington is in total alignment – daesh must be destroyed. They also have much to gain from an economic détente – – Iran has oil and natural gas in vast quantities, is at a crossroads geographically between China, Europe, India, and Russia, and, as immigration to the US shows, a well-educated population keen to work. Iran likewise needs relief from sanctions and its own self-imposed autarky which has failed to produce the kind of consumer goods in a quality that Iranians have come to respect and expect.

Also, as a Shi’ite majority nation, one of only four in the world, and by far the largest, Iranians, really, truly, genuinely fear the radical Jihadism espoused by al-Qaeda and ISIS, seeing it as an existential threat to themselves as much as to the West. The Iranian street is perfectly familiar with the word vahaabi (Wahhabi), and posturing about Sunni and Shia unity aside, the government sees itself as a bulwark protecting the interests of Shia (and to a lesser extent, Christian minorities) against self-diagnosed Sunni fanaticism. To put it very simply: the US needs Iran, just as much as Iran needs the US. To suggest otherwise speaks more to hubris on both sides than to reality.

Smarting from the Revolution: Reading Iran wrong and wrong again

There are, however, limits to Iran’s love affair with the US, and Iranians have good reason to be sceptical of US intentions in the country (think the overthrow of a democratically elected leader and the support for an unpopular monarch just to ensure access to oil). Iranians also demand respect. Seeing themselves as the bearers of a proud, ancient civilisation with pre-Islamic roots that stretch back to the Achaemenid Empire, Iran as we are told is not like the rest of the Middle East.

The way some Iranians speak, Darius and Cyrus are not long dead historical monarchs, but living and breathing mytho-poetic figures, embodiments of Iranian refinement and progressivism. For those of a more Islamist bent, Persia in its Islamic incarnation is understood to have taken Islamic learning to its apogee, the great philosophers of the Islamic Golden Age, all rightly (and wrongly) declared to be of Iranian heritage. The perceived failure of the US to recognise that which Iranians feel makes them exceptional constitutes one of the ongoing sores in the relationship.

What is so jarring about this latest incident though is that it will aggravate both those in Iranian society who have little interest in Iran’s Islamic heritage, and those who do. By targeting Iranians it sends the message to secularists and nationalists that the US continues to look down its nose at the achievements of Persian civilisation; to conservatives and those who gravitate towards an Islamic past, in targeting ‘Muslims’ the US only confirms that a) it is at war with Islam, and b) it is so ignorant that it cannot distinguish between Shism and Sunnism.

Iranians are neither dumb nor ignorant, whatever the imagery of turbaned clerics may conjure. The tendency of Washington to read Iran as just another tin pot dictatorship – a third world despotism just waiting to fall and be replaced with Big Macs and the other benefits of capitalism – is a grotesque misreading of what Iranians perceive themselves to be: subtle, romantic, poetic, educated. Looking in the mirror they see a society that is ‘ghani’ – culturally enriched. Rather than continue to traffic in stereotypes, the new administration might want to swallow its pride and treat the Iranians with the respect they believe they deserve.

[1] This should not in anyway though take away from the similar and completely legitimate grievances of those from the other six countries.


[Image by Gregory Varnum [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons]

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