The Trump administration has made clear that it wants regime change in Iran, but its actions have made such an outcome far less likely, short of war. The U.S. decision to exit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action not only undermines the domestic forces in Iran best positioned to produce actual, if incremental, change but also empowers local actors whose interests lie in provoking violent conflict with the United States and its regional allies.
My research on education and nationalism suggests that threats by Iran’s leadership to resume enrichment are not the actions of a totalitarian state lumbering toward war but instead reflect the demands of an Iranian public determined to assert their country’s sovereign rights, even at the cost of supporting an otherwise unpopular government.
The unintended consequences of the U.S. pulling out of the JCPOA
In a major speech delivered to the Heritage Foundation last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo closed the door on the JCPOA, with a list of 12 conditions for lifting sanctions. All were nonstarters for an Iranian government whose legitimacy is inextricably tied to defiance of the “imperial west” and defense of Iranian sovereignty.
Securing the nuclear deal was an important milestone for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Elected in large part as a corrective to the chaos of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, Rouhani consolidated a domestic coalition organized around normalizing, even secularizing, Iran’s political scene and restoring its international standing. The U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA has only strengthened the hand of Rouhani’s hard-line rivals, anti-democratic actors who happen to agree with the American president that the agreement was “the worst deal ever.” For them, conflict with the United States and Europe presents a welcome opportunity to renew the country’s revolutionary spirit, lately lacking.
Their revival is matched by growing evidence that Trump’s actions have worsened the attitudes of ordinary Iranians toward the United States. April polling recorded an upsurge of public support for retaliation in response to U.S. violations of the JCPOA, a sentiment that most likely has increased after the U.S. withdrawal. Pushed against the wall, Iranians across the ideological spectrum appear to be rallying around their flag, if not the banner of political Islam.
How do Iranians view the nation and nationalism?
But what if what is at stake is not Islam or secular democracy, but the flag itself? Away from the headlines, there is a robust consensus among scholars that politics in Iran begins with the idea of Iran as an “immemorial nation.” This understanding of nationalism is more than a single narrowly defined belief, but rather a broad arena in which more particular ideologies compete for power and authority.
It is the nation, not theocracy or democracy, that provides the ultimate reference point in Iran. Whether leftist, liberal or Khomeinist, leaders and opposition alike must bind their agendas to the logic that Iran is primordial, organic and continuous. Any group’s legitimacy is measured by its commitment to the notion that Iran was once, and will once again be, great.
Patriotic defense of the country isn’t a passing phase but the default position, the big idea that holds Iran together. There is no need to rally around the flag, Iranians were already there, encouraged by the government to love their country as they love their religion. Such is the potency of nationalism that it erases the usual ideological fault lines in Iranian politics. In a remarkable open letter to Pompeo, the late shah’s longtime ambassador to the United States, Ardeshir Zahedi, who is hardly a friend of the Islamic republic, still vigorously defended it, proclaiming, “Iran’s noble people always stand together and help defend their homeland.”
Images of exiles and diaspora communities gathering to support Iran’s beloved Team Melli in the World Cup under the slogan “80 Million People, One Nation, One Heartbeat” illustrate this unity. After Iran’s defeat of Morocco on Thursday, social media blew up as everyone from President Rouhani to former heir apparent Reza Pahlavi celebrated, the two stripped of turban and crown and pictured at home, emphasizing their membership in a shared, national family. These same communities came together again after a gut-wrenching loss to Spain.
Tracing the roots of Iran’s nationalism
Evidence of this deep enthusiasm for the nation can also be seen across the post-revolutionary curriculum. My research on primary school textbooks from 1979 to 2009 shows that official concern with the continuity of national identity did not end with the revolution. Rather than abandoning the project of nationalism inherited from the shah, the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) has extended it, expressing nationalist ideas through religious precepts and values. From its earliest days, the Islamic educational system has included patriotic stories alongside standard lessons in the content and practice of Islam, as components — not rivals — of an official and shared national identity.
For all of its professed solidarity with the oppressed of the world, the IRI curriculum consistently places Iran before any universal project of Islamic unity. Like their Pahlavi predecessors, Iran’s revolutionaries have refashioned Islam in civilizational terms, as a source of universal knowledge rather than an “Arab religion” imposed upon Iran. Young Iranians learn that the 7th-century conquest and subsequent conversion to Islam of the once-mighty Persian empire by a much weaker Arab Muslim army was, in fact, an affirmation of Iran’s resilience. In this narrative, Iran not only persisted but thrived, quickly becoming the Islamic community’s most vital and creative component, the religion made better under Iranian management.
Imagining the unimaginable
In the post-revolutionary imagining of what it means to be truly Iranian, the plight of the vanquished Arab, not the defeated Persian, serves as a symbol and reminder of the indispensability of preserving Iran’s sovereignty against foreign encroachment, the dismemberment of Lebanon and Palestinian territories less an inspiration for global struggle than contemporary reminders of the loss of territory in the catastrophes of Golestan and Turkmenchay.
In crafting the national identity, lament for the region’s dispossessed is both a rebuke and an affirmation: Look at what happened to those who were not able to defend their homes and their homeland. Look at what has not happened to us.
Against this backdrop, the unintended consequences of U.S. pressure for regime change are illuminated. The more Iranians are faced with external threats to the nation, the more they are likely to rally around key marks of cultural identity. Getting rid of Islamic rule won’t change this dynamic; it is almost sure to guarantee that something worse will come along, sending Iranian politics in unexpected and more corrosive directions. After all, Americans need not look far for examples of how populist responses to foreign encroachments, real or imagined, can lead to unimaginable outcomes.