The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump doesn’t understand Iran. He’s making policy based on a caricature.

The president isn’t just setting the Iran nuclear deal on a path to failure, he’s ratifying a counterproductive stereotype of Iran’s people.

President Trump announced Oct. 13 that his administration would take new steps going forward to confront Iran. (Video: The Washington Post)

When he announced his decision, last week, to decertify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — more commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal — President Trump led with a reminder of the 1979 hostage crisis then aired a laundry list of grievances, saying: Iran “harasses American ships and threatens freedom of navigation in the Arabian Gulf and in the Red Sea” — a conspicuous renaming of the Persian Gulf that should be read as slap at Iranians of all stripes and a sop to Arab regimes sympathetic to the Trump administration. He decried Iranian “assistance to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist networks,” and said “The regime harbored high-level terrorists in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, including Osama bin Laden’s son,” linking Iran to both 9/11 and bin Laden himself. As a final flourish, he boasted, like a class bully in the company of political allies who may disagree with him, that with respect to the Iran nuclear deal, “our participation can be canceled by me, as president, at any time.”

It’s a lost opportunity for detente — a message that Trump wants the JCPOA to collapse — and it’s one that rests on a fruitless perpetuation of a cartoonlike view of Iran as a nation.

Iran is not the same country that took American diplomats hostage in 1979, not in terms of who its people are. It is not the same country that Trump, or anyone over 60, myself included, remembers — one that had scowling and shouting men in beards and screaming women in black chadors, stomping on and burning American flags in 1980, just when we were entering adulthood and the country was struggling to move beyond the Vietnam War. Today, many of those revolutionaries are in jail, under house arrest, in exile, retired or simply tired, or dead.

Today, anyone burning an American flag is likely trying to gain favor with someone who wants it done as a political stunt, or they’ve been bribed with anything from a free lunch to subsidized college education for his kid. But there’s rarely any conviction behind the chants of “death to America,” for which Trump took umbrage during his address. Even the chant itself, always misunderstood in the West, was always meant to be translated much more as “down with” than “death to.” Iranians, a people who daily will wish “death” upon themselves — as in khak bar saram, literally “dust upon my head” as an exclamation of dismay — are given to hyperbole, as much in their famous praise and politesse (or ta’arouf, as it’s known in Farsi) as in their condemnations. More than a few times in my reporting from Tehran over the years have I said something vaguely blasphemous in company whereby rather than be scolded, I’ve heard a family member wish death upon herself as a dramatic penance for my words. Even more times, I’ve heard dirt wished upon the head of a TV presenter, minor celebrity or politician who has given offense.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) slammed President Trump's decision to de-certify the Iran nuclear deal on Oct. 13, calling it a "grave mistake." (Video: Reuters)

Trump put Iran on par with universally despised groups — al-Qaeda and the Taliban — that are enemies of Iran. And though it’s true that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard makes no bones about its support for groups we have designated terrorist, namely Hezbollah and Hamas, their policy is better understood as a matter of national strategy, not sentiment; in Tehran’s view, these groups counter or contain Iran’s regional adversaries. But the policy is no proxy for the views of the Iranian people.

Iran is, today, a society of young men and women who have no memories of the revolution, of the social freedoms that existed for their fathers and mothers, or of the brutality of SAVAK, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s secret police, which put the fear of god in anyone thinking of even whispering a word in protest to any royal dictate. They certainly have no memories of the American/British sponsored coup in 1953, one that removed from their parents’ and grandparents’ collective consciousness any notion of democratic rule in their country — forever, they thought. The government keeps the story alive, of course, to convince its people that the West has never held benevolent intentions toward them. But they have vague memories, if at all, of the turbulence that was supposed to remove malevolent foreign control over their destiny, and how the fruits it promised, perhaps, did not materialize for some of them, if not for most of them. It is they — these tens of millions of Iranian boys and girls, most of whom went to the ballot box twice in the last five years to resoundingly choose a government that represented to them the future, not the past, as so many hard-line conservatives in Iran insist on doing — who are shedding collective tears today.

Tears for the loss of hope, and for what might have been — what thousands danced in the streets for in 2015, after the nuclear deal was agreed to, and again in 2017, when the candidate who had promised the deal, President Hassan Rouhani, was reelected.

The enthusiasm and hope that Iranians exhibited in electing and reelecting Rouhani, and in celebrating Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who negotiated the nuclear deal, had not been so public in Iranian politics since the failure of the Green Movement to move anything substantially in 2009. Trump first expressed sympathy for these Iranian youths — and Iran’s citizens in general — in his inaugural address to the United Nations General Assembly, saying, “The longest-suffering victims of Iran’s leaders are, in fact, its own people.” But these words rang hollow to them then as they do now — especially with the president’s revised travel ban about to go into effect, deeming them unworthy of even a visit to this country.

What Trump either doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to know, is that Iranians may not all like their government or even the political system, but they also don’t take kindly to an American president lecturing them on the evil nature of a government that they stood in line for hours to vote into office just a few months ago. They reject the suggestion that their choice, after the failure of the 2009 protests, to bring about gradual reform — including the initial step toward rapprochement that the JCPOA represents — through the ballot box, rather than bloody revolution, was the wrong one.

[The Trump administration’s tragic misstep on Iran]

Most Iranians don’t like the fact that Iran’s hard-liners, who lost at the polls, still manage to block most reforms their government tries to implement — but they will sit silent if that elected government is forced to concede that on the United States, at least, the hard-liners were right.

Iranians certainly don’t like the implication that their military, which has prosecuted its own part of the war against the Islamic State, is hardly better than the Islamic State itself. When Trump directs his Treasury Department “to further sanction the entire Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps for its support for terrorism and to apply sanctions to its officials, agents and affiliates,” setting up conditions that allow the sanctioning or fining of any entity worldwide that does business, knowingly or unknowingly, with the IRGC, he’s playing straight to the caricatured notion of Middle Easterners — whether Sunni, Shiite, Christian, Arab, Persian, Turk, terrorist, legitimate government or otherwise — as one big undifferentiated mass.

Trump, who instinctively understands the power and appeal of nationalism and who believes in the exceptionalism of an America that is less than 300 years old, doesn’t seem to acknowledge that Iranians are deeply nationalistic, too, and believe in the exceptionalism of an Iran that is approaching 3,000 years old. When the president asks, before the U.N., “will the Iranian people return to the nation’s proud roots as a center of civilization, culture, and wealth where their people can be happy and prosperous once again,” he’s saying, in effect, that at present they’re little better than savages.

Often, in the past, Iranians blamed their government, or political system, for many of their woes. Today, they will blame the United States for extending the decades-long purgatory of uncertainty — and that’s what Trump’s Iran policy does — around their economic prospects, around reforms to civil society and around their prospects for better relations with not just with the United States but the entire world.

Iranians — and that includes many government officials — long to be a “normal” country, with and without disputes and disagreements with neighbors and other nations. The nuclear deal is itself evidence of that. And if, through that deal, brand new Boeing airliners appear at Tehran airports in Iran Air livery next year, while they might not lift the standard of living of most Iranians or offer them new jobs, they will, after a decades-long absence, after a devastating eight-year war, after years of sanctions and of Iranians holding passports that were unwelcome and suspicious in most countries in the world, after feeling deeply misunderstood by Westerners, to Iranians it would signal that their country is becoming normal.

Trump’s raining on that Iranian parade will not change Iranian “behavior” in the region, it will not eliminate one ballistic missile, will not encourage nuclear caution and likely will not bring about peace in the Middle East. It will, however, risk greater proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region, signal to allies and adversaries alike that American negotiators are not to be trusted and validate the hard-liners inside Iran while undermining the reformists and pragmatists. Sadly, it can also turn what many writers, journalists, observers and travelers have described as the most pro-American population in the region — one that has pushed its successive governments to resolve their country’s differences with the United States — into potentially one of the most anti-American.

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that SAVAK was formed during the reign of Shah Reza Pahlavi.