The Trump administration’s top foreign affairs officials are issuing threats against Iran, and the media is suddenly focused on the possibility of a war with the Islamic republic. The regime in Tehran, not to be outdone, makes counterthreats that only fan the rhetorical flames.
But, as tensions rise, the voices of one crucial group are missing: the Iranian people.
Most Americans know war through their television screens or perhaps the military service of a relative or friend. Firsthand knowledge of armed conflict on our own soil is an experience that, thankfully, few of us have.
For Iranians, though, it’s different. Any military strike will almost certainly take many Iranian lives on Iranian territory. And those who will suffer most have little say in the matter. It’s the Iranian people who have borne the brunt of 40 years of enmity between the United States and the Islamic republic, and in the current standoff, they stand to lose the most yet again.
Unlike Americans, Iranians have already endured a vicious war in their homeland in recent memory — the war with Iraq, from 1980 to 1988. Every Iranian knows someone who died in that war.
Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives. Murals of many of them adorn public spaces, and throughout the country — in big cities and small towns — streets were renamed after kids who grew up on them and then paid the ultimate price in a battle. Those memorials serve as a constant reminder to survivors of the toll of war.
Turn on the television in Iran and you can’t avoid grainy footage from the front lines of that war. The state attempts to glorify the national sacrifice, but no one wants to endure that again. Despite a range of political opinions and future aspirations among the Iranian public, the desire for long-term peace and stability is one point that binds them.
At the moment, though, Iranians are confused and unsure how to react to the escalating tensions. Should they prepare by hoarding nonperishable food? Convert their money to dollars as the Iranian currency tumbles in value? Or flee the country? These are the questions Iranians are nervously asking each other and their relatives abroad as they brace for the next piece of bad news.
There is little evidence of Iranians rushing to defend the current regime. But there is equally little evidence that Iranians welcome the form of armed regime change evidently being planned by John Bolton. They simply don’t want war.
Yes, the people of Iran have made it amply clear that they want to live more like we do in the West, with fewer restrictions on their personal freedoms. They’ve expressed this view through countless protests, through private conversations and even through the vast numbers of satellite antennas they’ve installed on their roofs so they can receive information from the outside world.
The clearest example is the sustained and dramatic rejection by many Iranian women of the main symbol of the Islamic republic’s state-sponsored gender apartheid. For the past 18 months, a growing number of women have been going out in public without wearing the compulsory hijab.
Such defiance was unfathomable when I arrived in the country in 2009. While women’s demands for fairer treatment have been growing for years, they still have a long way to go.
There have been many moments over the past decade when the United States could have engaged directly with Iranian civil society and the Iranian people. Many such projects were planned — and then shelved. Some of the plans included exchange programs that would have given Iranian journalists the opportunity to report from the United States for domestic audiences. Others would have allowed scientists to share information about looming environmental crises, or given tech entrepreneurs access to top IT college programs or partnerships with Silicon Valley start-ups.
Instead, resources that could nourish internal agents of change were diverted toward poorly conceived and underinformed efforts to promote our goals from outside Iran’s borders. Today, State Department programs have little measurable impact on Iranian civil society. Indeed, U.S. policies over the past few decades have always seemed out of touch with aspirations of the Iranian people. Perhaps by design?
The United States — this administration and previous ones — has consistently rejected engaging with Iranian civil society. The White House remains fixated on the regime and does nothing to support the actual aspirations of the Iranian people. Our harsh sanctions have only made things worse by lowering living standards and conveying a sense of implacable hostility toward the general population. Meanwhile, threats of military action merely force people into a corner, giving them the unenviable choice of rallying behind a regime that enjoys little popular sympathy, or watching powerlessly as a great foreign power inflicts great pain and suffering on them. How can we declare having the Iranian people’s best interests at heart and then threaten them with overwhelming force?
We can no longer credibly claim to not know better, and we can’t have it both ways. Supporting Iranian democracy is a noble endeavor, but not if we kill innocents in the process.