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Confronting Iran: Jaw-Jaw or War-War?

If Western governments regard Iran as an adversary, they should really know their adversary, not just think that they do.

Much of the rhetoric about Iran emanating from Donald Trump’s team throughout 2016 was cast in the negative terms typically used by the so-called alt-right. This is unsurprising, since Trump’s senior supporters and campaign leaders included such alt-right champions as Steve Bannon, former editor of the right-wing Breitbart News, retired Lt. General Mike Flynn, who is renowned for his anti-Muslim rhetoric, Senators Mike Pompeo and Dan Coats, both of whom have taken an unashamedly anti-Iran stance and, last but not least, retired General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who is reported to hold a long-standing grudge against Iran.

All five were formally appointed to President Trump’s top team on his inauguration in January 2017, although Flynn was forced to resign in February following a major protocol scandal involving his communications with the Russian government. In addition, there are others with hard-line anti-Iran commitments in the president’s entourage — for example John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, and Sebastian Gorka, his national security adviser.

From such antecedents, it is reasonable to infer that the new US administration is likely to be far more aggressive toward Iran than has been the case for the past decade. At this early stage, it is not certain what form this anti-Iranian policy will take. However, it may be assumed that, in line with Trump’s public statements, the Trump administration will try to cancel or disrupt the locus standi of the Iran nuclear non-proliferation deal signed on in July 2015 between Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and the European Union and implemented in January 2016.

In addition, existing US sanctions against Iran are likely to be continued, if not added to, and indeed an Iranian ballistic missile test prompted a set of additional US sanctions on February 3, 2017, accompanied by anti-Iranian statements by Trump and several of his top team. Beyond all this, and given the rhetoric thus far from the Trump administration, the possibility of US military action against Iran is now much greater, although still doubtful.

Terrorism in the Alt-Right World View

World view refers to a complex set of perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, values and motivations that characterize how an individual or a group of people interpret the world and their own existence. Such characteristic biases predict the stance likely to be taken on a particular topic and the likely behavior.

The alt-right world view is one in which the US in all respects is threatened by outsiders manifested, for example, by Glenn Beck’s 2015 book on what he asserts is the Islamic threat or Trump’s executive order of 27 January 2017 banning US visas for visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries and his subsequent justification on the grounds of preventing terrorist attacks inside the US.

This model is essentially one of a disease analogue in which the US is surrounded by pathogens, where the only safe response is to adopt the precautionary principle of total eradication of the threats if possible or, if not, to apply aggressive control treatments.

A preferred total knockout, zero-sum approach has its attractions and meets populist expectations. However, even in the biological world, total eradication of a particular disease is extremely difficult. In the complex socio-political world of international relations, which involves infinitely more unpredictable variables, expecting to eradicate threats bound up in other people’s beliefs and ideologies is wishful thinking.

Nevertheless, even with all its difficulties, the author argues that eradication may well be the only practical primary strategy for some specific threats such as extreme ideological terrorism. Many such terrorists are psychopaths who, by definition, inflict harm on others without conscience or remorse. Many of them are criminal psychopaths who use a warped pseudo-religious ideological cloak to indulge in mass murder, torture, rape, theft and ethnic cleansing.

With ISIS, al-Qaeda and their associated groups, for example, such psychopaths by definition are not amenable to persuasion, negotiation or any appeal to humanity. They are immutable, fixated, relentless and irredeemable. Containment is not viable. Destruction of their operational capacity and financing, coupled with their capture or death, may be the only realistic response.

Iran in the Alt-Right World-View

Whereas the all stick and no carrot approach to ISIS, al-Qaeda and their extremist fellow travelers (who falsely claim to be acting for and on behalf of Islam) may be valid, it does not make sense if and when applied undifferentiated to all others who comprise the vast majority of Muslims. This is where the alt-right world-view on Iran is inappropriate.

It may come as a surprise to some of the alt-right to learn that the Iranian regime views ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Taliban with abhorrence, primarily because they reject not only the Shia branch of Islam practiced in Iran but also the Iranian modernistic view of Islam which embraces industrialization, science and technology, universal education and universal health care as well as formally encouraging female emancipation (up to a point).

These extremist terrorist groups regard the Iranian model as anathema, as they want to regress to the laws and mores of the 13th century. That partly explains why Iran is backing anti-ISIS groups in Iraq and Syria and supporting the Afghan government. The mutual hatred goes back to the period of Taliban control in Afghanistan, when in August 1998 10 Iranian diplomats and a journalist kidnapped by the Taliban in Mazar-e Sharif were murdered in cold blood. This nearly provoked a major Iranian military invasion that was in the end called off, perhaps because Iran did not want to get sucked into the Afghan quagmire.

Alt-right negative assumptions about and pejorative characteristics of Iran appear to lie in inaccurate knowledge. Although anti-Iran rhetoric is legion in the United States, examples in the UK include the vituperative nonsense voiced by the former UK justice secretary, Michael Gove, in his Times column of December 2, 2016. To be sure, there is good reason to be concerned about many aspects of the Iranian regime, such as its support for Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, various religious fatwas inciting murder of named individuals, human rights issues and, of course, the nuclear issue.

However, to suggest or imply that the Iranian regime is just a bunch of psychopaths like ISIS is preposterous. Ignorance and prejudice about the Other, whether in Washington or Tehran, has been around a long time and, in a risk profile of Iran in Managing Risk published in 1998, I described it as “mutually assured paranoia.”

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Dr. Ali Ansari, a leading Iran expert, put it well in his 2006 book Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Next Great Conflict in the Middle East: The paranoid xenophobia and crisis culture that has characterized parts of the Iranian regime for years is little different to that which has long existed in parts of the US government, the neocons of the Bush administration and now the alt-right. In many respects, they are mirror images of each other.

Beware of selective prejudice and hypocrisy. For example, if it is US policy to have good relations with, if not give active support to, regimes in countries with poor records on human rights and extra-territorial aggression, such as Turkey and Russia, why is Iran treated so differently?

Arguably, Iran’s limited military forays abroad since the Iran-Iraq War have all been in legitimate defense of its national security. Iran fears encirclement by hostile regimes or those acting as proxies for Western hegemony (as they see it). As the lead nation of the minority Shia Muslims in the region, they fear being overrun by the majority Sunni Muslim regimes, notably Saudi Arabia, which partly explains Iran’s support for the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen against Saudi domination.

From an Iranian perspective, its support for Assad in Syria and the Houthis in Yemen is necessary for its own long-term sovereign defense. The Middle East is Iran’s backyard and it wants to keep out undesirables (as it sees them), just as the US forced Russian missiles out of Cuba in the 1960s and maintains a healthy vigilance against hostile regimes in Central and South America.

While the Iran oil embargo under UN sanctions was pursued publicly with much fanfare by successive US administrations, covertly it has been a very different story. Well-placed sources have reported privately for some years that American companies were prominent in the largely successful oil sanctions-busting by Iran. A reasonable question is why those companies and senior executives involved have not been prosecuted by the US authorities. It would be incredible to suggest that the US government did not know about it. Is this hypocrisy, just plain realpolitik, or both?

The apparent double standards toward the Iran oil sanctions predate the recent rise of the alt-right. So too did the double standards toward the UN embargo on arms sales to Iran, in which in the mid-1980s the US authorized covert arms sales to Iran as a means primarily to covertly fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. The plan involved using Israel as the go-between cut-out to physically supply the arms to Iran via intermediaries for payment and then get resupplied by the US. After the scandal broke, a number of senior US government officials were prosecuted and several were convicted, but punishments were lenient and the convictions were subsequently either overturned or pardoned.

Terrorism or What?

There is some factual evidence of Iranian terrorism, such as fatwa-inspired overseas attacks following the Salman Rushdie affair and the political assassination of dissident Iranian-Kurdish leaders in Germany in 1997, as well as plenty of other allegations. Was the invasion of the US Embassy in Tehran by a revolutionary student mob in 1979, and the holding of US hostages for 444 days, an act of terrorism?

President Jimmy Carter described it as such. Part of the revolutionaries’ anti-American justification (as they saw it) no doubt stemmed from the CIA’s successfully directed coup in 1953 against the democratically-elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, which Britain supported through MI6 and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (part of BP). The US became tagged as shetan-e bozorg (The Great Satan), while the UK was tagged shetan-e kuchik (The Little Satan). Iranian memories are long and unforgiving, both on this matter and on the fact that the US backed Saddam Hussein to the hilt when he attacked Iran in 1980 and throughout the 8-year Iran-Iraq War.

In July 1988, the USS Vincennes shot down an unarmed Iran Air civilian airliner on a routine scheduled flight from Shiraz to Dubai, with the loss of all 290 passengers and crew. According to the sobering detailed account by Ansari, human error, poor training and panic among the Vincennes crew resulted in the airbus being mistaken for a threatening aircraft.

President Ronald Reagan awarded the Vincennes captain a distinguished service medal. The US government paid compensation at local cost of living rate but refused to accept responsibility. Iran has accepted that the shooting down was not deliberate and has not treated this incident as an act of US state terrorism. However, it is hardly likely to forgive the refusal to accept responsibility, much less the lauding of the Vincennes captain and crew.

These various examples are presented not as indicating any form of moral equivalence but to indicate that regimes of all kinds everywhere frequently do reprehensible things. There are no complete saints and complete sinners in this world.

Iran-Israel Relations

The well publicized war of words between successive governments in Iran and Israel has lasted for decades. The Israeli position is that Iran is the arch-sponsor of state terrorism, while Iran accuses Israel of inhumanity and depraved indifference to its treatment of the Palestinians.

However, it is simply untrue to state that the Iranian regime as a whole wants to wipe Israel off the map. The anti-Israeli rhetoric to that effect of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is no more representative of the Iranian regime and society than is President Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican rhetoric representative of the United States. Whereas the general population in Iran may dislike the Israeli regime for its anti-Palestinian excesses that does not translate into a visceral hatred of Israelis or Jews in general.

For example, at a mundane level, the songs “White Dove” and “All My Joys” by Iranian-born Israeli popstar Rita are as popular in Tehran as in Tel Aviv. The small Jewish population numbering some 20,000 are guaranteed a parliamentary seat under the constitution. Jewish-owned businesses, kosher restaurants and synagogues function freely, none of which squares with popular Western prejudice.


The hardliners certainly tend not to want rapprochement with the West but only a minority of them are extremist in the way that the alt-right rhetoric suggests. I have personally witnessed and experienced in Iran the duality within the regime, which seems to have established a steady-state coexistence.


More intriguing are reported but unverified covert trade and technology deals (long after the Iran Contra era) between Israel and Iran. Israel’s President Benjamin Netanyahu is reported recently as softening his outright opposition to the Iran nuclear deal, following intelligence reports citing recognized benefits for compliance monitoring. Up to 1979, Iran and Israel were close allies.

An eventual Iran-Israel rapprochement? While perhaps unlikely at present, never say never.

The Weakness of the Alt-Right World View 

The examples above suggest that far from being a simple conflict between those who the alt-right might assert to be 100% good guys — the US — and those deemed to be 100% bad guys — Iran —what emerges is far more complex. Loathing of the Other comes from fear — the fear of domination or of losing dominant power, fear of threats (real or imagined), fear of cultural annihilation or creeping cultural takeover and so on. Fear of the Other is fueled by ignorance about the Other.

The problem with the alt-right analysis of Iran is that it does not exhibit any real knowledge or expertise on the subject. Rather, as with Michael Gove’s Times article last December, it suggests a remote armchair amateur analysis based on prejudice and received wisdom by individuals who have never actually been there. My personal knowledge of Iran over the past 45 years enables me to offer some challenges to alt-right assumptions and interpretations.

An important salient fact is that the Iranian regime is not monolithic but comprises two competing factions — the hardliners and the modernists — a situation that has existed since at least the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988. There is, in effect, not one regime but two, constantly jockeying for ascendancy.

The hardliners certainly tend not to want rapprochement with the West but only a minority of them are extremist in the way that the alt-right rhetoric suggests. I have personally witnessed and experienced in Iran the duality within the regime, which seems to have established a steady-state coexistence. Hardliners control one set of ministries, the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the armed forces, while modernists control other ministries and functions.

While the modernists and the majority population want change and rapprochement with the West, few want another revolution, given the bloodshed of the one in 1979. The majority population are also fiercely patriotic and they will rally to the flag at any sniff of externally sponsored uprising.

Hawks in the new Trump administration would be ill-advised to contemplate underwriting a Bay of Pigs-style invasion or a Najaf-style uprising. All in the region remember how in February 1991 the US via radio broadcasts provoked the Najaf and Karbala uprisings in Iraq and then sat back, refused to support them with arms and supplies and allowed Saddam Hussein to massacre them unchecked.

The alt-right analysis also fails to address cogently why Iran is engaging in multiple conflicts within the Middle East, which implies simply that it’s because the Iranians are evil, terrorist expansionists.

There are three main reasons for their stance in the past 25 years. First, defense of sovereignty and territorial integrity and bitter memories of the CIA/MI6-sponsored coup in 1953, and then the 1980 invasion by Iraq fully backed by the West. Second, fear of encirclement by hostile regimes or proxies of hostile Western regimes. Third, resurgent nationalism.

Iran was the regional power for 2,500 years. It now seeks to re-establish itself as the “natural” power-holder and wielder in the Middle East, acting as a stabilizing buffer between the chaos of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and domination of the Gulf states by Saudi Arabia. Developing good trade and diplomatic relations with Turkey, Russia, China, India and the Central Asian republics helps cement the role. President Vladimir Putin has long recognized Iran’s beneficial stabilizing role in Russia’s southern backyard.

The Iranian fear and mistrust of the West should not be underestimated. While the people are overwhelmingly friendly toward Western visitors, they still harbor deeply-held beliefs that the US and Britain in particular are always up to no good. I have heard many times the assertion Kar-e inglis hast! — It’s the work of the British! — when something awful has happened in Iran.

There was even a long-running humorous TV soap entitled My Dear Uncle Napoleon based on this metaphor. Iranian officials used to mock, albeit it with good humor, the author’s name: “Ah, Dr. Waring, you’re not coming to wage war on us, are you?” The British are still seen, wrongly I believe, as the perennial cunning foxes, always scheming to Iran’s detriment.

Resigning to the Status Quo

Today, there is little evidence of any popular hatred in Iran toward either the British or the Americans, but more a mood of resignation to the status quo and incomprehension of the alt-right’s anti-Muslim and anti-Iran stance. The marg bar Amrika (death to America) mural on Karim Khan Zand Avenue is but a faded irrelevance to most Tehranis. The long-closed US embassy on Dr. Moffateh Avenue looks forlorn but apparently officially protected, save for some falafel hawkers who rather bizarrely have commandeered a side entrance. Trump and his team are dismissed as a mystifying parody of presidential conduct and good governance.

In relations with Iran, greater understanding, emotional intelligence and communication are needed rather than an aggressive, zero-sum knockout approach. A Western-style efficiency-based rectilinear thinking in dealing with Iran needs to change to the more helical, long-term Iranian approach to negotiation and problem solving. If they regard Iran as an adversary, Western governments should really know their adversary, not just think that they do.

Rather than simply bludgeoning presumed enemies, it may be better to put one’s self in their shoes, to understand their perspective and reasoning while not necessarily agreeing with it or accepting it. The EU’s Critical Dialogue policy toward Iran, for example, has been productive, but of course anything with the EU tag is likely to be dismissed by alt-right prejudice.

Perhaps if the bust of Sir Winston Churchill in the Oval Office could come alive, it would quote from his 1939 speech and say: “Remember Donald, jaw-jaw is always better than war-war.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: leminuit