The portrayal of the United States as a hostile adversary has helped hard-line conservatives to maintain their position within Iran’s political system over the past 40 years.
In the first week of May, the Trump administration accelerated the deployment of an aircraft carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf, based on what it called “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings” regarding Iranian threats toward US allies and military personnel in the region. This move has been perceived as a threat by the Iranian side, prompting it to allegedly start mobilizing forces in response. These recent developments have caused widespread concern regarding an imminent war between the two countries.
Despite these recent escalations, however, the Trump administration has publicly announced that its campaign of “maximum pressure” aims to promote a change of behavior from the Iranian regime, and that the United States is not pursuing a full-fledged war against the Islamic Republic. With the memory of the Iraq War still vivid for many Americans, coupled with Iran’s obvious military superiority compared to Iraq under Saddam Hussein, it is unlikely that Washington would initiate a full-scale invasion of Iran. The Trump administration is also facing international skepticism regarding the accuracy of its recent allegations against Iran, and international powers have called for self-restraint on both sides.
Although currently chances of a full-fledged war between the two countries might be low, the increasing presence of the US military in the Persian Gulf and the mobilization by Iran in response does serve to heighten the possibility of a dangerous confrontation. Such a confrontation might be limited, and not necessarily a doorway to annihilation. However, even a small-scale conflict between the two countries would not only negate any possible behavior change from Iran, but would also give Iranian hard-liners a chance to further pursue an anti-American agenda and establish political dominance over the country’s reformist government. This will threaten short-term American interests in the region and put the two countries on an irreversible course toward more bloodshed, endangering the stability of the region for years, or even decades, to come.
Shadows of a Bitter Past
To understand the current state of affairs, one must note how Iranian conservatives frame their animosity toward the United Sates, to the point that it constitutes a raison d’être. This hostile relationship could be traced back to the 1953 CIA-led coup d’état, in which the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, was overthrown right after he attempted the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, anti-American sentiment was further aggravated when the Carter administration agreed to allow the overthrown shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, into the United States for medical treatment. The fact that the US had refused to extradite the shah to the newly established Islamic Republic motivated an angry mob to attack the US Embassy in Tehran, holding American diplomats hostage for over a year.
It is important to note that in contemporary conservative dialogue in Iran, the memory of the American-led coup is used to rationalize the fear of future American meddling in order to crush the Islamic regime, and the hostage crisis is justified as a heroic act of saving the revolution. The hostages were finally released after 444 days, but the relationship between the two countries never recovered. As William Beeman mentions in his book, The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs,” “in a myopic, almost dogged manner, the United States persisted in digging into a ready-made villain’s role within the symbolic structure of Iranian society.”
Conservative rhetoric that pictures the US as the “Great Satan” finds another defining factor for anti-American sentiment during the Iran-Iraq War. Conservatives blame America not only for financially supporting Saddam Hussein, but also for providing Iraq with intelligence and weapons that were used to kill Iranians. Once again, the fact that the actual adversary was the Iraqi regime, in the eyes of the conservatives in Tehran Saddam was merely a puppet, and it was actually America that Iran was fighting. This view was solidified when the United States shot down an Iranian passenger plane in July 1988, killing 290 civilians on board. Consequently, when Iran finally managed to take back its occupied territories from Iraq the same year, it was also cheered as a victory against the United States.
This image of the US as a hostile adversary has helped the conservatives to maintain their position within Iran’s political system over the past 40 years. The state-supported right-wing media has also contributed to the cementing of this narrative by using religious symbolism and emphasizing the sacrifices made by millions of Iranian people in their fight against the evils of the United States.
A Breeze of Change
However, with the end of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, and after a period of reconstruction and stabilization in Iran, a new political movement emerged. It aimed to reform the political and social status quo and bring change by expanding individual freedoms and renovating the country’s strict social structure. Iranians welcomed this ideology and, in 1997, Mohammad Khatami became Iran’s first reformist president. Khatami supported and implemented relatively progressive changes within the traditional structure of the country that caused backlash from the conservative political figures. Internationally, President Khatami’s greatest legacy was his attempt to revive Iran’s position in the international community. In a speech at the UN General Assembly in October 1998, Khatami emphasized the need for “dialogue among civilizations” as an anti-thesis to avoid a “clash of civilizations.”
Although far from perfect, especially considering Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts, the ideology of avoiding war through negotiation has become the most defining aspect of the reformist movement in Iran, even more characteristic than its initial steps toward expanding social and individual freedoms. The reformist coalition lost the 2005 and 2009 elections to the conservative Mahmud Ahmadinejad, during whose administration Tehran took a hard-line position against the international community regarding its concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s non-compromising attitude not only caused a set of crippling UN sanctions on the country’s oil-dependent economy, but also heightened the risks of confrontation between Iran and the US, with American officials threatening that “all the options are on the table.”
However, in 2013, amidst escalating tensions, the Iranians used their ballots as a way to prove to themselves and the outside world that they wanted negotiations, not war, by electing the moderate reformist Hassan Rouhani as president and supporting his parliamentary coalition known as the Fraction of Hope. Through the work of President Rouhani and his team, Iran managed to come to an agreement regarding its nuclear activity and sign the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as Iran nuclear deal, in 2015 to ensure a better and safer future.
The nuclear deal was also a way to counter the hard-line conservative narrative of history, which portrayed the United States as an enemy that cannot be trusted. It would revive the Iranian people’s hope toward a future without the fear of war with the US. It could also revitalize the country’s economy and bring back prosperity to everyday life in Iran. At least that is what President Rouhani and other reformist figures emphasized vigorously during and after the negotiations.
In the current political atmosphere in Iran, even a small confrontation with the US would give the conservatives an excellent opportunity to divert the public’s attention from the devastating economic situation and the rampant abuse of human rights in the country.
This political performance altered the relationship between the Iranian reformists and conservatives in an odd way. Conservatives were skeptical about any profitable outcome from the very beginning of the nuclear negotiations, and believed the United States to be untrustworthy. They were convinced that the country’s economic problems can only be solved from within the country and not with the help of the West, which in their view had only betrayed Iran, shed Iranian blood and destabilized the Middle East. In other words, during the nuclear talks between Iran and the 5+1 countries, an obvious political polarization occurred that would focus solely on the country’s behavior toward the United States.
Miscalculations and Misunderstandings
Whilst by signing the JCPOA President Rouhani and his administration scored a win for the reformist narrative, they were not given the opportunity to celebrate their achievements. President Donald Trump’s hostile actions regarding the Islamic Republic, especially his move to unilaterally withdraw the US form the agreement, has helped Iran’s conservatives to regain their already lost popularity. It is important to notice how Trump’s decision is fully in line with the conservative’s view of America as untrustworthy. The conservatives used this chance to attack the reformist administration as harshly as they could, blatantly turning every shortcoming in the country into attack on reformist ideology. This strategy, coupled with the current economic difficulties, which are also heavily affected by the Trump administration’s decision to reimpose economic sanctions on Iran, has caused a decline in the reformist movement’s popularity.
On the other hand, the conservative forces in Iran have pursued the Shia crescent policy, expanding their sphere of influence in countries with large Shia Muslim populations. Iran’s involvement in Iraq to fight the Islamic State and its support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria are significant cases in which the Iranian military directly participates in regional conflicts to maintain and further expand Tehran’s influence. Iran also provides financial support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Such regional interventions are also widely supported by the conservative political forces in Iran. Once again, the conservative narrative depicts alarmed regional rivals such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as mere minions of the “Great Satan” and emphasizes the need to confront these evils. Iranian conservative newspapers and state-run television use the exact rhetoric that was in place during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. By magnifying the lives lost in the wars in Iraq or Syria, for example, Iran’s conservatives focus on the concept of martyrdom in Shia ideology to picture the country’s meddling as a holy task.
Consequently, the victory against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is salvaged as a sign to show that an agenda of “resistance” has been successful. At the same time, conservatives marginalize their reformist counterparts as naïve and gullible for attempting to keep Iran in compliance with an already dead deal, which has further heightened tensions between Iran and the West.
In the current political atmosphere in Iran, even a small confrontation with the US would give the conservatives an excellent opportunity to divert the public’s attention from the devastating economic situation and the rampant abuse of human rights in the country. This is already visible in a set of nonsensical and sometimes even contradictory statements made by Iranian conservative figures and disseminated by their followers on social media. On the one hand, the conservatives are promoting the idea of a strong Iran in terms of military superiority and the country’s ties with international superpowers, which in their view would scare the Americans off. However, a second argument exaggerates Iran’s victory against “American puppets” in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Based on this view point, war with America is an inevitable destiny for the country and will eventually lead to Iran’s glorious victory, considering the fact that the loss of life does not necessarily work as a deterrent for those who support the war.
Moreover, conservatives would use any such bloodshed to manufacture a holy cause against the Americans, and through their own framing of the situation play the role of heroes who are defending the victimhood of the Shia ideology. Therefore, just as the Iran-Iraq War is framed as a blessing that helped unify the country against foreign adversaries, a confrontation with the United States would also consolidate a polarized political atmosphere inside Iran.
On the reformist side, however, even a small confrontation with the US would have irreversible consequences on the reputation and the popularity of the reformist narration. With the extreme polarization of policy regarding the relationship with the United States, the Iranian reformists promoted dialogue, negotiation and cooperation as an instrument to avoid war and boost the country’s economy. A goal that was briefly achieved by the Iran nuclear deal once again seems out of reach following the US withdrawal and the reimposition of economic sanctions.
As has been suggested by the former US Secretary of State John Kerry, the Iranian reformists are desperately trying to wait Trump out, and hope for a better relationship with the next president of America. This dramatic hope, however, would wane if war, even in the form of relatively minor clashes, breaks out. This would provide hard-line Iranian conservatives with the necessary momentum to wipe out not only the reformist movement itself, but also the ideology of change and reform within Iran.
From a short-term viewpoint, a show of power through limited military campaigns might appear to be an option to force “behavioral change” on the Iranian regime. In the long run, however, due to the fundamental ideological hostility toward the West among Iran’s hard-liners, military confrontation would possibly lead to a more serious clash between Iran and the United States.
If America is truly hoping for change in Iran, it should let its people follow the same path of electing relatively West-friendly reformists, and wait for the change to come gradually while trying to control Iranian intervention in the region through diplomatic channels. Any kind of confrontation between the Iranian and US troops would likely further discredit the reformists’ viewpoint toward Washington and its intentions, and help an anti-American hard-line narrative to solidify its dominance in Iran. This would be, without a doubt, the end of hope for the Iranian people.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.