Iran is not exceptional, but in the United States, it is treated as if it is.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on the fortieth anniversary of the 1979 revolution, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said: “We have never been forgiven by the United States for having exercised our right to self-determination. As a result, we have long been the target of an unhealthy fixation—let us say an obsession—which continues to this very day.”
Zarif has since become a direct target of economic sanctions. The US government’s “obsession” with the Islamic Republic of Iran is reaching a fever pitch. Not for the first time in history, the Persian Gulf threatens to become a theatre of war between the world’s most powerful military force and what retired US General John Abizaid has called the Middle East’s “most powerful military force” (exempting Israel).
The term theatre is apt. It captures the melodramatic underpinnings of US-Iranian relations for the last half-century. It was not always like this. Think of President Jimmy Carter on New Year’s Eve in 1977, dressed to the nines, raising a champagne glass. Locking eyes with the Shah and the empress flanking him on either side, Carter proclaims the enduring relationship with his prized partner an “island of stability.” Once upon a time, the affair between the US and Iran seemed unbreakable. Daily flights between Tehran and New York ferried students, businessmen, diplomats, and revelers. Tens of thousands of American advisors and businesses resided in Iran. While others in the region proved wary and distant, beleaguered by experiences with direct colonization, Iran offered a reliable and supportive relationship. It played the part of a femininized post-colonial state to perfection, enabling US foreign policy in moments when—with the Nixon Doctrine, for instance—the global hegemon was not as powerful as projected.
As happens in many relationships, things turned rocky. Already a decade before the revolution, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the country’s final monarch, flirted with other world powers to varying degrees of success. After years of unconditional commitment to US geopolitical interests, Iran was looking elsewhere. However feeble (or sincere) the Shah's attempts to assert national autonomy and separate himself from Pax Americana, it fell to the Iranian people to finalize the divorce.
Forty years ago, our parents’ generation took to the streets by the millions in a popular revolution that overthrew the self-declared King of Kings (Shahanshah). Another kind of divorce was afoot, this one a genuinely domestic drama. Iranians forcibly claimed what rightfully belonged to Iranians: their self-determination. In divorcing themselves from the Shah, they were also challenging the state’s geopolitical relationship with the United States.
For forty years since, policymakers in both states have conflated the Iranian people’s separation from the Shah with the state’s break with the United States. Correctives to these accounts falsely imagine an irrevocable gulf between state and society. Little space remains to think Iranian politics between these extremes.
The Longue Durée of an Abusive Relationship
Since the turn of the twentieth century, Iran has been compelled to play by the rules of the nation-state system. It has refashioned sovereignty in territorial terms even when doing so contravened its interests and contradicted its efforts to transcend the nation-state. In 1900, in exchange for a pittance, a British financier named William Knox D’Arcy acquired a sixty-year tax-free monopoly over the discovery, production, and export of oil in southern Iran. Under British pressure, Mozaffar al-Din Shah ratified the D’Arcy concession in 1901. Eight years later, both D’Arcy and the British state were rewarded with the discovery of oil in Masjed Soleiman, casting a long shadow over any future concession of territorial sovereignty by the Iranian state. In 1951, Iran took a seat at the table, using the rules-based liberal order to claim permanent sovereignty over its natural resources after decades of foreign control and at times direct military occupation. In 1953, it was punished with a coup for doing so. In 1980, dreams of an ummah united under the banner of an Islamic revolution dissipated when the need arose to defend territorial sovereignty against Iraqi annexation. Iran continues to act according to this principle, most recently intercepting a state-of-the-art American surveillance drone when it violated its sovereign borders. And yet, the pressures of constant US threats have occluded the ability to see the 1979 revolution as a national problem. To this day, the Islamic Republic of Iran still is not recognized as a nation-state.
The divorce with the United States was nasty. Assets were seized; public recriminations were delivered without restraint; citizens of both states were used as bargaining chips. In a scene reminiscent of a Hollywood film, when protestors besieged the US embassy in Tehran to demand the return of the deposed monarch, the newly-declared Islamic Republic threw its erstwhile partner’s most intimate belongings on the street for all to see.
The United States has not taken humiliation lightly. Like a jilted lover, it nursed its wounds in the embrace of a less prized regional partner. In January 1968, the British decolonized the Trucial States, a decision that promised the removal of the British navy from the Persian Gulf. The move disrupted a long-standing Pax Britannica which both restrained regional powers and deterred global rival in the age of empires and the decades of decolonization after World War I. America’s “twin pillar” policy took an inverse approach by seeking to build the United States by bolstering monarchies in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Mired in Vietnam and the inability to directly intervene, it bolstered both states as local bulwarks against alleged Soviet influence. In practice, Iran was a more eager and favored partner, the Saudis more restrained. With the revolution, the United States abandoned its former “island of stability” for an archipelago, cozying up to Saudi Arabia and the neighboring Gulf.
The US-Saudi partnership became the bedrock of a policy designed to enact vengeance. The first crucial step involved an alliance with Iran’s neighbor. The United States actively supported Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Iranian territory. It later armed both sides in a tactic designed to weaken their respective military capabilities. It has imposed forty years of aggressive sanctions in different waves targeting various aspects of Iran’s civil, industrial, and military infrastructure. These are acts of war. All the while, US media portrayals of Iran recall the slanders of a vindictive ex. Not a single day goes by without mention of the Iranian “menace.” Think of by-now commonplace references to “proxies,” “rogues,” and “regimes” in public debate. Iran is regularly denigrated for contravening US policy visions in the Middle East—in a word, for acting independently.
The recent decision by the Trump administration to classify the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a “terrorist” entity typifies forty years of bitter intransigence. Putting aside the murkiness of the term, the move codifies a media talking point as law. A recent episode of the New Yorker podcast begins with editor David Remnick making his unstated yet palpable prejudice against the Islamic Republic apparent: “Without underestimating Iran’s malign behavior in the region, isn’t it really the Trump administration that has initiated this kind of confrontation?” References to “malign behavior” in critical assessments of the Trump administration evince the depths of a wound brought on by the public embarrassment of an embassy siege and the steadfast repudiation of US hegemony since. Israel notwithstanding, Iranophobia remains the plumb line of the American political imagination.
[Image from the film, Divorce, Iranian Style.]
Two Divorces Happened at the Same Time
Is it an accident that the first Iranian to win an Oscar made a film about a domestic dispute resulting in divorce? That a year later, a film about the embassy siege won Best Picture? That twenty years prior, the first film about post-revolutionary Iran to make international headlines centered around domestic dispute? Between 1991’s Not Without My Daughter and 2012’s Argo, it seems Americans only pay attention to Iran or Iranians when we are breaking up. 2011’s A Separation, a made-for-foreign-consumption window into Iranian social class tensions, similarly struck a chord. This time, however, Iranians were breaking up with themselves.
Every revolution contains within it a domestic drama, a breaking-up of the order of things. The 1979 revolution has its own jilted lovers. There are those with vested interests in the ancien régime who seek to undermine the revolution at all costs. There are those who participated, enamored by the promise of upheaval only to be disappointed by the naked realities of competition for state power. The crucial difference is that this domestic drama never had a chance of staying behind closed doors. It plays itself out in international politics and the American public sphere for all to see. Two divorces happened at the same time. As any analyst worth their salt would attest, since the United States refuses to work through its trauma, Iranians have been hindered from working through their own. Forty years later, the children of the revolution are unable to adjudicate their parents’ disputes because the United States continues to make those disputes about itself.
It is time to move on. The United States must stop behaving like a violent ex—one that needs to be restrained before it inflicts irreparable physical damage to life and limb on both sides. End the sanctions. Foster cultural engagement. Above all, accept that Iranians have a country for themselves. They may fight over it, but that fight belongs to them.