When it comes to understanding the Trump administration’s erratic and dangerous “maximum pressure” strategy toward Iran, it can be tempting to focus blame entirely on his closest advisors—most notably, John Bolton. After all, Trump’s national security advisor has rarely made his desire for regime change in Iran a secret.
But Bolton is only able to exert policy influence, often using unqualified accusations against Iran, because he has been enabled by a wider system of knowledge production in Washington—one which has consistently rewarded ungrounded, ideologically driven assessments of the Islamic Republic at the expense of qualified, in-depth, and evidence-based analysis.
Even if many members of the US foreign policy establishment[i] do not agree with Bolton’s more extreme views of Iran, they bear responsibility for reproducing this wider system: a system where accusations against Iran can be treated as facts by senior US government officials; where made-up online personas are used as legitimate sources of knowledge in the American media; and where self-proclaimed policy experts on Iran are not required to qualify their own expertise or declare their conflicts of interest.
In this piece, I want to draw attention to the systemic problem of “Iran expertise” in Washington, which is neither new nor limited to the hawkish political factions now running this country’s foreign policy. I assert that the US foreign policy establishment has collectively created a culture of expert impunity when it comes to Iran, which has contributed in no small part to the unstable and dangerous policy conditions we see under Trump today.
I come to this issue having closely followed US policy debates toward Iran since 2006. For three years, I worked for a major foreign policy think tank and saw how knowledge on the Islamic Republic is produced first-hand. Later, as a researcher, I studied the role of think tank experts in shaping US policies toward the Middle East. During two years of ethnographic fieldwork in DC from 2014 until 2016, I interviewed over 180 foreign policy actors inside and outside the government, attended hundreds of policy events, and followed think tank experts working on Iran in person and through their writings.
What Kinds of “Iran Experts” Matter in Washington
Through this grounded research, I was able to document the abuses of “Iran expertise” by the American foreign policy community. This abuse has appeared most frequently among those who support regime change or confrontation with Iran. These individuals often mistranslate, mischaracterize, or dangerously simplify evidence to support their ideological agendas against the Islamic Republic. But this abuse of expertise is not exclusively reserved to the DC hawks. I also encountered a surprising lack of interest in understanding the complexities of contemporary Iran among those liberal actors who favor greater diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic. As a former member of Obama’s team negotiating the JCPOA told me, “once the decision was made to negotiate with Iran, we had no use for Iran experts. We simply needed nuclear experts.”
Even when US government officials do turn to “Iran experts” to legitimate or shape their policy decisions, they tend to rely on a cadre of analysts embedded within the establishment who hold mixed credentials at best.
Looking at the top experts working on Iran for the major DC-based think tanks between 2014 and 2016, roughly one-third had PhDs and even fewer had done their dissertations on a topic related to Iran. And though one does not need a PhD to be a subject-matter expert, members of the establishment use this academic qualification as their own internal marker of expertise.[ii] Thus, according to the establishment’s own standards, most of the leading, self-proclaimed Iran experts in DC do not qualify as such.
Moreover, around half of the Iran experts based at think tanks in DC could not read, write, or speak Persian at the time of my fieldwork. And a similar number had never once stepped foot inside Iran. One research assistant working at a prominent think tank told me how, as someone who reads Arabic, he would read Persian language news articles aloud for another research assistant who could only speak (but not read) Persian. The two of them together would “translate” Iranian news articles for his boss, an expert who works on the Middle East and comments on Iran frequently.
Regardless of their background or training, these experts have been called upon by US government officials, the media, and different interest groups to testify as analysts on nearly all aspects of Iran: from its complex governmental structure to its regional policies, oil production capabilities, nuclear technology, modern history, social dynamics, and the intricacies of Shi‘i jurisprudence.
As one of my DC interlocutors put it to me: “Can you imagine someone claiming to be an expert on France? Like all of France? Its history, culture, politics, etc. And then imagine this person cannot even speak French or has never visited France.” And yet, this is precisely what is accepted as Iran expertise in the nation’s capital. One expert—who has never formally studied Iran, does not understand Persian, has never been to the country, nor has any technical expertise on nuclear technology—was called upon five times to testify before Congress as an expert witness on Iran between 2014 and 2015.
Meanwhile, those analysts who can offer well-researched, in-depth, and specialized assessments of Iran are often ignored in Washington as “too esoteric,” or worse, vilified as “regime apologists.” As an Iranian-American analyst who consistently works on the periphery of the DC establishment explained to me, “say anything nuanced about Iran, and you are immediately [accused of being] a mouthpiece for the Ayatollahs.”
Revelations in June that the State Department had been funding internet trolls to defame pro-peace Iranian-American voices through the “Iran Disinformation Project” further demonstrates the extent to which the debate on Iran has been intentionally skewed toward confrontation in Washington.
A Systemic Devaluation of Expertise
Identifying the problem of Iran expertise in Washington is in many ways simpler than trying to explain how and why this problem has persisted. There are many factors to consider, some of which are not unique to the Iranian case but speak to broader structural issues.
We must first look to the unregulated market-driven forces expanding the “policy expert industry” in Washington over the past few decades. This “marketplace of ideas” has allowed a growing number of interest groups and foreign governments to provide unprecedented levels of funding to think tanks and policy research institutions as a means of legitimating their own interests within the establishment. Think tank experts taking money from donors with direct stakes in the outcome of their research are not legally required (or professionally expected) to declare these conflicts of interest even when they present their analysis as politically disinterested and/or “objective.”
We should also raise questions about the broader relevance of “expertise” and “evidence” in crafting US policy decisions—a problem that long precedes the current administration.
Many of the policymakers I interviewed in my fieldwork lamented the daily deluge of analysis, news, and social media they must navigate to do their jobs. When they do call upon experts to testify or to advise, they tend to select those who can synthesize information in a simple, easily-digestible way; offer clear, actionable policy recommendations; and/or reinforce their own policy positions publicly. Not surprisingly, former US government officials, analysts promoted by powerful political allies, and those prominently featured in the media are the most valued experts for policymakers.
Then there is the complex (and often contradictory) relationship between academic scholarship and the US government to consider. Academic fields that can provide the government much-needed, deeper analysis on a country like Iran (such as Middle East studies) have often become the most critical of serving US interests abroad. Yet in the face of increased cuts across the social sciences and humanities, many individual departments and scholars still seek out government funding and forge relationships with government policymakers as a way of demonstrating their “relevance.” Meanwhile, policy elites in Washington often categorically dismiss academic scholars as “irrelevant” or “hostile” to US interests in the Middle East, claiming they cannot be “trusted” as advisors on policy. The consequences of excluding academic voices—particularly those critical of US policies in the region—have been dire. In the 2003 war in Iraq, most serious scholars on the country (and indeed many security and nuclear experts) were actively dismissed when they warned against invasion.
In the case of Iran, these structural factors (i.e., interest-driven funding for think tanks, government devaluation of subject-matter expertise) intersect with Washington’s historical and contemporary grievances against Iran—some of which are legitimate, others rooted in deeper forms of paranoia and racism. Add to this, the outsized role of anti-Iranian foreign governments and interest groups in DC and we get an expert landscape on Iran where nuance, complexity, and grounded research continue to be abandoned, at best, and attacked, at worst.
Does Expertise on Iran matter?
Does a lack of serious expertise on Iran even matter? Many of my interlocutors in the Obama administration told me point-blank that it did not. After all, they had been able to negotiate a full diplomatic solution with Iran over its nuclear program with very little input from experts with deep knowledge on the country.
But based on my own research, I would counter that expertise within this policy community does matter. Not because a single expert on Iran helps shape a single policy response, but rather because of the collective power these experts wield in shaping and reshaping the “conventional wisdom” in DC—and through it the underlying assumptions, values, and ideas that then drive US policy decisions.
With Iran, policy experts in DC circulate ideas in and out of the government until they take on the status of unquestioned truth. They go on cable television shows and make statements about Iran’s security intentions that then get disseminated through social media as quick soundbites and slogans. Most of them have thousands if not hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter. They then testify before Congress, further reinforcing their status as “Iran experts.” They publish reports that get picked up and cited by desk officers and staffers inside the State Department and Departments of Defense and Treasury. In turn, experts are able to secure additional funding from interest groups, foreign governments, and private foundations based on this kind of media visibility and government access. And some of these analysts simply join an administration, as Bolton did, gaining the power to push their ideas from the inside. In these various ways, we can see an unchecked feedback loop on the Islamic Republic.
Take for instance the case of the Houthis of Yemen, who have gone from being an indigenous Shi‘i community with a long, complex history within their own country to simply becoming “Iranian-backed Houthis” or “Iran’s proxy” in the establishment’s conventional wisdom. These overly-simplified catchphrases deny the political agency of the Yemeni people, many of whom have pushed back against this characterization. But it has also become the justification for Washington’s ongoing support for the devastating Saudi-led blockade and war on Yemen, which has killed thousands.
Another widely circulated yet deeply problematic claim in Washington is that Iran’s leaders are inherent liars. To give some credence to this idea, “Iran experts” (particularly on the right) have pointed to the Shi‘i conception of taqiyya—a historic practice that allowed a person to conceal their Shi‘i identity in order to protect themselves when persecuted by a Sunni or non-Muslim ruler. Rather than seriously attend to the historical or theological context of this practice or the inherent racism of the accusation, those in DC supporting negotiations with Iran in 2015 simply ceded the point to their opponents. As Wendy Sherman, one of the lead negotiators of the JCPOA, famously stated, “deception is part of the DNA” of Iran’s leadership. Based on this view, Obama’s policy team flipped the Reagan-era trope of “trust but verify” (itself taken from a Russian proverb) to argue that their deal with Iran on its nuclear program would instead be based on verification, not trust. Since then, the Trump administration has used this bipartisan expert consensus on the inherent dishonesty of Iran’s leaders to completely reject the internationally-negotiated nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.
It should not take an expert on expertise to connect the dots.
Without grounded, qualified, and most importantly, accountable research on Iran, figures like Bolton will be able to continue justifying dangerous policies by simply tapping into the same set of problematic tropes and shallow assessments about Iran—the very ideas his political opponents in DC have ironically helped promote.
If we wish to see a durable change in US policy toward Iran within the establishment, we must demand a higher standard of expertise on a country that has preoccupied these foreign policy circles for the better part of two decades. We need to push for a new system, where facts are checked and rechecked; where accusations are corroborated with evidence; and where those who claim expertise on Iran are held to particular standards of ethics and qualifications.
[i] I use the phrase “US foreign policy establishment” or “establishment” for short to refer to the community of elite policy actors who collectively shape and implement US policy decisions abroad. This community includes American higher-level bureaucrats, civil servants, political appointees, diplomats, members of Congress and their staffers, leaders across the military and intelligence apparatus (including private intelligence and defense contractors), lobbyists, public relations officers, well-known media pundits and analysts, and, most relevantly for my own work, think tank experts.
[ii] The PhD is so valued in DC that some have even resorted to faking their PhD credentials to gain such legitimacy, ironically mirroring a number of high-profile cases in Iran where several government officials and other policy elites have been accused of faking their degrees over the years.
This article is part of the new Jadaliyya Iran Page launch. To inaugurate the Iran Page, its co-editors are pleased to present the following articles, interviews, and resources:
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