While watching the Republican debates over the past few months, I’ve been taken aback by the incredibly violent rhetoric that the candidates direct towards Iran. The three main contenders left in the Republican field, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich, have all asserted they would use necessary military force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center claims that at least 58 percent of Americans agree with the Republican candidates, including half of the nation’s Democrats. As a result, I’ve found myself wondering how Americans can be so eager to start another war after our more than 10-year debacle in Iraq.
Thankfully, the same poll revealed that many Americans, approximately 30 percent, staunchly oppose the candidates’ war-mongering ideology, taking lessons from Iraq and a growing sentiment that America overexerts itself in the affairs of other nations. Even Ron Paul, one of the Republican candidates, has recognized the painful short-sightedness of these calls for an intervention in Iran, highlighting the crippling burden on the American taxpayer to fuel our nation’s unequaled “defense” spending and the rapidly declining global perception of America as a just and moral leader of the free world.
And yet, even with his far more rational approach to foreign policy, Mr. Paul often fails to touch on the most crucial nuances of the American-Iranian relationship that lie at the heart of this issue. Though it is easy to see the potential negatives of an American intervention, we consistently fail to apply an Iranian perspective to the issue, which is critical in understanding both why American-Iranian relations continue to deteriorate and why an invasion is a morally bankrupt endeavor.
We are too easily dissuaded from critical thinking about this matter by the American media’s projection of Iran as an irrational and dangerous actor. In reality, Iran’s defiance of the West doesn’t come from an innate hatred of America, Jews, or cooperative foreign policy, but rather from a long history of exploitation of Iran by Western nations.
Much of what opened my eyes to this alternate perspective stems from a long and passionate conversation with an Iranian student while I was studying in London last spring. His uncle had been killed by chemical weapons supplied to Saddam Hussein by American manufacturers during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980’s, and he was keen to speak with an American about the relationship between our two nations. After explaining Iran’s history of subjection to Western demands, including the crippling sanctions and rhetoric that bombarded his homeland, he made the simple yet profound suggestion that it is Iran who is under an imminent threat—not the United States, Israel, Europe, or the rest of the Middle East.
With my curiosity piqued, I took several courses about Middle Eastern and Islamic history upon my return to Georgetown, hoping to validate the arguments presented to me in that London pub. Coupled with my own research, the startling narrative of Western-Iranian relations opened my eyes to the reason why Iran would be so defiant of the current world order. The more I learned about Iran’s past relations with the West, the more it became clear that the majority of Americans, especially those 58 percent who claim they want to go to war, fundamentally misunderstand this nation, its circumstances, and its people.
In fact, a CIA-led coup was responsible for silencing Iran’s first democratic revolution and reinstituting a monarchy in 1953, or that the United States continually propped up an autocratic regime with financial assistance for the subsequent 26 years until the Iranian Revolution in 1979. During the Iran-Iraq War, the United States worked to tip the war in Iraq’s favor, attacking Iranian oil rigs and naval ships, in addition to allegedly supplying arms and chemical weapons to Saddam.
In recent years, the United States has facilitated an international campaign to sanction Iran for human rights violations and the development of its nuclear program, a strategy that hurts the Iranian people far more than it does the oppressive regime. Meanwhile, the United States has surrounded Iran with dozens of advanced military installations, including a strong presence in the controversial Strait of Hormuz, through which over 20 percent of the world’s oil is transported. The U.S. has also helped train and finance the armies of Iran’s primary regional competitors: Iraq, Turkey ,and Saudi Arabia. Each of these practices was implemented long before Iran possessed nuclear potential, and perhaps Iran wouldn’t be so desperate to go nuclear if it had any sort of assurance of long-term security.
What the West tries to portray as Iranian aggression turns out to be quite the opposite. First and foremost, the Iranian people are interested in self-preservation and self-determination, something they have been deprived of throughout their history until 1979, first as a satellite territory of Middle Eastern empires and then as a puppet state serving Western interests. While it is impossible to condone the regime’s anti-Semitic rhetoric and disenfranchisement of women, it is even more ludicrous to suggest that Iran, which spends one ninety-eighth of what the U.S. spends on defense, needs to be invaded to prevent the proliferation nuclear terrorism or World War III.
Though it may surprise Rick Santorum, the Iranians are no more interested in being blown up than we are. It is time Americans, especially our politicians, realize this misconception, tone down the rhetoric, and seek an equitable relationship with Iran—one that doesn’t curtail their autonomy or diminish their say in global affairs.