“The president has great respect for the Iranian people, their rich culture, their heritage, and it was very important to him in the speech to distinguish between the regime and the Iranian people,” says National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster in reference to Trump’s speech which declared the Iran nuclear deal no longer in U.S. interests.
Speaking at the annual conference of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), an increasingly prominent Washington think tank that advocates for regime change against Iran, McMaster and others heaped on praise for Trump’s “outreach” to the Iranian people. Absent was any mention of Trump’s Muslim ban that indefinitely prohibits Iranians from entering the U.S. or any acknowledgment of the major backlash against Trump from inside Iran.
Contrary to Trump’s supposed “respect” for the Iranian people, the President’s ban against them does not distinguish between Iranian citizens and the government – it punishes the Iranian people directly. The second iteration of Trump’s Muslim ban, in which the administration did not consider grandparents to have “bona fide” relationships with those already in the U.S. and thus banned them from entering the country, shows the cruelty that this administration is willing to impose on Iranian families in order to implement the ban to its fullest effect.
Iranian people are not looking for the U.S. to help them overthrow the regime.
Trump’s policies on the Iran deal have also spurred a rally around the flag effect within Iran that risks undercutting moderates and empowering hardliners who argue against engagement with the West. Bombastic threats by Trump to tear up the Iran nuclear deal (and blaming Iran for violating its “spirit”), have soured America’s image in the eyes of many Iranians, the majority of whom believe that the nuclear deal has improved their living conditions. Trump’s “outreach” to Iran at the United Nations in September sparked hashtags like #shutuptrump that trended for hours on Iranian twitter. In his speech announcing that he would not certify the Iran nuclear deal, Trump pointedly referred to the Persian Gulf as the “Arabian Gulf”- code for many Iranian observers that Trump was not just bowing to Saudi interests in shaping his Middle East policy, he was adopting their playbook for the region down to the letter. That incident sparked the hashtag #PersianGulf on Iranian Twitter – and seemingly validated some of the darkest accusations leveled against the U.S. by Iranian hardliners in the face of moderates who favor engagement.
Yet to hear it from organizations promoting a regime-change approach to Iran, Trump’s so-called outreach to the Iranian people is going swimmingly – notwithstanding what the people of Iran are actually saying about it. Discussing Trump’s UN speech, “eleven out of the seventeen sentences on Iran were actually very much focused on the Iranian people, on human rights issues, on the growing gap between the rulers and the ruled,” notes Mark Dubowitz, the CEO of FDD who has long argued that the U.S. can destabilize Iran’s government through sanctions and ultimately topple it through military action. In reality, Trump’s denouncements of the deal and attempts to shift blame onto Iran have done nothing but close the gap between Iran’s government and its citizens. If the U.S. decides to reimpose sanctions or renegotiate the deal while Iran remains compliant, the Iranian government and its people are going to be united in the common cause of laying blame on the U.S. for the deal’s failure, thus shifting domestic criticisms away from the regime and vindicating Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s claims that the U.S. only used the nuclear dispute as a pretense and would shift to other points of pressure even if an agreement was struck.
The Trump administration and its backers like FDD are trying to pick up the mantle of the Iranian people to argue for a harder line approach – without listening to what they have to say. The strategy is an ominous repeat of the arguments leveled to sell the invasion of Iraq in 2003. “The entire world understands that the good people of Iran want change” proclaimed Trump, calling the Iranian regime a “corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy.” Yet the Iranian people are not looking for the U.S. to help them overthrow the regime. Iranians have lived through a revolution that imposed theocracy upon them, a war with Iraq that cost millions of lives, sanctions that crippled Iran’s middle and poorer classes, the collapse of governments in neighboring states and the rise of stateless terror groups like ISIS. The last thing they seek is a U.S. initiated effort to destabilize Iran. Instead, they have persisted in seeking gradual change through the ballot box, shown by massive participation in elections despite their limitations. Those efforts are paying off, with moderates sweeping almost every election since 2013 and pursuing engagement that produced the landmark nuclear deal. But a new misguided approach by the U.S. to undo the nuclear deal and undercut moderates could quickly reverse those fortunes.
Cover image: National-security adviser H.R. McMaster prepares to deliver remarks at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Yuri Gripas / Reuters