The Demonization of Iran

Ever since Iran made it on to the neocon “regime change” list, its actions have been put through the special prism of demonization that is reserved for U.S. “enemies.” Now, those exaggerations and distortions are obstructing an agreement to constrain Iran’s nuclear program, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

As the nuclear negotiations with Iran enter what may be their final lap, diehard opponents of any agreement with Tehran have been leaning more heavily than ever on the theme that Iran is a nasty actor in the Middle East intent on doing all manner of nefarious things in the region.

Insofar as the theme is not just an effort to generate distaste for having any dealings with the Iranian regime and purports to have a connection with the nuclear agreement, the idea is that the sanctions relief that will be part of the agreement will give Iran more resources to do still more nefarious stuff in the region.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sitting next to President Hassan Rouhani and addressing the cabinet.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei sitting next to President Hassan Rouhani and addressing the cabinet.

Several considerations invalidate this notion, just on the face of it, as a reason to oppose the nuclear agreement. The chief one is that if Iran really were intent on doing awful, destructive things in its neighborhood, that would be all the more reason to ensure it does not build a nuclear weapon, which is what the agreement being negotiated is all about.

Another consideration is that if the United States were to leave in place economic sanctions that supposedly were erected for reasons related to Iran’s nuclear program, and to leave them in place to deny Iran resources to do other things, the United States would be telling not only Iran but also the rest of the world that the United States is a liar.

The United States would have lied when it said that it had imposed these sanctions for the purpose of inducing concessions regarding Iran’s nuclear policy. The damage to U.S. credibility whenever the United States attempts in the future to use sanctions to induce policy change should be obvious.

Interestingly, calls to keep current sanctions in place to deny funding for Iranian regional activities are coming from some of the same quarters that call for putting even more of an economic squeeze on Iran to get a “better deal.” This position is contradictory.

If the United States were to demonstrate that it is not going to remove existing sanctions in return for Iran’s concessions on its nuclear program, the Iranians would have no reason to believe that still more concessions on their part would bring the removal of still more sanctions, and thus they would not make any more concessions.

An invalid assumption underlying the argument about freeing up resources is that the Iranians’ regional policy is narrowly determined by how many rials they have in their bank account. This assumption contradicts, by the way, the assertion commonly made, again by some of the same quarters, that Iranian leaders are far from being green eyeshade types who do such careful calculations and instead are irrational religious fanatics who cannot be trusted with advanced technology let alone with a nuclear weapon.

In any case, with Iran just as with other states, foreign policy is a function of many calculations of what is or is not in their national interest, and not just a matter of the available financial resources.

A related unwarranted assumption is each additional rial that does become available to the Iranians they will spend on regional shenanigans that we won’t like. That assumption is never supported by any analysis; it just gets tossed into discussion to be taken for granted.

If analysis is instead applied to the topic, a much different conclusion is reached; that Iran is far more likely to apply freed resources to domestic needs. This is a straightforward matter of political calculations and political survival, not only for President Hassan Rouhani but for other Iranian leaders who are acutely aware of the demands and expectations of the Iranian people in this regard.

But set aside for the moment all the logical inconsistencies and other reasons to reject the notion of an Iranian regional marauder as a reason to oppose the nuclear agreement. Focus instead on the image of an Iran whose current regional policy supposedly is already an assortment of destructive activities. This image has become the kind of conventional wisdom that repeatedly gets invoked (even, in this instance, by supporters of the nuclear agreement) without any felt need by those who invoke it to provide any supporting facts or analysis because it is taken for granted that everyone “knows” it to be true.

The references to the image are almost always vague and general, couched in terms of Iran supposedly “destabilizing” the Middle East or seeking to “dominate” it or exercise “hegemony” over it, or that it is “on the march” to take over the region. Often there are references to “terrorism” and “subversion” without anything more specific being offered. Often the names of conflict-ridden countries in the region are recited, but again without any specifics as to who is doing what in those countries.

To get away from such uselessly general accusations, ask: (1) what exactly is Iran doing in the Middle East that is of concern; and (2) how does what Iran is doing differ from what other states are doing in the same places? A careful comparison of this sort leads to the conclusion that Iran, contrary to the conventional wisdom, does not stand out in doing aggressive, destabilizing or hegemonic things.

Iran is one of the largest states in the Middle East and naturally, as with any such state, competes for influence in its region. To try to keep any such state, be it Iran or any other, from competing for such influence would be futile and damaging in its own right.

To label Iranian policy as seeking “hegemony” or “domination” is only that, i.e., applying a label, when others are using more forceful and destructive ways of trying to extend their own influence in the same places. Iran, unlike others, has not launched wars or invaded neighboring territory (except in counterattacking during the war with Iraq that Saddam Hussein started). Nor has Iran drawn, China-like, any nine-dash lines and asserted unsupported domination over swaths of its own region.

The assumption that just about anything Iran does in the Middle East is contrary to U.S. interests keeps getting made despite what should be the glaringly obvious counterexample of the war in Iraq. Iran and the United States are on the same side there. They both are supporting the government of Iraq in trying to push back the radical group generally known as ISIS.

Why should Iran’s part of this effort be called part of regional trouble-making, while the U.S. part of it is given some more benign description? Those in the United States who would rather not face that counterexample are usually quick to mutter something like, “Yes, but the Iranians are doing this for their own malign purposes of spreading their influence in Iraq.”

The first thing to note in response to such muttering is that if we are worried about increased Iranian influence in Iraq, that increase is due chiefly not to anything the Iranians have done but rather to a war of choice that the United States initiated.

The next thing is to ask on behalf of what interests the Iranians would use their influence in Iraq, and how that relates to U.S. interests. The preeminent Iranian objective regarding Iraq is to avoid anything resembling the incredibly costly Iran-Iraq War, and to have a regime in Baghdad, preferably friendly to Iran, but at least not hostile to it, that would not launch such a conflict again.

Iran also does not want endless instability along its long western border, and its leaders are smart enough to realize that narrowly prejudicial sectarian politics are not a prescription for stability. These lines of thinking are consistent with U.S. interests; it is not only in the current fight against ISIS that U.S. and Iranian interests converge.

Look carefully also at another conflict-ridden Middle Eastern state whose name often gets casually invoked: Yemen. Iran and the United States are not on the same side of this civil war, although the United States probably has as much explaining to do as to why it has taken the side it has, the same side as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most capable and threatening Al-Qaeda branch operating today, as Iran does.

Iran has become identified with the side of the rebellious Houthi movement, although the most prominent Yemeni leader on the same side as the Houthis is Ali Abdullah Saleh, who as the Yemeni president for more than 30 years was seen as our guy in Yemen, not the Iranians’ guy.

Iran did not instigate the Houthi rebellion, nor are the Houthis accurately described as “clients” of Iran much less “proxies,” as they often inaccurately are. Instead Iran was probably a source of restraint in advising the Houthis not to capture the capital of Sanaa, although the Houthis went ahead and did it anyway.

The Iranians probably are glad to see the Saudis bleed some in Yemen, and whatever aid Tehran has given to the Houthis was given with that in mind. But any such aid pales in comparison to the extent and destructiveness of the Saudis’ intervention in Yemen, which has included aerial assaults that have caused many hundreds of civilian casualties.

In the same vein consider Bahrain, which is an interesting case given historical Iranian claims to Bahrain and past Iranian activity there. Despite that background and despite Bahraini government accusations, there is an absence of reliable evidence of anything in recent years that could accurately be described as Iranian subversion in Bahrain.

Instead it is again the Saudis who have used forceful methods to exert their influence on a neighbor, and in this case to prop up an unpopular Sunni regime in a Shia majority country. The principal Saudi military intervention in Bahrain came a few years ago, but it was an early shot in a campaign that has taken fuller shape under King Salman to use any available means, including military force, to expand Saudi influence in the region.

If there is a Persian Gulf power that has been using damaging methods to try to become a regional hegemon, it is Saudi Arabia, not Iran.

The Saudis could claim to be acting on behalf of a status quo in Bahrain and Yemen, but then what about Syria, where it is Iran that is backing the existing regime? And as perhaps the most germane question, how can any one of the outside players that have mucked into that incredibly complicated civil war be singled out as a destabilizing regional marauder while the others (some of whom, such as the United States and Israel, have conducted their own airstrikes in the country) be given the benefit of more benign labeling?

Iran did not start the Syrian war. And each of the most significant sides fighting that war are dominated by what we normally would consider certifiable bad guys: the Assad regime, ISIS, and an Islamist coalition led by the local Al-Qaeda branch. It is hard to see a clear and convincing basis for parceling out benign and malign labeling here when it comes to the outside players.

Then of course there is the rest of the Levantine part of the region, including Palestine; the aid relationships that Iran has had with the H groups, Hezbollah and Hamas, are continually invoked in any litany of Iranian regional activity. Lebanese Hezbollah certainly is still an important ally of Iran, although it has long since become strong enough to outgrow any Iranian hand-holding.

We should never forget that prior to 9/11 Hezbollah was the group that had more U.S. blood on its hands through terrorism than any other group. We also should understand that Hezbollah has become a major player in Lebanese politics in a way in which many in the region, including its immediate political opponents, accept it as a legitimate political actor. Right now as a military actor it is deeply involved in the effort to support the Syrian regime, and it is not looking to stir up any new wars or instability anywhere else.

Hamas has never been anything remotely resembling a proxy of Iran, although it has accepted, somewhat reluctantly, Iranian aid in the absence of other help. To Iran, Hamas represents Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation of (or blockading and subjugation of) Palestinian territory, without being an accessory to that occupation, which is how the Palestinian Authority is widely seen.

Hamas is the winner of the last free Palestinian election, and it has repeatedly made clear that its ambition is to hold political power among Palestinians and that it is willing to maintain a long-term truce with Israel. Right now Hamas is trying, unfortunately with only partial success, to keep small groups from overturning the current cease-fire with rocket firings into Israel.

Again, none of this is a conflict that Iran has instigated or that Iran is stirring up or escalating. Iran is not the cause of the instability that already reigns. And the broader opposition to continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is opposition that Iran shares with many others, including the whole Arab world.

As long as we are looking at this part of the region, it is impossible to escape notice that Iran does not hold a candle to Israel when it comes to forcefully throwing weight around in the neighborhood in damaging and destabilizing ways, even without considering the occupation of the West Bank. This has included multiple armed invasions of neighboring territory as well as other actions, such as the attack on Iraq years ago that stimulated Iraq to speed up its program to develop nuclear weapons.

And before we leave the Middle East as a whole, it also is impossible to escape notice that the single most destabilizing action in the region over the past couple of decades was the U.S. launch of a war of aggression in Iraq in 2003. Iran certainly has done nothing like that.

The ritualistically repeated notion that Iran is wreaking instability all over the region is a badly mistaken myth. There are important respects in which Iranian policies and actions do offend U.S. interests, but protection of those interests is not helped by perpetuating myths.

Perpetuation of this particular myth has several deleterious effects. The most immediate and obvious one is to corrupt debate over the nuclear deal. Another is to foster broader misunderstanding about Iranian behavior and intentions that threatens to corrupt debate over other issues as well.

Yet another consequence involves a failure to understand fully that every state competes for influence. Such efforts to compete are called foreign policy. It would be in our own interests for other states to wage that competition through peaceful and legitimate means.

By misrepresenting who is doing what, and through what means, in the Middle East today, the myth about Iranian behavior maintains a constituency for isolating and ostracizing Iran, which makes it less, not more, likely that Iran, so ostracized, will use peaceful and legitimate means to pursue its interests in the future.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

9 comments for “The Demonization of Iran

  1. Abbas KhoÛŒamoraDi
    June 11, 2015 at 07:10

    thank you for the uptoDate news

  2. John P
    June 10, 2015 at 15:41

    I have this awful feeling that we are being hoodwinked over what is going on in the Middle East. In some areas the US is fighting ‘IS’ like extremists and in others it is supporting them. In Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are aiding the ‘IS’ where as the US has backed away from supporting those elements thus helping Assad as is Hezbollah.
    In the Yemen the US seems to be supporting Saudi against a Shia faction which wants some representation.
    What worries me is that we may be doing what Israel wants us to do in the Syrian affair. Israel can reduce Assad’s and Hezbollah’s influence by having the war prolonged, they and the Saudis support one side and the US supports the other. Is this Israel’s way to effectively diminishing both?
    It would be nice to have some input on this matter from someone who knows.

  3. Gina
    June 10, 2015 at 08:14

    Iran & Russia do great politics of war-avoidance! Add to this that they have a lot of patience & knowledge how to handle psychopaths. I think they will finally succeed to keep the unipolar new world order out of their countries. But what about the rest of the world?
    Iran Nuclear Talks: [US] Raising the Bar

  4. Anthony Shaker
    June 10, 2015 at 07:13

    No one is asking to whom do the some $130.5 billion belong? They belong to Iran unlawfully seized by Western powers determined to keep Israel afloat at any cost to the peoples of the Middle East.

    What Iran does or does not do with those funds, and the boost in economic activities after the lifting of international sanctions, are not anyone’s business–certainly not the business of the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. All three are raising vast armies of Arab-funded, US-trained, Israel-Turkish coordinated terrorists like the world has never seen. All three should be under draconian international sanctions at this point, yet they continue to speak as they’ve won.

    A world war has already started. At the losing end will be the Western powers (US, UK and France), who today are on their last leg, that of barbarism. The Reign of Terror thety have been constructing since the end of WWII is collapsing, not maintaining itself. One need not be a prophet to see through the mask: while barbarism to civilization is a march of progress, the march back to barbarism is, basically, telling me: We are closing shop.

    Beware of the events we are all witnessing today. What we see is always pointing somewhere.

    • Gina
      June 10, 2015 at 08:18

      “A world war has already started” & the shots are called here:
      Bilderberg 2015 in Austria Will Be Like None Before It

    • June 14, 2015 at 07:19

      Nowhere in the US mainstream media, the Congress, or elsewhere in the political process is anything contradictory being said or heard. And I mean NOWHERE. As far as the vast majority of the American people are concerned, Iran already has a usable nuclear arsenal, and something just has to be done, and done soon, to protect “poor, brave, defenseless little Israel” . Americans will largely be astonished and shocked if the region explodes in the US face, but that won’t help Iranians.

      I expect what Air Force types call “collateral damage” (i.e., to civilians & civilian infrastructure) to be immense, no matter what type of a defense Iran alone can mount. Collateral damage will be more than significant, it will be immense. The IDF AF will see to that. Killing Gazan civilians and children is an essential element of Israeli strategic warfare. Killing Iranians will be just as effective.

      The other bit of information (public record but not generally discussed….) on the Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, which would have the leading role in any US part of the Bomb Iran operation, is General Norman A. Schwartz, and as his public biography states,

      The first Jewish Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Schwartz was a member of the U.S. Air Force Academy Jewish choir before his 1973 graduation. In 2004 General Schwartz was awarded the Jewish Community Center’s Military Leadership Award. In accepting the award, General Schwartz said he was “proud to be identified as Jewish as well as an American military leader.”

      One of his close advisers is Dr. Lani Kass. Kass is an Israeli intelligence officer (reached rank of major in the IDF before nominally immigrating to the US), of whom her early colleagues at the US National War College said “she thinks of herself as an Israeli and should never be given a position of responsibility in the US Government” (I paraphrase). But she has it.

      Stay tuned!

      • Anonymous
        June 22, 2015 at 23:59

        Are you serious? First, please get your facts straight. General Norton “Norty” Schwartz is long retired. So am I. To the best of my knowledge, you and I never met. So what do you know about me, my views, my “nominal” immigration–how dare you??? I dedicated almost 30 years of my life to public service in the U.S. Government. What have you done that benefited national security? Did your husband and son serve in the U.S. Military? Mine did, in combat. And, yes, I am an American by choice rather than the fortune of birth. Is there something wrong with this? I thought ours was a nation of immigrants. Did you come on the Mayflower or are you a Native American? Otherwise, how dare you? Do you associate me with General Schwartz because we are both of Jewish heritage? Why does this matter? I rarely respond to idiocies, but yours takes the cake. You know nothing about me except crap you found on the Internet. Apologies might be in order but I don’t expect anything from a person who casts aspersions knowing absolutely nothing.

  5. Andrew Nichols
    June 9, 2015 at 20:03

    and to leave them in place to deny Iran resources to do other things, the United States would be telling not only Iran but also the rest of the world that the United States is a liar.

    At least it would be honest…

  6. a.z
    June 9, 2015 at 15:23

    this was beautiful.

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