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Opinion | Stephen Kinzer

Why are we so fixated on Iran?

Tensions are mounting as the US builds on its military presence in the Gulf.
Tensions are mounting as the US builds on its military presence in the Gulf. (JEFF SHERMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

DURING HIS PRESIDENTIAL campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly denounced America’s “forever war” in the greater Middle East. As his principal advisers on world affairs, however, he has chosen some of the most relentless militarists ever to sit at the hand of an American president. How fully he accepts their advice will determine whether the United States launches war against Iran.

Sometimes Trump seems ready to pounce on the Iranians. “If they do anything, they will suffer greatly,” he warned in mid-May. Just as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton were licking their fangs, however, Trump took a different tack: “What I’d like to see with Iran, I’d like to see them call me.” A few days later it was back to threats: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran.”

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A perplexing question lies behind America’s renewed march toward war with Iran: how did our hostility become so intense? Iran has been an adversary for decades, but it has done nothing to justify the wild overreaction that is now reaching a new peak. Is the United States still seeking revenge for the overthrow of our Shah in 1979 and the searing hostage crisis that followed? Are we racing to the brink of war because Israel and Saudi Arabia are pushing us? Can we simply not tolerate a mid-sized regional power that refuses to do our bidding?

Whatever the reason, confrontation between the United States and Iran has become a permanent feature of world politics. In recent weeks it has escalated dramatically. The United States has imposed crippling sanctions on Iran and deployed warships and fleets of B-52 bombers near its borders. Never has war between these two countries seemed so terrifyingly close.

Yet this crisis is entirely manufactured. It has little to do with Iran’s behavior, which is no more provocative today than it was a year or a decade ago. Instead it is the product of fevered tempers in Washington. Warnings about new and dangerous threats are based not on Iran’s actions, but rather on the bizarre fixation that might be called Iran Derangement Syndrome. Before warmongers can begin the military conflict they evidently crave, however, they must win a domestic battle. It is not for public support or Congressional approval, neither of which they consider important. Their real battle is for the mind of President Trump.

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American allies are desperately trying to push Trump off the warpath. When Pompeo visited Brussels to demand that the European Union support his policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran, the EU foreign policy chief replied tartly that a wiser policy would be “maximum restraint.” After US officials warned that Iran is preparing new attacks in the Middle East, the British general who is deputy commander of the US-led coalition fighting ISIS scoffed and said, “No, there has been no increased threat.” Spain pulled its warship out of the flotilla that is being deployed to the Persian Gulf, arguing that it never signed on to the anti-Iran project. “When I see that there is a deviation from the agreement,” the Spanish defense minister explained, “I feel it is better to suspend it temporarily.”

All parties to this intensifying crisis agree that one result is likely to be great human suffering in Iran. Some find it awful that the United States is intentionally inflicting harm on millions of ordinary Iranians. Others cheer, hoping that misery will lead to rebellion. Even those who relish the thought of mass unemployment in Iran and are delighted by the prospect of Iranian children dying for lack of medicine, however, should recognize the strategic damage the United States would do to itself by launching a war against Iran. American forces could win short-term victory, but the real winners would be Russia and China.

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One of Russia’s key foreign policy objectives is to drive a wedge between the United States and its European allies. War with Iran would do more to promote that breach than anything Vladimir Putin could do on his own. As for China, it has not fought a single war during the decades when the United States has wreaked bloody havoc across Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. An American attack on Iran would make the Chinese model — project power by peaceful means rather than war — seem far preferable to the American one. It would be a rich geopolitical gift to Moscow and Beijing.

If President Trump is seriously looking for an off-ramp on the road to war, it is available. Under the right conditions, Iranian leaders might respond to his invitation to “call me.” That would require the United States to retreat from its over-the-top demand that the Islamic Republic effectively liquidate itself and kneel before American power. Instead we should offer proposals that could be the basis for serious negotiation.

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Iran and the United States have caused each other great harm over the last 40 years. Both have squandered opportunities for reconciliation. Yet Iran’s central strategic goal — crushing the head-chopping death cults that have metastasized across the Middle East — is more in line with American interests than are the strategic goals of our so-called allies in that region. In Iran, more than anywhere else in the world, Trump has the chance to fulfill his campaign promise to break with the paradigm of Mideast conflict. He can do it by abandoning maximalist demands and allowing reason to outweigh the emotional drive to war.


Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.