Trump’s Threats towards Iran are Not Working

By Stephen Zunes and Medea Benjamin

While the Trump administration has imposed sanctions against Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other Iranian officials, it has apparently backed off its threat to sanction Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif. Targeting Zarif—who lived in the United States for thirty years, including high school, college and graduate school—is particularly ironic, given he is a leading moderate voice in Tehran. Unlike most autocratic regimes, where power is centralized in a political party, a military junta, or a single dictator, Iran’s government is divided between conservative clerics, the moderate president, the military, the parliament, and other forces.

Successful diplomacy with Iran depends on cultivating ties with the moderates and isolating the extremists. By treating the Iranian regime as a monolith and targeting Dr. Zarif, it raised fears that the Trump administration was closing one of the few remaining avenues for defusing the crisis.

Despite not formally sanctioning him, however, the Trump administration is still intent on isolating him. As host of the United Nations, the United States is required to allow visas to visiting diplomats and other officials for UN business, such as the meeting of the UN Economic and Social Council which is taking place this week. However, the State Department is limiting his movement to a six-block areal between UN headquarters, the Iranian mission, and the residence of Iran’s UN ambassador.

This is far greater limitation than the United States imposed on such notorious figures as Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi and Zarif’s rival, hardline former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was allowed to speak at Columbia University, various media outlets, and elsewhere. It would appear that the Trump administration is more afraid of moderation than extremism.

We were among a small group of American scholars and peace activists who met with Dr. Zarif at the Iranian Foreign Ministry in February. Zarif noted how the nuclear deal was a result of ten years of posturing and two years of intense, painstaking negotiations, during which he and Secretary of State John Kerry met no fewer than 50 times to hammer out every line in the agreement. Zarif was able to convince his government, over the objections of hardliners, to agree to destroy billions of dollars’ worth of nuclear facilities and material and accept a strict inspections regime in return for the lifting of debilitating sanctions. Iran had honored its agreement, as confirmed 13 times by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but—in response to the United States breaking its part of the agreement by re-imposing sanctions and forcing others to do so—Iran earlier this month is reducing its compliance by increasing its stockpiles of enriched uranium. From the Iranian perspective, it makes no sense to stick to an agreement that the United States has violated by withdrawing and imposing crushing sanctions, while the rest of the world does little to ease the blows. 

Despite the unpopularity of the regime, which was evident in our conversations with ordinary Iranians, anger at the United States for reneging on the deal and re-imposing sanctions runs across the political spectrum. 

In Vietnam, the United States failed to recognize that the power attained by the Communists came from their ability to rally the nationalist sentiments of their people, which is why massive military force only strengthened the resistance against what they saw as foreign invaders. Similarly, the Islamist leaders of Iran have been successful in appealing to nationalism when they feel their country is unfairly targeted.

Indeed, we saw far more flags and nationalist symbols on display in Iran than religious imagery. Social scientists have noted how Iranians are among the most stridently nationalistic people in the world. In talking to scores of ordinary Iranians during our visit, while we found widespread anger at the corruption and heavy hand of the Iranian regime, people also believe that their government is right to resist U.S. sanctions and military threats. Iranians across the political spectrum don’t like being treated like U.S. vassals. Pride in their 2,500-year history is universal. This idea that Trump can force Iranian leaders to bend to his will is ludicrous. They would rather risk a war than give in.

Iranians wonder why they should accede to Trump administration demands that they totally eliminate their nuclear program—a program that under the strictures of the seven-nation nuclear agreement would not result in a single nuclear bomb—while their neighbors Israel, Pakistan, and India have nuclear weapons and continue to develop their nuclear arsenals with the United States providing them with nuclear-capable delivery systems. Iranians also wonder why they should bow to U.S. demands to eliminate ballistic missiles while rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia continue to develop theirs with U.S. assistance.

Every criticism the Trump administration levels against Iran—its suppression of women and religious minorities, lack of free and fair elections, ongoing human rights abuses, support for oppressive governments and extremist militias, a growing military arsenal, intervention in regional conflicts—can be made for Saudi Arabia, a major U.S. ally and purchaser of billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. weaponry. In fact, Saudi Arabia is arguably worse on every one of these counts.

Saudi military spending is several times that of Iran, even though it has less than one-third of Iran’s 82 million people. Even Israel and the United Arab Emirates, each with less than one-tenth of Iran’s population, has a higher military budget than Iran. The United States’ Gulf allies spend at least eight times more on their militaries than does Iran. Add to their advantage the thousands of U.S. troops, along with carrier groups and military bases surrounding Iran on three sides, and Trump’s insistence that Iran poses some kind of serious threat to regional security is absurd.

Like it or not, the Trump administration must accept the fact that Iran has been a regional power for close to two and a half millennia. Imposing brutal sanctions, threatening Iran with obliteration, and marginalizing moderate voices like Dr. Zarif with obliteration is not going to change that. 

Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco.

Medea Benjamin is co-director of the peace group CODEPINK. Her latest book is Inside Iran:The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic.


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  • Alexistori P Gonzalez
    commented 2019-07-29 15:44:10 -0400
    No. Wars. There. Are. Huge. SUCH.