The West easily forgets that the Iranian Revolution was orchestrated by not only the hardline Islamist mullahs, but also by pro-democratic reformists, secular moderates, and communists. Just before the Shah was placed on the throne a few decades ago, Iran had a functional democracy that was lead by Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Around this time, Iran sought to nationalize its oil industry which was jointly controlled by Britain and Iran. After Operation Ajax, a military coup coordinated and planned by the CIA, the Shah stood at the pinnacle of Iranian society, enjoying the support from both the American and British governments. The ultimate result was the creation of a staunchly anti-American society; one that the Islamist wing of the revolution took advantage of. Luckily, the reformist base of Iranian society is still present; however, for it to be effectively revived and mobilized, America must do its part to abandon its anti-Iranian rhetoric and embrace a more conciliatory and diplomatic approach towards the regime.
Anti-Americanism in Iran can be traced back to the autocratic rule of the Shah, as well as his use of the SAVAK, the secret police of Iran which gained notoriety after brutally executing and torturing tens of thousands of political dissidents and citizens. Yet, despite the regime’s funding of Hezbollah, its central role in funding anti-American propaganda, and the staging of “Death to America” chants on every anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, the country’s most prominent public intellectual, Sadegh Zibakalam, professes that the country’s anti-Americanism is running out of steam. Due to the Iranian nuclear deal, he says, Iranian society will see the normalization of relations with the West as a contrarian narrative to what the regime broadcasts on the state-run television and other propaganda outlets. Furthermore, increasing foreign direct investment into the country’s youthful and robust market will encourage entrepreneurs and previously untapped markets to flourish. Consider this: the Islamic Republic has a bustling $393.8 billion dollar economy, the second largest in the region, and according to the IMF is outpacing its regional rivals at a growth rate of 4% in 2016. It would be foolish for Western economies not to see the wide-ranging opportunities that lie in the Islamic Republic.
Aside from the potential benefits from American rapprochement with Iran, the sanctions regimes have been incredibly ineffective in containing not only Iran, but other rogue states. The United States must abandon its needless crusade of containing pariah regimes, as it is not only a neoconservative concoction for neverending intervention, but also represents a clear double standard in American foreign policy.
To start with, neoconservatism in the United States is a relatively new phenomenon; it first emerged in the mid-1990s in opposition to Bill Clinton’s mantra of humanitarianism and liberal interventionism. Neoconservatism was similar to liberal internationalism, in that it called for the use of American force abroad to ensure stability; however, its ends were different. Contrary to liberal internationalism, it sought to follow “pragmatic realism,” or the idea that the United States must venture abroad to stifle any threats to its international peace. Liberal internationalism merely aimed to elevate human rights on the international agenda, prevent humanitarian crises from becoming uncontained, and advocate democracy, either through normative or political means. Second, the United States declared Iran a state sponsor of terrorism, while it itself was arming the Mujahideen, the future leaders of the Taliban and other Islamist groups, in Afghanistan. To this day, the United States has called for arming a variety of radical rebel groups in Syria.
It is no secret that American intervention in the Middle East has greatly advanced the interests of non-state actors, both commercially and politically. Furthermore, Americans are easily aware of the many ways in which the Iranian regime threatens the national security and interests of the United States, yet few Americans are able to understand how Iranians perceive the West. If your democratic government was toppled by a CIA-led coup, then you would certainly react negatively towards the government that orchestrated it. The United States has also repeatedly aligned with the Sunni coalition of the region, which certainly puts Iran in a risky position both militarily and politically. Lastly, antagonizing the Iranian people will persuade them to back the more hardline conservative candidates, who have consistently held staunchly anti-American views and argue for Iran’s nuclear ambitions to be realized.
The West must be more conscientious of its tentative history with the Islamic Republic. Casting it as a pariah state and an aggressor will do little to empower the pockets of Iranian society that have long held democratic and secular views. The sanctions must be undone. While the Iranian regime may be distasteful and antithetical to the values and freedoms that the United States has long embraced, it is not representative of Iranian society. The latter is comprised of those who have the will and the capability to move the country into a more enlightened and tolerant direction; however, without American support, they will continue to be absent from any dialogue pertaining to Iran’s development and internal change.