As Trump barrels toward war with Iran, it’s worth putting ourselves in the Iranians’ shoes and imagining the roles were reversed.
Suppose for a second that Iran had the largest, most powerful military in the world, that its military budget was roughly thirty-seven times the size of the United States’. Imagine that by virtually every metric, from the number of military personnel to air and naval power, the US was vastly outstripped by Iran.
Imagine that Iran was closely allied with several equally hostile countries in North America, whose military budgets also dwarfed that of the US. Imagine the US had no nuclear weapons as a deterrent; in fact, imagine that it was Iran who had the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, and was the only country in history to have used them on civilian targets. And imagine that one of its American allies, say, Venezuela, was secretly stockpiling anywhere between eighty and three hundred nukes.
Imagine the US was encircled by Iranian military bases, stationed in just about every nearby country. Imagine that Iran had tens of thousands of troops stationed around the Gulf of Mexico, while collaborating with one of the US’s chief adversaries to carry out a genocidal war in the continent.
Imagine, too, that the Iranian government had a history of meddling in US domestic affairs. Imagine the Iranian government had engineered a coup in the US sixty years ago that replaced president Dwight Eisenhower with a despotic monarch, one as friendly to Iranian business interests as he was adept at repressing his own people. Or imagine that, decades later, Iran backed a Mexican war against the US with weapons and intelligence, turning a blind eye as the Mexican government gassed Americans with chemical weapons.
Then imagine that those in charge of the Iranian government started to act in increasingly erratic and frightening ways. Imagine they started unilaterally pulling out of landmark arms control agreements and rejecting efforts at international cooperation on everything from stopping climate change to prosecuting war crimes to banning cluster bombs. Imagine they turned on Mexico and launched not one but two wars against the country, ultimately deposing its leadership and replacing it with Iran’s preferred government. Imagine that that second war was built on false pretenses, roundly opposed by most of the globe, and came after years of Iran pressuring Mexico to disarm, which it had. At some point, perhaps US leaders would decide their best bet was to look at developing nuclear capabilities of their own, after all.
Imagine, then, that only eight years after this war created a swirling vortex of chaos in the middle of North America, Iran attacked yet another country in the same region, deposing its leader, who was quickly set upon by an angry mob and raped with a bayonet. All the while, Iranian figures in media and government saber-rattled about the US, hinting or outright threatening Americans that they were next.
Imagine that as Iran and its nuclear-armed Venezuelan allies leveled military threats at the US, it was also punishing the American leadership for its suspected nuclear ambitions by imposing ever-tightening sanctions that made life hell for ordinary Americans, many of whom didn’t necessarily support everything their government did. Picture US unemployment soaring well into double digits, food and medicine growing scarce, and what little of it there was becoming impossibly expensive. Suppose that friends and relatives overseas and international humanitarian agencies couldn’t even send money and aid to the American people because of the sanctions, and that Americans who needed to travel urgently overseas for medical treatment were blocked from travelling.
Then imagine everything changes. The US public vote in a leader who’s less aggressive and more open to dialogue with Iran and its allies, and the Iranian leadership softens its approach to the US. The two countries agree to a historic deal that would see sanctions against the US lifted if it demonstrably abandons attempts to obtain a nuclear weapon. The deal is widely celebrated and both countries are in full compliance with the deal a year into it.
Now fast-forward a few more years. In the interim, the Iranian people have, for reasons unrelated to US policy, elected a dangerous, erratic demagogue to power who has promised to rip up the deal and regularly threatens other countries with military force. He has staffed his government with men who have called for war with the US. One of them is perhaps the most unhinged warmonger on the world diplomatic stage, and wrote an op-ed in the country’s leading newspaper titled, “To Stop America’s Bomb, Bomb America,” just as peace negotiations were coming to fruition.
This frightening new Iranian leader openly violates the conditions of the deal his country signed. He re-imposes devastating sanctions that again crush the US economy just as it was recovering, and baselessly accuses the US of being the one flouting the deal with which it continues to comply. The US leadership nevertheless sticks to the deal’s terms, even after Iran officially pulls out and keeps increasing economic pressure on the US, whose patience starts running short.
Suddenly, in the middle of trying to engineer a coup against a regional rival, this Iranian government starts leveling charges about US threats against its military presence in the Americas. Officials begin feeding inflammatory claims about US attacks to the media without any evidence. The Iranian leader starts evacuating personnel from countries neighboring the US and sending an aircraft carrier and other military assets into the Gulf of Mexico. Some of these claims are proven wrong by satellite imagery and are openly disputed by the Iranian leader’s own allies, who warn his government against continuing with this strategy lest it result in war. But that appears to be precisely the goal.
This is not a perfect or comprehensive outline of the situation as it stands with the US and Iran. It requires pretending that Iran is a global superpower and the US a small and comparatively weak regional power, and you have to forget that the US, by virtue of its size and geographic position, can’t really be encircled the way Iran is right now. It also leaves out some of real-life Iran’s own provocative behavior, though of course it pales in comparison with the way the US itself has behaved.
But flipping the script like this is useful nonetheless. US media reporting on Iran isn’t going to regularly explain to readers the long, tangled history of US-Iranian relations, and is typically written from the point of view of US government officials. For instance, even a recent New York Times piece somewhat critical of the drive to war talks about a “troubling Iranian mobilization of forces” putting “American ships, bases and commercial vessels at risk.” One wonders if a US paper would ever describe American mobilization in the Gulf of Mexico as “troubling” if it came as a response to years of threats and provocative behavior from Iran.
Looking at this history from the point of view of Iran reveals three things. First, for Iran — or, for that matter, any government with less than friendly relations with the US — could there be a more logical conclusion than that pursuing or keeping nuclear weapons is its safest bet for survival? Just this century so far, the US has already offed two governments in Iran’s vicinity that it had earlier pressured to disarm, and has been threatening regime change against Iran for decades now.
Second, it shows just how absurd the idea is that Iran poses any kind of security threat to the US. While the claim that Iran represents a menace against which the US needs to be on guard is regularly and uncritically trotted out in mainstream reporting on the subject, this is a fairy-tale that has little to do with reality. Even if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon — and further nuclear proliferation is not something anyone on earth should support — it would still be vastly outmatched by Israel and the US.
Last is how outrageous and frightening US government policy toward Iran has been, particularly under Trump. The Iran deal was working when Trump mindlessly pulled out of it for reasons that have more to do with domestic politics than genuine concern about nuclear proliferation, all while threatening and pressuring a compliant Iran for no good reason. Now his government seems to be feeding the press outright lies to justify an impending war, even stepping up its military presence in the Persian Gulf in the hope that it provokes a rash response from Iran — actions that are, once again, vocally opposed by the rest of the world.
Trump is reportedly having buyer’s remorse, blaming John Bolton and Mike Pompeo for potentially drawing him into a war with the country. It’s a scary situation when we need to depend on Donald Trump being the adult in the room to avoid another horrific Middle East.
But if the world does get out of this with no war, don’t give Trump any credit for it. After all, what did he think would happen when he hired these guys, particularly Bolton? What did he think would come from pulling out of the Iran deal and provoking the country by crushing its economy? Or of beating the war drums against the country nonstop for two and a half years? Trump knew what he was doing; getting cold feet at the last minute doesn’t exonerate him.