Iran’s aversion to the United States, which progressively morphed into an antagonism toward the collective geopolitical reality known as the West, was one of the founding precepts of the 1979 movement that gave birth to the Islamic Republic.
Followers of Middle East politics know well how the US support for Iran’s deposed Shah and how the hostage crisis alienated the two former allies that had rarely wavered in their commitment to each other’s security and prosperity since they established diplomatic relations in 1883.
But the induction of the world’s first Islamic Republic in Iran not only upended that decades-long conviviality, but unleashed a new period of blind enmity that only worsened over time. The two countries closed their eyes to a panoply of shared interests and a long history of cooperation, and instead began to provoke each other on every occasion.
US administrations in recent years have extended hands of friendship to Iran to ease the tensions, only to find their outreach dismissed by inflexible Iranian authorities.
Indeed, Iran is not the only country in the world to have poor relations with the United States. Similarly, there are governments that, because of their ideological mantras, don’t relish maintaining steady relations with the West and instead postulate anti-Western dogmas, either stemming from their historical experiences with colonialism or their revolutionary aspirations of combating Western “arrogance,” “imperialism” and the like.
But in Iran, anti-Americanism and anti-Western resistance is mutating into an industry, which is by chance very lucrative and keeping thousands of people employed, while at the same time damaging in its international appeal, becoming so hackneyed that it sometimes draws contempt for the Iranian government rather than earning it plaudits as a hallmark of its sovereignty and independence.
These days, it is uncommon for high-ranking Iranian authorities to give speeches at national events and international forums on every political and apolitical theme without their statements being infused with incendiary anti-US, anti-West connotations.
They start their tirades by listing anti-US or anti-UK grievances, from the 1953 coup that toppled a democratically elected government in Tehran, to the lethal downing of Iran Air Flight 655 in 1988 all the way to the January 2020 assassination of Iran’s top military commander General Qasem Soleimani and the economic sanctions that have paralyzed Iran’s economy over the past two decades.
And it is not only “guilts” established by evidence that they incriminate the West over. They often descend into propagation of fantasies about the West planning to launch a “cultural invasion” of Iran, distorting the lifestyle of Iranian families and undermining the values that piece Iranian society together, and most recently, have been busy rehashing conspiracy theories that the United States and other Western states are plotting to infect Iranian people and genetically manipulate them with their suspicious Covid-19 vaccines.
The trite West-bashing usually culminates in hubristic prognostication about the imminent fall of the US empire, the decadence of Western civilization, the waning of the unipolar world order and the degradation of “imperialism.”
Whether it’s the president of Iran, the minister of education, the Friday prayer leader of Tehran, a senior IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) commander or the mayor of Rasht, officials on both sides of the political aisle feel equally compelled to digress to bad-mouthing the United States and the West in their public appearances and media engagements, notwithstanding the relevance of such partisan verbiage with their official portfolios or the context of events on which they are speaking.
It sounds utterly absurd to an external observer, the same way virtually nobody would expect the state treasurer of California or the attorney general of Wisconsin to comment on the monstrosity of Iran’s nuclear program or the nebulousness of Tehran’s regional escapades.
But because anti-US and anti-Western rhetoric has evolved into an industry and even a metric of the relevance of the Islamic Republic with its present specifications, it appears as if Iranian officials, including the high-profile ones on the national level and those holding smaller public offices, either cannot kick the old habit of smearing Western bogeymen whenever the opportunity presents itself, or they have an eye on boosting their revolutionary credentials and currying favor with the establishment by casting such aspersions.
And then, international audiences often wonder what Iranian leaders have to say about their own country, its accomplishments, its vision for the future and its solutions for the challenges Iran and the Middle East face. They are typically murky about such details, but unequivocal and outspoken when railing against Washington and European capitals.
What is alarming about Iran’s persistence on insinuating anti-Western talking points is that the country’s top officials usually feel it’s diplomatically pertinent to try to arm-twist other countries, particularly the regional partners of the United States and Europe, into decoupling themselves from the imperialist West.
A recent example is the meeting between the first vice-president of Iran, Mohammad Mokhber, and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Tehran, where the Iranian politician told the visiting Iraqi leader on Sunday that “the presence of the United States in the region equals mere damage” and that the US military footprint in the region has only imposed “substantial loss and damage” on the regional countries.
Mokhber, himself subject to US sanctions, was most probably trying to urge Kadhimi to speed up the process of the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. But even to a country like Iraq, which the Iranian authorities tout as a faithful ally and a Muslim world comrade, what has consistently mattered is national interest rooted in pragmatic calculations about foreign policy, not ill-defined, misguided doctrines that have embroiled its neighbor, Iran, in skirmishes with most of the world.
In 2019, the United States was the No 4 main destination of Iraq’s exports. Iraqi President Barham Salih was educated in the United Kingdom and retained British citizenship until 2018 before he became president. Similarly, Kadhimi holds dual Iraqi-British citizenship and resided in the UK for several years when Saddam Hussein was in power.
These people, like most of the leaders of the regional countries, recognize how portentous and imperative international integration is, and have no plans to pick a fight with the United States or the West even if the logic of deep West-Muslim world cleavages dictates that there are differences between the two sides.
Deplorably, Iran is still frozen in the Cold War–style obsessions about good versus evil and is unable to perceive the world through the prism of national interest and what can bring prosperity and welfare to its people. That’s why much of the world treats Iran as an outcast and ignores its incessant lectures about the moral decline of the United States and the West.
Yes, it is true that the Iranian government has staged eccentric events such as the “Tabas anti-American poetry festival” and annually sponsors and funds massive rallies for conservative henchmen to take to streets and chant “Death to America” across several Iranian cities or even went the extra mile to convert the premises of the former US embassy in Tehran into an exhibition of anti-American murals and paintings.
But even such half-witted – yet costly – innovations haven’t won Iran acclaim as the frontrunner of struggle against US unilateralism or Western vanity.
It is also true that the United States has engaged in duplicitous military expeditions and destructive foreign-policy agendas over the past decades, and it was aided and abetted by the Europeans, from the Vietnam War to its deadly campaigns in the Middle East.
But the bottom line is that Iran isn’t really tasked by anybody to discipline the United States and the West or lead a holy war against the evils of Western imperialism. The best Iran can do in its relations with the US and the West more broadly is to forge sustainable partnerships, based on realistic cost-benefit deliberations, and secure the interests and well-being of its people through these interactions.
And of course, nobody expects that Iran should come to a compromise with the US and the West over every single fault line. Differences remain even between the most cordial allies. What needs to be achieved is maturity in policymaking.
But Iran’s anti-Western animus is failing to convince a critical, probing young population about the reasonability of where it’s heading.
Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian journalist and reporter. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow. Kourosh was named a finalist in the category of Local Reporter of the Year in the 2020 Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism.