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The National Interest

Why Trump's Iran Policy is Bound to Fail

The administration's aggressive policies evokes past destructive foreign interventions against Iran.

Trump's overtly hostile Iran policy has not prevented him from feigning concern for the same Iranian people he is helping to impoverish. (Photo: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

n May Day 1946, the British consul in the southwestern Iranian city of Khorramshahr noted a troubling development. An Iranian woman had taken to a local podium and proclaimed that the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) was exploiting the "jewel of Iran" and spending more on dog food than salaries for its Iranian workers. She demanded equal pay for equal work and the nationalization of Iran's oil industry.

AIOC—now known as BP—gained total control of Iranian oil after the 1901 D'Arcy Concession, which in 1933 was extended for sixty years by the country's monarch Reza Pahlavi. By the early 1950s, AIOC had in Iran the world's largest oil refinery and second largest exporter of oil, which provided the British navy with 85 percent of its fuel supply.

Needless to say, the Iranian woman's call was not heeded by the British, who went on to sanction Iran, blockade its oil exports, and together with the United States, topple the popular prime minister who nationalized the country's oil industry in 1953. Yet her voice is emblematic of countless Iranians in the country's modern history who have struggled for self-determination in the face of encroaching foreign powers and against autocracy at home.

The Trump administration's aggressive Iran policy evokes past destructive foreign interventions against Iran. It has been exemplified by reneging on the July 2015 nuclear deal despite complete Iranian compliance, banning Iranians from the United States, and seeking to bring maximum pressure in the form of " crippling" economic sanctions and regional " rollback" of Iranian influence. U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has even declared an unprecedented aim to reduce Iranian oil exports—the lifeblood of the Iranian economy—to zero.

Trump's frenzied saber-rattling was also on full display in a late-night July 22 Tweet in all-caps:

NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.

Such rhetoric and actions have been coupled by what CIA veteran Paul Pillar has described as a "list of a dozen inflexible demands" of Iran by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. These demands in fact foreclose avenues for diplomacy and reflect an expectation that Iran will crumble.

However, Trump's overtly hostile Iran policy has not prevented him from feigning concern for the same Iranian people he is helping to impoverish. In leaving the nuclear deal, he hailed the "long-suffering people of Iran" and declared that "the future of Iran belongs to its people."

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's address to a select group of Iranian expats on Sunday saw him proclaim to “the people of Iran: The United States hears you; the United States supports you; the United States is with you." Pompeo asserted the administration's goal is to "see Iranians in Iran enjoying the same quality of life that Iranians in America enjoy," while in the same breath outlining the "campaign" to sanction "Iran's banking and energy sectors" and "get [Iranian oil] imports as close to zero as possible."

Pompeo's statement to the mostly like-minded audience of Iranian Americans rekindles memories of Iraqi exiles in the form of Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress—who fooled the Bush White House into believing the Iraqi invasion would be a cakewalk. Bush officials failed to recognize the nonsense they were peddled chiefly because they lacked a nuanced understanding of Iraq, leading to a humanitarian catastrophe and a major strategic setback for the United States. Today, the Trump White House is following a similar path regarding Iran.

Trump is mistaken if he believes his policy will usher in pliant leaders in Tehran or force Iran to change. This is for a simple fact: most Iranians oppose U.S. meddling in their affairs irrespective of their views on their government. This derives from an entrenched view among Iranians, going back over 100 years, of Western powers as a source of foreign control. Such distrust persists today, as opinion polls show , even as many Iranians are fond of U.S. culture and want better relations with the West.

Iranian school children have been taught for decades of their country’s encounter with European colonialism. One instructive period for U.S. policymakers is early twentieth-century Iran, which serves to demonstrate the detrimental nature of foreign intervention not only for the cause of positive change in Iran, but for the interests of the outside power and its local allies.

At the turn of the century, Iran was a feudalistic peasant society with a large nomadic population and a heavily decentralized state in the Qajar dynasty, still reeling from the Gulistan (1813) and Turkmenchay (1828) treaties that conceded significant territory to Imperial Russia. However, a small but dedicated intelligentsia had formed by the early twentieth century, who helped lead public uproar to major concessions to the British in the late 1800s and later, the country's landmark Constitutional Revolution in 1906—a democratic movement ahead of its time in the region and globally.

The constitutionalists in Iran were met with major setbacks, including a coup attempt, a subsequent civil war and foreign invasions. However, they presided over Iran's first elections and spurred the creation of political parties and a proliferation of newspapers representing diverse views. Iran's first parliament—known as the National Assembly—opened in October 1906. A written constitution, modelled after the Belgian constitution, was instituted. It would endure, however nominally and with amendments, until the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The constitution, historian Ervand Abrahamian writes

Gave citizens a bill of rights including protection of life, property, and honor; freedom of speech, assembly, and organization; equality before the law; habeas corpus; and safeguards from arbitrary arrest. 

By the time of the Third Iranian Parliament (1914–15), there were two major parties competing under a constitutional monarchy: the Moderates and the Democrats. The later, according to Abrahamian, had a platform that called for

land reform, industrialization, railway construction, improvement in women’s status, equal rights for the religious minorities, abolition of the property qualification [for voting], expansion of public education, termination of capitulations, progressive taxation, national conscription, and, most immediate of all, creation of a viable central state with proper ministries and standing army.

The Iranian constitutionalists would ultimately succumb to the combined forces of foreign intrusion and domestic turmoil. After incursions by Russians, British, and Ottomans, the straw that broke the camel's back came after World War I in the form of the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement. The brainchild of Lord George Curzon, the British foreign secretary (1919–24) and a former viceroy of India, it effectively gave Britain dominion over Iran and a monopoly over its resources. Curzon's biographer Harold Nicholson described it as part of his aim to create "a chain of vassal states from the Mediterranean to India."

The reaction to the agreement was swift and impassioned, with Nicholson later noting that Curzon had "misjudged" that public sentiment was pro-British. General Dickson of the India Office sounded the alarm:

It does not appear to be realized at home how intensely unpopular agreement was in Persia and how hostile public opinion had become … The feeling grew that Britain was a bitter foe who must be rooted out of the country at any cost.

The agreement was met with vehement derision from all sectors of Iranian society, including intellectuals, the working class, and senior religious figures. Mirza Hassan Khan Vossuq al-Dowleh—the prime minister who signed it and received 160,000 pounds for his support along with a promise of political asylum if things went downhill—was personally targeted by Iranian nationalists. A " Punishment Committee " set up to hunt down the agreement's supporters assassinated four his close associates, triggering his resignation.

The ensuing chaos opened the door for Britain's rival, Bolshevik Russia, to make deep inroads into Iran. As Iran collapsed into a failed state, Reza Khan, an unknown Cossack commander, led a coup with British support. Within a few years, he overthrew the Qajar Dynasty, established himself as Shah, and took steps to balance Iran's foreign relations. He would go onto rule in the style of a military dictator and build a strong centralized state for the first time in Iranian history. His eventual alignment with Nazi Germany would see the allied powers remove him in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The history of Iran's Constitutional Revolution period serves as a poignant reminder of the unpredictable consequences of foreign intervention in Iran and the Iranian people's steadfast opposition to foreign domination. The Trump administration would do well to heed its lessons.

Secretary Pompeo's twelve demands are reminiscent of that bygone era, amounting to a call for Iran's blanket surrender on issues ranging from its civilian nuclear program, regional influence and territorial sovereignty in terms of giving inspectors free reign to any site in the country. Rather than leave room for diplomatic compromise, the administration has opted for economic warfare and a goal of regime collapse—a strategy devised by Trump's close allies Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, Emirati ruler Mohammed bin Zayed and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Trump administration has also reportedly teamed up with Israel to form a "joint working group" focused on "internal efforts to encourage protests within Iran." Such an approach promises dangerous escalation with the Islamic Republic, whose Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei once declared on an anniversary of the death of Mohammad Mossadegh, the prime minister ousted in the 1953 U.S./UK coup: “We are not liberals, like Allende, whom the CIA can snuff out.”

Iranians have long achieved political self-assertion with respect to foreign powers. Secretary Pompeo's meeting with largely fringe and fragmented Iranian opposition figures does not change the fact that the administration's approach hurts ordinary Iranians, sabotages the political opposition in Iran and empowers the most diehard theocrats in Tehran.

If Washington is sincere in supporting the aspirations of the Iranian people for improved civil liberties, human rights, and prosperity, it must recognize such progress can only be realized through grassroots organic political change—not on the heels of Trump and his autocratic regional allies.

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Sina Toossi

Sina Toossi is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

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