You have to wonder what people in Iran are thinking in the face of some seriously questionable foreign policy moves and rhetoric by Washington over the last week.
Not that anyone expects the U.S administration to demonstrate any kind of moral compass on the international stage. After all, this is a president who recently vetoed three joint resolutions that would have prohibited arms transfers to Saudi Arabia — these weapons will continue to prop up a war that has already killed more than 70,000 people in Yemen. This is also a president who heaped praise on his “friend” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman while ignoring questions from the media about the crown prince’s role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But it’s still hard to stomach the sheer arrogance and patronizing guise of concern the U.S. displays towards Iranians to justify yet another regime-changing war in the Middle East.
In a recent interview, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo graciously offered to visit Iranians personally so they could hear “the truth.”
“Sure, if that’s the call, [I’d] happily go there,” he said. “I’d like a chance to go, not do propaganda but speak the truth to the Iranian people about what it is their leadership has done and how it has harmed Iran.”
His ignorance — or perhaps it was intended to be deliberate mockery — is staggering. Iranians, like many Americans, are under no illusions over the malfeasance of their political leaders.
But they’re also not oblivious to the fact that widespread economic discontent in the country is largely a result of crippling sanctions reimposed by the United States after Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal brokered by Iran and foreign powers four years ago.
Since 2015, inflation has soared, oil exports have dropped and prices of imported medicines have risen as the national currency has tumbled about 60 per cent against the U.S. dollar. Even medicines manufactured in Iran are difficult to buy, largely because of the fall in household incomes.
But no, the “truth” according to Pompeo is that Iran’s decimated economy is solely a result of their leaders, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
“Foreign Minister Zarif is no more in charge of what’s going on in Iran than a man in the moon,” Pompeo said. “At the end of the day, this is driven by the Ayatollah. He will be the ultimate decision-maker here.”
It was a strange assertion to make. If Zarif wasn’t considered an appropriate person to communicate with, why did Trump quietly invite him to the Oval Office last month? And which foreign minister is a government’s ultimate decision-maker anyway? Is Pompeo?
“Zarif is neither the leader of the opposition nor a regime change-champion,” Ali Vaez, a director with the International Crisis Group in Washington D.C., told me. “He is the foreign minister of the Islamic Republic and defends the political order in Tehran in the same way that his counterparts in the United States, Saudi Arabia, Israel and elsewhere do.
“Diplomats around the world are driven by their perception of national interest, not morality. That is precisely why Secretary Pompeo never criticizes human rights violations in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain,” he added.
Pompeo’s comments about Iran were made on July 25, and we know now that the secretary of state was foreshadowing what was to come. On July 31, the U.S. declared it was sanctioning Zarif for “reprehensible” behaviour, including functioning “as a propaganda minister, not a foreign minister.”
Zarif’s response via Twitter was characteristically eloquent.
“It has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interests outside of Iran. Thank you for considering me such a huge threat to your agenda,” he said.
“Instead of making empty and disingenuous offers, @SecPompeo can accept any of the many requests from Iranian reporters to interview US officials.
He has refused til now, as he knows he has to be accountable to rigourous questioning—the very same way I am by the US media.”
Again, accusing Zarif of propaganda sounds strange coming from a government whose State Department was recently discovered to be funding an organization whose hardline stance against Tehran saw it targeting American journalists, activists and academics whom it didn’t consider critical enough of Tehran. According to a spokesperson, funding for the Iran Disinformation Project has now been suspended. The project was funded through the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, aimed at combating foreign propaganda and disinformation.
Vaez explained Trump’s rationale for sanctioning Zarif most strikingly on an interview with CNN last week. It is “a case of personal animus and maybe jealousy here because Secretary Pompeo knows that Foreign Minister Zarif is a much more effective communicator and a much better speaker than he is.”
The sanctions are unlikely to impact Zarif much other than his access to social media, a medium he uses often to push against Trump’s demonization of Iran, Vaez added. “But the language and the lexicon that Secretary Pompeo and [National Security Advisor] John Bolton use … clearly shows that the Trump administration policy, in fact, at its core, is a regime change policy. This is not a policy aimed at reaching a diplomatic settlement with the Iranians.”
The other wayward impact of this decision is that Zarif remains one of Iran’s most popular politicians. Even his staunchest critics, the hardline political elite who often accuse him of being enamoured with the U.S., are now rallying around him. Every reckless move America takes right now is a step closer to military collision.
Perhaps most depressing is that while doctors in Iran continue to scramble to find chemotherapy medicine to treat children with cancer, tensions with Iran are barely factoring into American political consciousness. As Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, tweeted: “Well the 2 1/2 minutes on the US's upcoming catastrophic war is done let’s move on.”