Why US hostility to Iran is not set in stone

Why US hostility to Iran is not set in stone

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The controversy over last week’s meeting between Democratic Senator Chris Murphy and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif highlighted shifting and increasingly partisan views of Iran in the US.

Facing criticism from Republicans, Murphy said he had “no delusions about Iran — they are our adversary,” but that it was “dangerous to not talk to your enemies.” In many ways, his statement summarized Democratic views of Iran, while the Republican Party tends to take a more absolutist approach.

The US and Iran have a complicated history. After the Second World War, Washington helped to ensure that the UK and the Soviet Union pulled out of Iran rather than permanently divide it into spheres of influence. However, the US lost much Iranian goodwill when it participated in the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. Later, under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran was a US ally — one of the “twin pillars” of US Middle East policy.

However, events before 1979 are of little relevance in shaping more recent American views of Iran; the 1979 revolution and the hostage crisis have long formed the basis for American public and policymaker attitudes.  

While American views of the Islamic Republic’s leadership are almost uniformly negative, Americans’ views of the Iranian people are more nuanced

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Before 1979, most Americans had little impression of the Middle East or the Muslim world, aside from US support for Israel and concern about the 1973-1974 oil embargo. That changed in 1979. The holding of 52 Americans in Tehran for 444 days received nightly coverage in TV news reports. Across the US, Americans felt deep anger toward Iran’s new leaders and the Iranians who supported them.

The experience not only shaped American views of Iran for decades, it also tainted Americans’ views of the Middle East and Islam more widely. Many Americans struggle to distinguish between Shia and Sunni Islam, or between Iran and the rest of the region. The revolution and hostage crisis also mixed with other events, including Arab hostility toward Israel and the Lebanese civil war, to create a negative view of the Middle East and the Muslim world.

While the hostage crisis was the seminal event shaping American attitudes toward Iran, later events reinforced the negative perceptions. In 1983, Lebanese groups linked to Iran killed 63 people in an attack on the US embassy in Beirut and 241 US military personnel in an attack on a Marine compound in Beirut. Between 1982 and 1991, groups linked to Iran kidnapped 25 Americans as well as Europeans, some of whom were killed. Iranian hostility toward Israel also played a role in shaping American perceptions of Iran.

In the 1990s, Washington started imposing a series of sanctions on Iran. In 2002, President George W. Bush labeled Iran part of an “axis of evil,” along with North Korea and Iraq. This was also the year that information about Iran’s nuclear program was revealed, heightening concerns that Iran could acquire nuclear weapons.

Cultural events contributed to Americans’ negative views of Iran. For example, movies such as “Not Without My Daughter” (1991), “300” (2006) and “Argo” (2012) contributed to negative perceptions, although the first and last were based on real events and included heroic Iranian characters as well as villainous ones.

While American views of the Islamic Republic’s leadership are almost uniformly negative, Americans’ views of the Iranian people are more nuanced. Many Americans understand that some Iranians support the regime and others oppose it.

Today, American views of Iran remain largely negative. Gallup polling going back to 1989 shows that Americans’ overall views of Iran have held mostly steady, with 82 percent having an unfavorable view in 2019. However, some data suggests that Americans are less likely than in the past to see Iran as a major threat; a 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that only 6 percent of Americans believed Iran posed the greatest threat to the US, compared with 24 percent in 2007.

There are some shifts in views that could affect US policy in the future. Younger generations did not experience the national trauma of the Iran hostage crisis. Many younger Americans are more willing than previous generations to recognize what their country has done to Iran — overthrowing Mossadegh, supporting an authoritarian shah, supporting Iraq in the war with Iran, shooting down an Iranian passenger plane in 1988, and imposing sanctions that punish regular Iranians — as well as acknowledging what Iran has done to Americans. Among younger military officers, Iran has a bad reputation, given its role in supporting Iraqi groups that fought US soldiers; nonetheless, drawing on their experience with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them are skeptical of regime change policies toward Iran or other countries.

As with other foreign policy issues, American views of Iran are increasingly linked to partisan identities. A strong majority of Republicans support President Donald Trump’s approach toward Iran, while a strong majority of Democrats disapproves; attitudes toward the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 agreement for Iran to curb its nuclear program in return for a relaxation of sanctions, also reflect partisan divides. This does not mean that Democrats view the Iranian regime positively; rather, it means that they could consider more diplomatic approaches toward managing Iran.

Americans of different parties and generations still view the Iranian regime negatively. Shifts in attitudes are more limited to views of the Iranian people, the history of US-Iran relations, and the balance of hard and soft power in dealing with Tehran. As younger American generations move into leadership positions, US policy may become less reliably hostile.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years' experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch 
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