It’s hard to put into words the schizophrenic trauma Iranian-Americans have been feeling this past month – from massive protests against rising fuel prices that resulted in a government backlash and nationwide shutdown of the internet, to President Donald Trump’s rogue assassination of Iran’s top general Qassem Soleimani, to Iran’s missile attack of two Iraqi bases used by American troops, to the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian plane resulting in the deaths of all 176 passengers, over half of whom were Iranians.
As perplexed and fearful as many Americans are right now, events like these are nothing new for Iranian-Americans. Many of us have lived our entire lives gripping for war. That’s because the conflict we’re seeing goes all the way back to 1953, when the U.S. opted to protect British oil interests over Iran’s first and only democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, viewed by many to be Iran’s leading champion of secular democracy. That was the first blow in U.S.-Iran relations.
Fast forward to today. It’s important to understand the history of what brought us here to fully appreciate the damage caused by the current administration’s continuous sabotaging of Iran’s moderates and reformists, who are working to reject the ideological extremism that has come to characterize the country. When Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal, crackdowns on activists spiked. When sanctions were imposed, the economic repercussions contributed directly to increased political conflict – and with it, repression on the slightest hints of dissent. Trump’s “maximum pressure” is a failed method Ronald Reagan already tried with the Soviet Union. What finally worked – and peacefully – was diplomatic dialogue, which then gave moderate Mikhail Gorbachev the political latitude to enact social and economic changes that subsequently broke up the USSR and ended the Cold War.
There’s a lesson to be learned here: True transformation doesn’t come from sanctions – it comes from a leader willing to engage. Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rouhani was that leader. Yet Trump’s shortsightedness only stands to empower the conservative hardliners who embody the most corrupt and oppressive aspects of Iranian government.
You can’t undo 66 years of mistrust with one good deed, let alone an unsanctioned assassination. The Trump administration’s deluded fantasy that his actions can pave the way to a democratic Iran is the ultimate insult to a country that was already on that path before uncalled-for U.S. intervention took it away. Iranians have nothing to gain from Soleimani’s death. Neither do Americans. Those who will gain are Republicans and hardliners, seeking to maintain the status quo.
Hostility, confrontation and killing generals don’t bring other countries to the negotiating table. That requires a special brand that’s foreign to the current administration: diplomacy and respect.