Buckle up for another stupid divisive Iran debate
It need not be this way, but the advocacy-driven agendas of elite voices are often disconnected from the reality of the Middle East and what most Americans support
Forces are assembling on different sides, gathering ammunition, staking out positions, and preparing to fire initial salvos. No, this isn’t about the Ukraine crisis with Russia or China’s threats against Taiwan – it’s about the competing echo chambers in America’s foreign policy debate, assembled to fight the same battle that was had 7 years ago over a possible nuclear agreement with Iran.
With another round of diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program underway in Vienna, the politicking in America has already begun before a possible deal is sealed – if one is even achieved. That’s a sign of how important the issue is, especially for the people who live in the Middle East and regional governments that have strong views about it.
But it’s also a reflection of the divisive dysfunction that has come to define America’s own foreign policy debate as well as the media and political culture that’s developed over the past decade as social media created caustic, reductive debates about complicated issues like Iran.
Deal or no deal?
Just to review, Iran has played a controversial role in the Middle East for decades. It has given support to various groups including terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, and in recent years it pursued a nuclear program that many feared was designed to produce nuclear weapons. Intensive international diplomatic efforts begun under the Bush administration, when combined with economic sanctions that imposed costs on Iran, led to a deal during the Obama administration in 2015. This agreement imposed some restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity but didn’t address many broader questions about Iran’s actions in the Middle East - including its support for terrorist networks.
The Trump administration pulled America out of the deal in 2018 and imposed economic measures in an effort to make Iran’s leaders negotiate a deal with more safeguards, but this “maximum pressure” policy failed to achieve its stated goals.
I supported the 2015 deal, but with strong reservations and concerns about the next steps needed to stabilize the region. After the deal was concluded, I testified a few times before Congress highlighting the key gaps in America’s approach on Iran that needed to be addressed, including Iran’s actions to foster regional instability and the reactions of some of America’s partners in the Middle East.
That was then, and this is now. The divisive debate over Iran in America mirrors a broader trend in our country’s debate to make a partisan wedge issue out of anything and everything. The way that the previous debates on Iran have gone – especially among opinion leaders and experts – have just reinforced “red versus blue” divisions and intra-party ideological disputes, a dynamic that the regime in Iran and its supporters actively seek to exploit for their own purposes.
The irony here is that most ordinary Americans actually support a fairly balanced approach to Iran policy and are open to many options. It’s just that much of the so-called “expert” class has fallen into a simplistic, advocacy-focused debate driven by a cheap form of politics that ends up confusing most Americans and the rest of the world.
Americans’ views on Iran: pretty negative, but looking for pragmatic results
Take a step back and look at the bigger picture – most ordinary Americans outside of these elite debates share some consistent views about the country and what America should do about Iran. Certainly, there are partisan divisions on some key issues, but that’s in part due to the dynamic of experts not really doing their job properly – they’ve narrowed options and thinking in the way debate is conducted rather than widened them.
On the most basic measure, a strong majority of Americans – around 8 in 10 – say they have a mostly unfavorable view on Iran.
This trend line from Gallup shows some consistency over decades – that makes sense because Iran has done a lot of bad things over the years, and Americans know it. When regular Americans see leaders in another country in front of large crowds chanting “Death to America” on their nightly news, it tends to have an impact.
Additional public opinion research conducted in 2019 tested the image of a number of countries with a slightly more nuanced framework than “favorable/unfavorable.” Instead, the poll asked if people considered a list of countries either mostly a friend, mostly an enemy, or mostly a competitor. Fully 71 percent of Americans saw Iran as “mostly an enemy,” coming in second after North Korea in the countries tested at the time.
Some observers may argue this is a bad rap and that it doesn’t reflect the complexities of what’s going on in Iran, but these numbers are pretty consistent. Others may point to data that shows how the Iranian people are actually more sympathetic to America than the regime - and while that may be true, Iran has a government that can’t be classified as friendly to America.
Flash forward to 2022, where despite this deep negativity towards Iran most Americans are pretty open-minded about pursuing a variety of policy options - and the divisive debate among much of the policy expert class looks set to miss an opportunity to construct a wider consensus on the Iran issue.
A Morning Consult poll conducted at the end of December 2021 contained some interesting findings that could better ground the debate about Iran:
A majority of Americans (56%) support the 2015 agreement, but there is a strong partisan gap on whether Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, with 67% of Republicans in favor and 65% of Democrats against it.
Majorities of Americans support increased economic sanctions generally (65%), increased sanctions against key Iranian officials (61%), and increased diplomacy (59%).
Support for covert military operations against Iran divides Americans pretty sharply, and most Americans oppose a military ground invasion.
The fact that a military option is not strongly supported is no big surprise – this is in part a consequence of the inconclusive wars America has fought in for decades now. In research conducted in 2019, most Americans opposed military actions on Iran (55%), but that opinion shifted sharply when asked if Iran attacked U.S. soldiers and civilians. In that latter scenario, something that could happen at any moment given the tinderbox that is today’s Middle East, support for U.S. military action jumped to 73 percent.
But if you look at this bigger picture of where the American public is at on Iran, the opinion research shows that Americans are looking for practical results and different policy pathways, something that the current policy debate isn’t really providing right now.
Gotta find a way, a better way, I’d better wait
In the days and weeks to come, much of the focus of our foreign policy debate will be on the nuclear deal and all of its details. But the two missing elements from the debate where a stronger consensus can be forged are on regional security and the support for the Iranian people.
On regional security, most Americans instinctively understand that it’s important to protect our own people and stand by the countries that are also facing threats from Iran. Despite some fringe voices that tend to blame America first for all of the ills of the Middle East and a few, more mainstream calls for America to pull back from the region, the trajectory of U.S. policy remains fairly balanced, on a course towards right-sizing its approach after the massive over-investments of the post-9/11 period.
When partners are threatened, America mounts a calibrated response, even if the moves are sometimes slow and seem uncertain. The views outlined earlier this week by General Erik Kurilla, President Joe Biden’s nominee to be America’s top general in the Middle East, are a more accurate representation of America’s approach to the region than the advocacy debates on Twitter. Offering a stronger defense of ourselves and our friends makes sense to most Americans, but that doesn’t mean a full-blown war with Iran.
The other missing component is a stronger focus on the people of Iran – and by raising the people of Iran, this doesn’t mean going back to even older debates about regime change and military occupation. Instead, it means focusing on more tools to make people aware of the nature of the challenges the people of Iran face in meeting their basic needs, responding to the pandemic, dealing with things like water insecurity, and facing a brutal autocratic regime that squelches dissent. To be sure, Iran’s adversaries across the Gulf suffer from a lot of these problems too - but that fact shouldn’t be used to divert attention from the simple fact that millions of Iranian people want something different from what they are experiencing in their daily lives. American diplomacy could be more creative in finding new economic, energy, and health security policy tools that help make conditions better for the people of Iran.
For several decades now, America’s Iran debate has been narrowed and oversimplified by a number of false choices and simplistic memes: it’s either a deal or a full-blown war, or we can’t lift our voices up in concern for the Iranian people for fear of scuttling nuclear diplomacy, or we need to wall off the complicated regional security problems that Iran’s actions and the missteps and overreaches of other countries in the Middle East.
Some of this is the consequence of the echo chambers constructed here in America – entire careers have been built on lobbying, advocating, blogging, and tweeting out various memes about narrow aspects of Iran policy, often with a strong emotional and psychological connection to a particular position. Some journalists cover with granular detail about the inner workings of various administration’s policy teams, fixated on low-level staff moments as if this level of policy making is where the action really matters. It hasn’t made Iran policy better or built a stronger consensus, on the whole.
The sum is less than the individual parts. There is a better way.
As I wrote in an earlier phase of the Iran debate with my colleague Peter Juul,
A better alternative would seek to build greater unity of purpose as the United States seeks to address challenging national security questions linked to Iran and the United States’ role in the Middle East. But the impoverished political and policy debate in both countries has fed a cycle of internal political fragmentation and short-term crisis management thinking that encourages reckless escalation that could easily spiral out of control.
The United States’ interests and values would be better served by stepping back to look at the big picture and develop a multiyear game plan that seeks to restore some balance and order in the Middle East as well as conduct the debate in a way that builds coalitions at home rather than fragments or prevents them.
This sort of long-term approach would acknowledge that even as the United States shifts its global strategic focus away from the Middle East, it remains strongly against U.S. interests to see a regressive power such as Iran dominate the Gulf and further extend its influence across the wider region. A strategy of calibrated engagement gives the United States the best chance to prevent such negative outcomes while decreasing the risk of open military conflict with Iran. It requires the United States to do its part to maintain a stable balance of power in the Gulf, though in a much more considered and controlled fashion than has been the case in recent decades. This approach ultimately aims to keep the regime in check until either its conduct changes or Iranians change the regime themselves.
This isn’t the only way forward, and I’m open to other options based on analysis, but there’s a better debate to be had.
I’m not holding my breath for that to happen, but one can keep hope alive.