Never before in recent history has the United States faced a country that has so persistently sought to kill Americans or attack Americans only to avoid consequences after every outrage. It’s not just a matter of:

  • The 1979-1981 hostage situation.
  • Assassinating an Iranian dissident in suburban Washington, DC.
  • The 1983 Marine Barracks bombing.
  • Seizing American hostages in Lebanon.
  • The 1996 Khobar Towers attacks.
  • The facilitation of transport for the 9/11 hijackers to and from Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.
  • Sheltering of senior al-Qaeda leaders post-9/11.
  • Smuggling of explosively-formed projectiles into Iraq and weaponry to the Taliban to kill Americans.
  • Plotting to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, DC.
  • Seizing, holding for years, and then ransoming a number of Iranian-Americans for years and continuing to hold former FBI agent Robert Levinson, left behind by the Obama administration in its rush to conclude a nuclear deal.

For none of the listed events has anyone in Iran faced any consequence. Rather, the problem is broader: There is a consistent and bizarre effort to whitewash Iranian excesses and to depict not the reality of the Islamic today, but rather a fictional and imaginary Iran.

Consider for a moment supposed U.S.-Iran cooperation in Afghanistan. Did that herald a new beginning scuttled by George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech as former diplomat James Dobbins suggested? Let’s put aside the idea that a regime which leads “Death to America” chants on a weekly basis has such a thin skin that it can’t deal with one line of criticism in a single speech. What Dobbins ignored was what Bush knew: Iran has built a then still covert and illicit enrichment facility at Natanz and was smuggling 50 tons of weaponry to Palestinian terrorists onboard the Karine-A. At best, Dobbins was guilty of being a single blind man describing the trunk of an elephant, not recognizing the rest of the beast was submerged in excrement. At worst, he was describing an imaginary Iran and castigating anyone else who did not fall victim to the same illusion.

Then, of course, there was the furious back-pedaling in the policy world and commentariat regarding Iran’s threats to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. The problem, of course, was that Iran’s own official translation — and numerous banners since then — repeated the threat in both English and Persian. Nevertheless, today numerous policymakers and proponents of the Iran deal simply deny what Iranian officials said and meant, ascribe to Iranian leaders a falsehood, and predicate policy on that kinder, gentler Iran.

There’s then the issue of the supposed 2003 “Grand Bargain” offer spread by Trita Parsi, Iran’s de facto lobbyist in Washington. The story was false on its face and, at the time Parsi spread the story, he knew it was false — the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations had emailed him as much. Nevertheless, he hooked a number of credulous reporters and now-Secretary of State John Kerry onto the conspiracy theory. To this day, it is amazing that, given decades of knowledge about Iran’s negotiating behavior, any serious journalist or politician could have for a second believed that Iran would offer to resolve everything with the snap of the fingers on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s right hand.

What about the promise of Iran’s youth? It is a common trope. The problem is, Iran actually has an aging population. The birthrate in the Islamic Republic is half of what it was in the 1980s, and the growth rate is not much greater than that of the United States once illegal immigration into the United States is included. Indeed, in recent years, the aging population has been a source of worry to Khamenei and the subject of several speeches, although the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has taken comfort in the fact that an aging population will be easier to control. In imaginary Iran, however, there is a burgeoning youth who want nothing more than McDonalds and apple pie.

What about Iran’s reformists? Let’s put aside that the Guardian Council has, in some elections, eliminated more than 99 percent of candidates and so those labelled reformists are actually in the top one percent of regime loyalists. What do the reformists believe? While former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became infamous for denying the Holocaust, his predecessor and “Dialogue of Civilizations” promoter Mohammad Khatami also promoted Holocaust denial. Maybe he was a kinder, gentler sort of Holocaust denier and revisionists, but sponsoring religious hatred with a smile shouldn’t make it any less odious.

What about elections? A whole series of American officials — Strobe Talbott, Richard Armitage, Colin Powell, John Kerry, among others — have at one point or another suggested Iran was a democracy. Let’s put aside the fact that only certain bodies come up to a popular vote and that sovereignty in Iran comes from God to the Supreme Leader, and not from the bottom up. Do those elections which occur matter? Not on the issues which concern U.S. policy most: Iran’s covert nuclear program was constructed during a period of supposed reformist control, and the Supreme National Security Council chair who oversaw the project was none other than Hassan Rouhani, the current president. But there’s also the logical flaw: If reformist election victories represent the will of the Iranian people, then what do the hardline election victories mean which, not by coincidence, intersperse the reformist victories? Again, it’s an imaginary Iran where elections represent the public will and matter only when they conform to the fantasies of ambitious American and Western diplomats.

But what about the journalists who cover such elections? Firstly, what few journalists will acknowledge publicly though many will admit privately is that they go where their minders allow them to go. Look at the backdrop to any Christiane Amanpour report from Iran and it’s likely to be affluent and relatively liberal northern Tehran or central Tehran. Seldom are reporters allowed to go (or bother to go) to Western Tehran, where many of the IRGC veterans and their families reside in housing projects, or to the slums south of Tehran, like Islamshahr, which often make up for in religious fervor and anti-Western sentiment what they lack in overseas bank accounts.

Then, of course, there’s the issue of religious minorities. How many journalists and academics have repeated the talking point that Iran has the second largest Jewish population in the Middle East (often cited as 20,000) as if that means all is well? Here’s the problem: Firstly, that ignores the exodus of 100,000 from the time of the Islamic Revolution. To only lose 84 percent of one’s population isn’t a good thing. To suggest that the Islamic State hosts the second-largest population of Yezidis should comfort no one. Then, there’s the issue that the 20,000 figure has been frozen in time for more than two decades. Today, the true number is closer to 8,000, Iranian Jews say. That journalists and academics are so willing to take Iranian government numbers at face value be they over the number of Jews, voter turn-out, or the number of executions is troubling. It’s almost as if there’s one set of journalistic standards and credulousness for Iran and another more rigorous set for the rest of the world.

Make no mistake. The Iranian people and the Islamic Republic are not one and the same, although President Obama’s contribution to U.S. rhetoric to Iran was to conflate the two. To criticize the Islamic Republic is not to castigate the Iranian people. And it is also true that most Iranians are far more moderate and cosmopolitan than their government. The sad fact is, however, that in dictatorships it is the guys with the guns who construct policy and not those whom they repress. Increasingly, whether out of naiveté, political correctness, agenda journalism, or effective Iran lobbyists to whom truth is only a secondary or tertiary concern, American officials see only the Iranian people and not their repressors.

It is one thing to try to craft policy to achieve what today is only an imaginary Iran — a normal state that seeks to join productively the community of nations — but another thing to gear policy to it as if that normal state already exists. Alas, until the White House, State Department, and Pentagon calibrate policy to the reality of the Islamic Republic’s ideological prerogatives, terror sponsorship, animosity toward the United States and incitement to genocide against Israel, the more likely it is that U.S. policy objectives will fail spectacularly and Iranian leaders will continue to pursue their aims successfully. Simply put, imaginary Iran is like the mythical siren luring sailors to their demise. No one in today’s world should so easily fooled.

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