“Where are you from?” the elderly man asked politely, as my wife and I strolled through his small Iranian village in early May.
“America,” I answered.
“Wonderful,” he said, grabbing my shoulders and giving me the traditional three kisses on my cheeks. “I am so glad you are here.”
Then he asked, “But why does your government hate us so much?”
I am not shy about criticizing US government policies—when I’m home in America. But, when I’m abroad, I tend to get defensive about my country. So, I muttered something about the importance of people of different nations getting to know each other independent of their politicians, and turned our conversation to the history of his ancient town.
But his question—asked of us by many other ordinary Iranians happy to meet American visitors—deserves a better response. Not so much to explain our foreign policy to Iranians, but to ourselves.
Demonization of Iran runs wide and deep in our mainstream politics. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump tell us that Iran is the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism, aimed at taking over the whole Middle East, if not the world (this echoes the State Department, which in its recently released annual report calls Iran the world’s greatest state sponsor of terrorism). Both have declared themselves ready and eager to “strike” and “obliterate” Iran. Republican Senator Ted Cruz says flatly that Iran intends to launch a nuclear attack against the United States. Mike Huckabee and Benjamin Netanyahu, who must be considered an American as well as an Israeli politician, say that Iran is preparing the ovens for another holocaust of the Jews. In 2013, when there was no evidence that Iran was building a nuclear bomb, Vice President Joe Biden announced that—just in case—“all options, including military force, are on the table.”
Following their leaders, most Americans have strongly negative opinions of Iran. Polls report that they see the country as only slightly less dangerous than nuclear-armed North Korea. Despite the public’s support for non-proliferation, a majority opposed Barack Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran. To protect that agreement, Obama is piling on to the already massive US military assistance to Saudi Arabia and Israel, with the curious rationale that Iran, now that it has forsworn nuclear weapons, is somehow more of a menace to them than it was before.