Paul Pillar

Stoking Nationalism in Iran

However much the hyping of the alleged plot involving the DEA informant and the Iranian-American used car salesman in Texas may have been motivated by a desire to look tough on Iran in the eyes of the American public, it is having unhelpful effects on the attitudes of the Iranian public. An interesting report by an independent Tehran-based journalist who uses the pseudonym Yasaman Baji describes the “deep and complex nationalist feelings” the story is stimulating among Iranians. A more specific consequence is to increase the credibility of the Iranian regime and to reduce that of the United States. “For the first time since the disputed 2009 election,” writes Baji, “both supporters and opponents of the government are responding in similar fashion, voicing considerable scepticism about the charges and questioning U.S. intentions and objectives regarding Iran.”

One element in this attitudinal shift is that Iranians find the idea of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps plotting to assassinate a Saudi ambassador in Washington simply too hard to believe. “Why should it give a pretext to the United States now?” asked a 55-year-old shopkeeper. The other element is that the “verbal attacks against Iran” that “have intensified over the last two weeks” have made believable the regime's propaganda about U.S. intentions toward Iran. One unnamed political activist is cited as saying that until very recently, many in the general public and in the politically active portion of it “trusted the spoken words of the U.S. president and officials more than those uttered by Iranian officials.” Now, however, “the continuation of hostilities, sanctions, and in particular the recent allegations have changed people's views, since they are beginning to feel that the long-term U.S. objective is the destruction of Iran.”

All of this is a complication for pro-democracy forces inside Iran. One active member in the Green Movement said the work of Iranian oppositionists had become much more difficult because they had to “fight for freedom and democracy inside the country and against foreign threats in the international arena.”

Baji raises one optimistic note, which is that Iranians may become more insistent that the regime follow policies that do not “create the context for the acceptance of conspiracies by enemies” and “give the United States, Saudi Arabia, or other countries any pretext for harming the country.” We can hope this may happen. In the meantime, the latest burst of anti-Iranian militancy in the United States is as deaf to the effects on the Iranian public, and as counterproductive regarding Iranian hostility toward the United States or the prospects for changing Iranian politics, as previous bursts have been.