Five Myths about the U.S.-Iran Conflict

Misperceptions that exacerbate the enmity between Washington and Tehran—and push both closer to war.

Mural on the walls of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran.The United States and Iran don’t need any help when it comes to not getting along. The institutionalized enmity goes back three decades—sometimes in spite of the people in Washington or Tehran and other times exacerbated by misperceptions of their respective national interests. Iran and the United States, after all, are geographically distant, operate on very different systems, and both carry complex cultural and political baggage.

All of this misunderstanding combines to foster incomplete or false narratives that can take on a life of their own. Here are five of the most damaging myths—from one or both sides—that have facilitated and exacerbated U.S.-Iran hostility.

1.) Iranian Myth: Iran can extend the conflict with America for several years and survive without making major concessions.

Reality: Since 2005, Iran’s nuclear dispute with the West increasingly has evoked memories of the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq war. There’s infighting within the regime over fears that the country is taking its costly nuclear pursuits too far, much as it did in prolonging the war against Iraq.

Though then leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini promised victory and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, he was forced to drink from what he called a “chalice of poison” and accept a ceasefire that won Iran little more than an end to the fighting. Today, the conflict with the West and the United States may look different, but the arguments for perpetuating it are similar. Iranian hard-liners believe they can persevere, seeing justification in high oil prices, America’s problems at home and abroad, and the uncertain long-term sustainability of international sanctions. They insist that time will force America to accept Iran’s nuclear program, acknowledge its regional power and abandon threats of regime change.

When Iran gained a military advantage over Iraq in 1982, senior Iranian officials debated what to do with their edge. Pragmatists advocated for ending the war while Iran had the upper hand, but hard-liners argued that the country could prevail outright. Today, pragmatists warn hard-liners not to underestimate the threats of sanctions and outright war as part of Iran’s nuclear standoff with the West. Since 2005, they have argued, borrowing a line from Khomeini, that Iran should avoid drinking from the poison chalice tomorrow because of bad decisions today.

2.) American Myth: Sanctions are an alternative to war and will, over time, help facilitate Iranian democracy.

Reality: Sanctions have been heavily debated in scholarly and policy circles for years, but many academics are pessimistic, especially when the sanctions are meant to deter a state from doing something it might perceive, rightly or wrongly, as necessary for its survival. A much-cited study of sanctions by three Peterson Institute for International Economics scholars found, as a 2004 World Bank paper summarized, that “Studies of economic sanctions (including trade sanctions or freezing of financial assets) conclude that they are usually unsuccessful.”

Sanctions often have failed to achieve their desired outcome, while impoverishing the civilian population and sometimes leading to government crackdowns. The status quo can remain indefinitely; Cuba is a telling example, as is Iraq in the 1990s and 2000s.

The Iranian government so far has been able to ride out sanctions, supported in part by its enormous energy resources. The latest round of sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors has given them new bite, but they’ve also escalated the stakes for both sides.

Some argue that if sanctions don’t lead the Iranian regime to shut down the nuclear program voluntarily, maybe they will spark pressure from angry citizens. Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that sanctions delay and ultimately impede democratic evolution. The Economist Intelligence Unit 2010 Index of Democracy notes that, of the world’s eighty-eight nondemocratic states, 71 percent have been under economic sanctions. Of the thirty-five states that have transitioned to democracy since 1955, all but one did so without broad economic sanctions. From Cuba to North Korea to Iraq, sanctions have coincided with reactionary elements of a political system digging in while democratic elements weaken.

3.) Iranian Myth: The West is in decline, particularly on the economic front. America’s military is overextended. War on Iran is not a plausible option.