Calling Iran a Terrorist Nation Is a Dangerous Justification | Opinion

Employing the tactics of oppressive regimes, such as those of Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Egypt, the United States government is once again using its "war on terror" as a catch-all legitimizer to justify its recent assassination of an Iranian general and potential initiation of a major international conflict.

There are many ways the United States could address Iran—as a counterpart, an opponent or even an enemy. The current administration, however, is characterizing the entire nation-state as a terrorist organization.

Iran, President Donald Trump told the American public last week, is the world's "leading sponsor of terrorism," and the late General Qassem Soleimani, an official of the Iranian government, was "the world's top terrorist."

"The civilized world," Trump continued, "must send a clear and unified message to the Iranian regime: Your campaign of terror, murder, mayhem will not be tolerated any longer."

By using such dangerous rhetoric—and in some cases even comparing a potential war with Iran to the fight against ISIS or Al-Qaeda—this administration, along with certain Western media outlets, is treading close to the line of diplomatic fascism. It is attempting to delegitimize Iran through inflammatory labels that marginalize, demonize and limit its power, as a way to falsely portray the disproportionate attack of January 3 as a necessary action to address "imminent" threats.

The Trump administration has already been accused of breaking international law for denying Iranian U.N. representative Javad Zarif entry to the United States, a move that showed its commitment to blocking a diplomatic resolution. Zarif was due to speak at the U.N. Security Council in New York.

There also have been multiple instances of American politicians, such as Senator Lindsey Graham, comparing the Iranian government to the Nazi regime and accusing it of aiming to kill Jews. This extremist stance is held by various far-right figures in Israel and presents a flagrant example of the fear-mongering tactics that characterize putative justifications for U.S. aggression.

These alarming comparisons reduce discussion of the situation to tabloid headlines and tweetable quips, when the potential for major international conflict warrants extensive diplomatic dialogue.

There are many reasons why the United States would seriously consider engaging in a conflict with Iran. Even simply stating that Iranian power and influence in the Middle East hold too much sway against U.S. interests in the region would be a better justification than characterizing a sovereign nation as a terrorist organization. There is no need to degrade diplomatic dialogue or hide legitimate motivations under the guise of fighting terrorism. Yet Vice President Mike Pence, on the very day of the Soleimani's assassination, promoted a conspiracy theory tying Iran to the 9/11 attacks.

The New York Times quoted Anthony Cordesman, an expert on military affairs and the Middle East at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, on the subject of Trump's address last week, and in particular his use of Iran's actions in the ongoing war in Yemen to defend characterizing Iran as a terrorist organization. Cordesman stated that "calling Iran's backing of the Houthi rebels against the Saudi Arabia-aligned government in Yemen terrorism is devaluing the word to the point where it's meaningless."

Calling Iran a terrorist state serves only to further degrade the perception of the U.S. globally and fan the flames of tension in the Middle East. Within the United States, the potential consequences of this inflammatory rhetoric include increased arbitrary detentions, unlawful surveillance, national registry programs, hate crimes, employment discrimination and harassment against innocent Iranian Americans.

Donald Trump Iran
President Donald Trump speaks about the situation with Iran in the Grand Foyer of the White House in Washington, D.C., on January 8. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

Resorting to the label "terrorist" to justify assassinations or acts of war promotes an image of the U.S. as a colonial imperialist nation, awakening anti-imperialism and anti-American sentiment not only in Iran but across the Middle East, and potentially bringing a new era of instability to the region.

For Americans, the slippery slope of such tactics is clear not only abroad but at home. In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union accused the Boston Police Department and Boston Regional Intelligence Center of assigning terms associated with terrorism to peaceful anti-war protesters, and using these claims to spy on individuals involved.

Throughout the world, it is already too common to label nonviolent activists as terrorists as a means of suppression. Let us not allow the governments of internationally recognized sovereign states to be similarly labeled to justify unprovoked war and illegitimate invasion.

Beatrice Maneshi is an Iranian American expert in peace, security and development with a focus on the Middle East and Africa. She is the founder of Catalystas Consulting, an international development consulting firm based in the Netherlands. She works with organizations in the public, private and governmental spheres, as well as researching and developing new initiatives related to peace processes, transitional justice, post-conflict economic development, countering violent extremism and women's empowerment.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.