The Hidden Force Behind U.S.-Iran Policy? Racism | Opinion

When Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) cast Iranians as intrinsically untrustworthy, I was hurt, but unsurprised. When purported progressive Representative Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) implied that Iranians should be left to die from COVID-19 as an exercise in geopolitics, it was something else entirely.

As an Iranian American, I'm all too familiar with the unavoidable daily racism of life in the United States. But while we as a nation have at least started to have a conversation about how discrimination affects people like me within our country, this discussion conspicuously stops at the edge of our borders.

As President Joe Biden and his Iranian counterparts inch closer to a return to the nuclear deal, a step that would mark a monumental improvement in U.S.-Iran relations, it's time we finally talk about how racism drives U.S. policy toward Iran.

The blatant disregard for the well-being of everyday Iranians goes back at least to the 1953 U.S.-backed coup against the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh and the installation of the brutal but U.S.-friendly Shah dictatorship, resulting in the violent 1979 revolution. In the 1980s, the United States went on to arm the Saddam Hussein government in the deadly Iraq-Iran War. In both cases, the lives of Iranians were treated as little more than pawns in the contest for global power.

The symbiotic relationship between racism at home and militarism abroad became all the more clear in 2001. The first time that I, like many other Americans of Middle Eastern descent, felt like an outsider in my own country was immediately after the September 11 attacks. As fearmongering politicians beat the drums of war and lumped entire countries into an "axis of evil," they put a target on our backs. Similar to the hate crimes against Asian Americans today, attacks on Muslims and Middle Easterners skyrocketed. In the years that followed, nearly 4 million people in the Middle East would die as a result of U.S.-led wars.

While Iran has so far avoided all-out invasion, it has not escaped the impact of the United States' post-9/11 militarism. Fearmongering about non-threats, illegal assassinations, military brinkmanship, the Muslim ban and constant calls for all-out war— these are the tactics of the "maximum pressure" approach to Iran that has dominated in Washington across multiple administrations, with little regard for efficacy, and even less for the lives of Iranians.

But perhaps nothing embodies the dehumanizing approach to Iran so much as the sanctions regime. Widely condemned even by the United States' closest allies, these blanket sanctions are designed to suffocate everyday Iranian people, fueling starvation, reducing access to medicine and otherwise immiserating an entire country.

An Iranian woman walks past a mural
An Iranian woman walks past a mural displaying Iran's national flag in Tehran, on June 17, 2021. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

Even during a pandemic, as the bodies piled high in the streets of Tehran due to an inability to access basic medical supplies, these sanctions have remained firmly in place. If I were to try to send food, medicine, or funds to my loved ones in Iran, I would be breaking U.S. law and subject to prosecution and jail time.

Those who back this inhumane approach to Iran invariably argue that they are simply supporting the Iranian people against a repressive regime. Make no mistake: the Iranian government is certainly repressive, and antidemocratic. But U.S. policy has done nothing to help that—quite the opposite, year after year it has undermined local changemakers and strengthened the hands of hardliners, all the while causing direct suffering for everyday people who have shrinking control over their government. Simply put, one cannot claim to support both the Iranian people and the U.S. "maximum pressure" campaign.

There is another way.

In 2015, the United States, led by its first non-white president, adopted the Iran nuclear deal. A product of long held negotiations, the deal exchanged a lifting of sanctions for constraints on Iran's nuclear program. Just as importantly, it trail blazed an approach to foreign relations rooted in diplomacy over antagonism. Ultimately, the deal proved an unequivocal success. That is, until Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew and reignited hostilities.

Today, President Biden has a chance to put us back on the right path. If he can overcome those in his own party who prefer the Trumpian model, and return to the Iran nuclear deal, it would be a critical start toward restarting U.S.-Iran relations on a basis of understanding, instead of superiority. But it must only be a start.

After decades of warmongering, aggression and outright inhumanity, it's time for a totally new approach. That means a complete end to blanket sanctions, a renewed commitment to diplomacy and a reversal of all military posturing. In order to achieve this—to build a more peaceful approach to U.S.-Iranian relations, for Americans and Iranians alike—we must uproot the old, tired racism at the foundation of the status quo.

Farshad Farahat is an actor who received acclaim for his roles in the Academy Award-winning film Argo and the Emmy-winning series House of Cards. He studied journalism at UMASS, is a Ph.D. candidate in conflict resolution and has written on U.S.-Iran relations in the Los Angeles Times, The Hill, HuffPost and Newsweek. He sits on the board of directors of Ploughshares Fund.

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