Opponents of the Saudi Arabia–led war in Yemen aren’t the only ones welcoming the Senate’s rebuke of Trump policy toward the desert kingdom: So are a substantial number of Iranian Americans and Iranians living in the US, who see the Senate vote as likely slowing what they fear is a march toward war with their homeland.
These people say the administration’s frequent references to Iranian influence in the Middle East and its insistence on maintaining unchanged its relationship with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s chief regional rival, reminds them of the George W. Bush administration’s rhetoric about Iraq and Saddam Hussein before the US invaded that country in 2003.
“Obviously, this administration needs a check,” said Azadeh Shahshahani, legal and advocacy director for Project South, a human rights organization based in Atlanta, who is originally from Tehran.
Since pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal in May and reimposing sanctions in August and then again in November, the Trump administration has tried to build a case that Iranian influence in the region and the world needs to be contained. Administration officials have highlighted Iranian missile testing, insisted that the US needs to continue to support the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen to contain Iran, and accused Iran of attempting to exploit the international financial system.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went to the United Nations this week to talk about Iran’s ballistic missile development program, vowing to “work with a coalition to build out a set of responses that deliver deterrence against Iran and its continued proliferation of ballistic missiles and ballistic missile systems that have the potential to carry nuclear warheads.” The Trump administration also has restricted entry to the US of Iranian citizens.
Sina Toossi, a research associate at the National Iranian American Council, said the prohibition of Iranians from entering the US is particularly worrisome since Iranians wanting to flee their country are among the nationalities most affected by the Trump administration’s move to limit travel to the US. Iran is one of six countries whose nationals are blocked from entering the US.
“I see widespread anxieties [about policy] against Iran and how it’s affecting our relatives back home,” he said. “Our relatives can’t come to visit us here, not even our grandparents.”
According to the US Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey, 470,341 people reported being first- or second-generation Iranian. The Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, or PAAIA, a nonprofit that claims to represent Iranian American interests before lawmakers and the general public, said that number is an undercount, and that the actual number ranges from 500,000 to 1 million.
Among those hundreds of thousands, it’s unknown how widespread concern is that the Trump administration is preparing for war with Iran. No polling exists on the subject, although PAAIA polling suggests 77% of Iranian Americans are opposed to the travel ban.
And some Iranian organizations fiercely oppose the idea that the Trump administration is laying the foundation for war with Iran. “In the 39-year history of the Iranian clerical regime, there has never been any risk of the United States going to war with Iran. The Trump administration’s publicly-stated policy is to pressure the regime into changing its behavior, including its resort to terrorism, malign activities in the Middle East, ballistic missile program, and brutal crackdown at home,” said Ali Safavi, the Washington-based spokesperson for the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which is widely believed to be associated with the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, or MEK, an Iranian exile group.
“In reality, the biggest threat to the regime is coming from the Iranian people as evident in nationwide uprising over the past one year calling for regime change,” Safavi added.
But for Shahshahani, the warning sign is that the administration is aligning itself with segments of the US Iranian population and claiming that they are speaking for the Iranian people.
“The administration launched this initiative called Iranian Voices — they went to LA, they gave a speech to a handpicked group of Iranian Americans with very particular political agendas,” she said, referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “Supporting Iranian Voices” speech at the Ronald Reagan Foundation and Library this past July. “To me it was very similar to what the US administration did in the lead up to the Iraq war in terms of aligning with certain Iraqis.”
Toossi also believes the administration is preparing for war. Of the 12 demands administration officials have made toward Iran, he said, “They’re these maximalist, untenable demands. The signal to Iranians is going to be regime collapse or war. It’s a regime change agenda.”
He pointed to John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, who told members of the MEK that “we here will celebrate in Tehran before 2019” at a gathering in Paris last year, before he assumed his current post. In that same address, Bolton said, “The behavior and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself.”
The MEK did not respond to a request for comment.
Asked why a policy that says it stands with the people of Iran doesn’t allow them to come to the United States, a State Department spokesperson wrote in an email, “The President signed Proclamation 9645 to protect the security and welfare of the United States … The signing of the Proclamation in September 2017 followed an extensive review and engagement period with countries around the world, which identified several countries — including Iran — as deficient in information sharing practices.”
Asked to comment on whether the administration is laying the foundation for war with Iran, a State Department spokesperson said simply, “The United States seeks to build a strong coalition of nations to deter Iran’s threats in the region and around the world, ensure freedom of navigation, and convince the Iranian regime to end its destabilizing activities. We do not seek war.”
“I don’t think it’s the intention of this administration to go to war with Iran. I think frankly that is not something that they would want,” said Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative. “However, I think it’s fair to say the language this administration is using is very reminiscent” of the lead-up to the war with Iraq.
She pointed in particular to the similarities between Trump’s address at the UN General Assembly this past September and George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address. In September, Trump said, “We cannot allow the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism to possess the planet’s most dangerous weapons.” It was an echo of Bush’s own words about Iraq: “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”
The Iranian American community in America is, like any community anywhere, not a monolith. Some individuals and groups are actively hoping for regime change.
“The whole premise about a looming war with Iran is without merit. Even the regime’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei has said there will be no war,” Majid Sadeghpour, political director for the Organization of Iranian American Communities, wrote in an email to BuzzFeed News. “The fact is that continuing and expanding nationwide protests and strikes by virtually every sector of Iranian society since December 2017 have made it palpable and clear that the overwhelming majority of the Iranian people yearn for, and are capable of, bringing change to Iran. This change can and will only be achieved through the ouster of the ruling theocracy by the people of Iran.”
Still, others think that while the Trump administration may not want war, it could stumble into it by continuing to escalate its rhetoric and the situation as a whole.
Sanctions and the pressure that they put on the country could lead to a civil war, which would be “a semi-Syria situation,” Hooshang Amirahmadi, president and founder of the American Iranian Council, an organization that says it promotes the Iranian American community, told BuzzFeed News. But he also saw a way in which the United States and Iran could end up fighting each other, even though he believed neither side wants it that way.
“Accidents and stupidity are the two major factors in initiating wars,” Amirahmadi said. “Both factors are present in the US–Iran case. On both sides, you have foolish people. On both sides, you have armies facing each other ... in the Persian Gulf, for example, in other places in that part of the world. In Iraq, Syria, elsewhere.”
“In the run up to a reelection campaign, I think if anything this president is determined to avoid [war],” said Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution. But, she said, the situation with Iran could escalate “in very unpredictable ways” because of actions the administration has taken and policies it has pursued.
Which brings Iranian American eyes anxiously watching the Trump administration back onto Congress and Saudi Arabia.
The most active arena, and the place where the countries are most likely to find themselves stumbling into war, Maloney said, is Yemen. A rocket attack by the Houthis on Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, for example, “draws in the US in a way that frankly neither side [the United States or Iran] was necessarily gunning for.”
“Leaving Yemen would remove a US–Iran point of friction,” Maloney said of the congressional pushback against Saudi Arabia, although she didn’t believe it would fundamentally change the calculus of the Trump administration toward Iran.
But others see the two policies as interconnected. Trump himself has linked them, Toossi said, noting that Trump has said he needs Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in particular, in his pressure campaign against Iran.
The president put out a statement last month, saying, “...we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran.”
He’s also taken a hostile line toward Iran on Twitter.
Shahshahani said she would be watching what “this new Congress is going to do in terms of trying to hold this administration accountable for its disastrous foreign policy.” She pointed in particular at Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat from California, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, both of whom are authors of legislation that would pull the United States out of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
A Sanders aide did not push back on the idea that Trump’s Saudi and Iran policies are connected, writing in an email to BuzzFeed News, “The Trump administration has invested a great deal in the Saudi regime, particularly Muhammad [sic] Bin Salman, as the cornerstone of their regional strategy to confront Iran, whom they obsessively portray as the source of all the region’s problems. Sen. Sanders is extremely concerned that President Trump has bet Americans’ security, and the future stability of the Middle East, on this dangerously unpredictable authoritarian leader. He believes that the role of the US should be to bring people together to resolve differences, not to escalate conflict in a region that already has seen far too much war.”
Khanna, in a phone call with BuzzFeed News, disentangled the two. “We shouldn’t be playing one country against another. That should be the fundamental lesson of American foreign policy post–Cold War,” he said. He acknowledged, “There is now a potential proxy war between Saudi and Iran, and that is why we need a diplomatic solution. We don’t want that to escalate into a full-blown conflict — greater suffering in Yemen, greater violence in the Middle East.” The idea that supporting the Saudis is supporting a check on Iran is “the administration’s framing of the issue,” he said.
Safavi sees things differently. “Over the past three decades, there has been bipartisan support in both chambers of US Congress to adopt a decisive approach to Tehran. There has also been bipartisan legislation regarding the regime’s crackdown on Iranian protesters earlier this year. All major sanctions on the Iranian regime over the years have been adopted in a bipartisan way in US Congress, which has never been favorably disposed toward the clerical rulers of Iran,” he said.
Some in the Senate seemed to suggest he was right. On Wednesday night, before a vote to withdraw US support from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, Sen. Todd Young, a Republican from Indiana, argued in favor of the bill — because, he said, the war was only letting Tehran grow stronger in the region.
“The civil war in Yemen, as so many know now, is an unmitigated national security and humanitarian disaster. And the longer the civil war continues, the more influential Iran and other terrorist groups will become in Yemen,” Young said, adding, “Famine and the indiscriminate targeting of civilians by the Saudi-led coalition will only push more Yemenis toward Iran and toward its proxies, giving terrorists increasing opportunities to threaten Americans, our partners, and our interests.”