Middle East scholars blame Trump for an Iran policy 40 years in the making
When the new academic year convenes days from now, students attending American colleges will learn that there is a crisis in the Middle East caused by a radical departure from traditional U.S.-Iran relations instigated, of course, by President Donald Trump.
At the University of Michigan, Juan Cole may tell them that “Trump created this crisis by breaching the 2015 Iran nuclear deal,” as he wrote on his blog, “Informed Comment.”
Georgetown’s Iran specialist, Trita Parsi, may tell them that “this is a TOTALLY UNNECESSARY CRISIS” and “We’re only here cuz Trump quit the deal and put (national security adviser John) Bolton in charge of Iran policy” — assuming her Twitter commentary and classroom conduct are not out-of-sync.
Sasan Fayazmanesh, director of the Middle East studies program at California State University, Fresno, may tell his students “the immediate cause of the recent crisis is the current US administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).”
In fact, hundreds of Middle East scholars, including eight former presidents of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), numerous emeritus and distinguished professors, and plenty of endowed-chair holders, will likely warn students of the “unmitigated disaster” created by the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and warn about the dangers of an impending “full-scale invasion and occupation” of Iran, as they wrote in an open letter to President Trump.
Their letter was drafted by Mark LeVine, professor of history at University of California, Irvine, and published June 22 on AVAAZ.org, where it was largely ignored. On June 25, the website Mondoweiss put it on its website, Facebook page and Twitter feed.
How have so many Middle East studies scholars gotten it so wrong? The U.S. has been at war with Iran for almost 40 years. Trump’s Iran policy is not the aberration that his critics claim but, rather, a return to the policy in place since Nov. 4, 1979, when Khomeini’s men stormed our embassy in Tehran, took diplomats hostage and held them for 444 days.
All presidents from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush fought Iran in one way or another. And then something extraordinary happened when Barack Obama became president: We stopped fighting even as Iran continued its belligerence.
Will students learn this truth?
How many will learn that the real aberration from Iran policy came with President Obama’s one-sided rapprochement? The JCPOA was a Hail Mary of appeasement: billions of dollars in cash paid up front, an end to sanctions, and wildly indulgent terms that included allowing Iran to conduct its own inspections of its nuclear sites.
But that’s unlikely to be the explanation that most students will receive. At the University of Chicago, John Mearsheimer may tell them “the United States has effectively declared war on Iran.”
Some students might even get the version of history peddled by Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who accuses the U.S. of “deliberately targeting innocent civilians to achieve illegitimate political objectives.” Zarif calls it “economic terrorism.” How many students will endure the same misinformation in their classes.
The Middle East studies scholars who signed the AVAAZ/Mondoweiss letter want Trump “to rejoin and implement the 2015 nuclear agreement” and “to terminate the enhanced sanctions he continues to impose on Iran.”
How many of their students will learn the truth about JCPOA? The deal’s admirers seldom point out the restrictions imposed on Iran end (sunset) ten years after the 2015 implementation, so rejoining it without renegotiating it would allow Iran to legally pursue nuclear weapons in 2025. And that’s assuming Iran will abide by the agreement, an assumption its record doesn’t support.
Professors of Middle East studies’ classrooms will likely echo with their call for Trump “to enter into immediate and good faith negotiations towards a normalization of relations with the Islamic Republic.” But what can this mean? The framers of the JCPOA foolishly pretended Iran was negotiating in good faith. They not only trusted Iran to comply with the JCPOA’s terms but trusted Iran to conduct the inspections required to determine compliance.
Even the faith placed in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was naïve, since it was permitted to inspect only sites where Iranian officials took them — never military sites and, obviously, never sites they don’t know exist. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi would have relished such generous terms. The scholars want to repeat that mistake.
In classrooms across the country, Middle East experts will soon deliver lectures explaining that Iran is not really an enemy of the U.S. They will explain, as CNN does, that the popular “Death to America!” chant doesn’t really mean what it seems to mean. Above all, students will learn that we all need to consider new ways to address the grievances of the Islamic Republic.
In 2001, Martin Kramer noted in “Ivory Towers on Sand” that only “secure senior scholars” could rein in the radical, post-Orientalist excesses of the Middle East studies industry. Today the radicals are the “secure senior scholars.” Reform of this key discipline has never been more urgent. Absent it, one shudders to think what the next generation will bring.
A.J. Caschetta is a Ginsburg-Ingerman fellow at the Middle East Forum, a fellow of the forum’s Campus Watch project, and a principal lecturer in the Department of English at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Follow him on Twitter @MEForum.
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