Imagine historians a century from now trying to decide which foreign power the United States feared most in the decades from the late Cold War through 2020. Sifting through the national security strategies of successive administrations, they would see Russia first as an arch-enemy of the United States, then as a friend, and finally as a challenging nuisance. They would see China transform from a sometime partner to a great-power rival. North Korea would appear as a sideshow.
Only one country would be depicted as a persistent and implacable foe: Iran. In its official rhetoric and strategic documents, Washington has, since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, consistently portrayed the country as a purely hostile and dangerous actor. In recent months, the United States and Iran have once again, as they have many times in the past, approached the brink of conflict: U.S. President Donald Trump has ripped up his predecessor’s nuclear deal with Iran and adopted a policy of “maximum pressure” to strangle the Iranian economy. Iran, meanwhile, has responded by heightening tensions, attacking several oil tankers traversing the Persian Gulf, shooting down a U.S. drone, and striking an oil facility in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia.
No U.S. president has been as capricious as Trump, and there is a possibility that, after flirting with escalation, he will pivot toward an accommodation with Iran. (His recent dismissal of National Security Adviser John Bolton, an extreme Iran hawk, suggests that this process could already be underway.) But Trump’s approach during his first three years in office did not emerge from a void. It was an extension of the deep animus toward Iran that has plagued U.S. policymaking for the last 40 years. Previous administrations had balanced this hostility with pragmatism and periodic attempts at outreach, often cloaked in the language of confrontation; now, driven by greater political incentives and intensified lobbying by Israel and Saudi Arabia, Trump has inflated this animus to cartoonish proportions. In doing so, he runs the
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