Why are We Enemies with Iran?

by Benjamin Studebaker

An interesting question occurred to me today–why are we (we being developed countries generally, but the US in particular) enemies with the Islamic Republic of Iran? What is the fundamental problem with Iran that makes it impossible for us to trade with it, buy its oil, and otherwise maintain friendly relations with it? When I asked myself this question, I could not immediately produce a response that seemed wholly justifiable or acceptable to me. So let’s explore it further.

If we look at Iran not as its enemies but from an objective, impartial standpoint, it would be a nice country to trade with. Iran’s GDP is around $500 billion. That makes it the third largest economy in the Middle East, after Turkey and Saudi Arabia. With a per capita GDP of around $6 thousand, its citizens are wealthier than their Chinese, Indian, and Egyptian counterparts. The US embargo with Iran denies America access to a sizeable market for its goods, and the recent inclusion of the EU in this embargo does the same for it. Iran is also rich in oil and natural resources, which developed countries would love to be able to import–it’s currently the number four oil producer worldwide, behind only Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the USA.

Yet, for all this, we are not friends with Iran. What possible reasons could there be for this, and are any of these reasons valid?

  1. Old Scores–the developed world resents Iran for the US hostage crisis and for the spike in oil prices that occurred as a result of its 1979 Revolution.
  2. Authoritarianism/Theocracy–Iran’s form of government is just plain unacceptable to the developed world.
  3. Israel–the developed world remains broadly pro-Israel and sees Iran as a threat to Israel.
  4. They Hate Our Freedom–Iran is inherently hostile to us in an unchangeable way.
  5. Proliferation–the developed world cannot abide Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Let’s take each in turn.

Old Scores:

The US in particular has had a rough history with the current Iranian government. The hostage crisis (and subsequent failed attempt to free said hostages with force) is a source of bad blood, and the Iranian Revolution did indeed produce a nasty recession in the late seventies and early eighties initiated by the spike in oil prices and inflation that resulted from it.

That said, Iran also has bad blood with the developed world. The United States (together with the United Kingdom) were jointly responsible for the 1953 overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government (in response to its decision to nationalise its oil resources) and the installation of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Shah–effectively, dictator. The Shah was extremely unpopular during his reign, which was only sustained with funding from the United States. The hostage crisis was precipitated by the United States’ decision to allow the Shah to visit a US hospital for medical treatment and its refusal to deport the Shah to Iran to face trial.

Both countries have harmed each other (it must be conceded that the reign of Pahlavi certainly did more harm to Iran than the hostage crisis or early eighties recession did to the developed world). But why should that stand in the way of better relations now? Nothing can be done about any of the problems here mentioned. These pains are entirely in the past–the Shah has been dead since 1980. The hostages were released; the early eighties recession ended. Surely present economic opportunities should permit the transcendence of past slights. Let’s see if there’s anything more current here.


This argument goes something like this:

  1. Iran’s form of government is morally disgusting to developed states.
  2. Developed states have an ethical obligation to oppose morally disgusting governments.
  3. Therefore, the developed states must oppose Iran.

If this argument is true, however, then the developed states would have to entirely reverse their position with regard to say, Saudi Arabia, which operates under a similarly theocratic and oppressive system yet maintains friendly trade relations with the developed world. Such would only be the beginning–China, Russia, all sorts of countries who do not have governments similar to those practised in developed states would have to become unequivocal enemies of the developed states. Such a policy is neither practical nor moral. In terms of practicality, developed states do not have the resources to be permanently hostile to every non-democracy. In terms of morality, such hostility prevents the developed states from engaging in economically productive trade relations with foreign states, and makes their citizens poorer as a result. States are responsible first and foremost for providing for the general welfare of their citizens; permanent hostility with non-democracies is not conducive to that end and would be a violation of the purpose of the state.


It is true that Iran is hostile in both rhetoric and deeds (it funds and supplies Hamas, Hezbollah, and other organisations that consider the destruction of Israel an objective) toward Israel. While it certainly does not make sense for Israel to be friends with Iran, it does not follow from this that it does not make sense for the developed countries as a group to have this hostility.

There are many cases in which developed countries have been friendly with states that are hostile to other countries with which developed countries are friendly. The United States is friendly with both India and Pakistan, despite their mutual hostility toward one another. Both Greece and Turkey are in NATO and enjoy friendship, despite their quarrel over Cyprus. The United States has much better relations with Russia and China than it does Iran despite conflicts and disputes involving those countries and a variety of US allies (Ukraine, Georgia, Taiwan, Japan, and so on).Why is Israel special? Why is the US partisan in the Israel-Iran conflict rather than a benign broker of peace? There is no clear US interest in an outcome that favours Israel. Israel certainly makes no better a trading partner than Iran does. Its GDP is around a mere $250 billion; it possesses no significant quantity of oil. The special dispensation given to Israel has served to damage relations between the developed world and many other countries around the world, Iran included. It is not at all clear that Israeli interests are American interests, or British interests, or French interests, and so on down the line. Islamic terrorism descends ultimately from hostility felt on the part of people in the Muslim world for our propping up of a state which they feel to be racist, theocratic, and hostile to their interests. We are all less safe as a result of the preference we give to Israel over other Middle Eastern countries. We are also poorer, for we are denied trade and access to markets by populations hostile to us as a result. The mere fact that Israel is democratic should not weigh here–Israel’s democracy mistreats its minority Arab population, and as I said above, we have had no qualms about supporting non-democracies (Saudi Arabia) or opposing or even overthrowing democracies (the Iranian government prior to the Shah). This seems to me to be a lame excuse for hostility toward Iran.

They Hate Our Freedom:

This argument runs something like this:

  1. Iran opposes western culture.
  2. Iran is committed to eradicating western culture.
  3. This puts Iran fundamentally at odds with us in an unresolvable way.

This is an important argument. If it is true, then Iran is irrational and cannot be dealt with in normal ways. However, there are very good reasons not to believe this argument, namely that Iran has friends that are not Islamic. Brazil is one. Venezuela is another. These countries are left wing and very western in culture and outlook–Brazil’s courts have recently ruled in favour of gay marriage. While many on the right in developed countries find Venezuela distasteful, Brazil is more or less uniformly popular. If the Brazilians can be friends with Iran, why not the rest of us? Clearly Iran is not entirely closed to the notion of friendship with predominantly Christian, liberal, democratic nations, which implies both that it is amenable to negotiation and that it is rational.


Lastly, there’s the point that Iran is (or, at the very least, seems to be) pursuing nuclear weapons. But this is a relatively recent development–large-scale enrichment doesn’t date back further than the mid-2000’s. It does not seem likely that this is a cause of bad relations; it is much more likely an effect of them. It is often presumed that Iran desires nuclear weapons for aggressive purposes, but given the history of interventions by developed countries in Iran (recall that the last government in Iran that did not please developed countries prior to this one was overthrown and replaced with a tyrannical despot), it is much more likely that Iran seeks weapons for defensive purposes, to deter an Iraq-style intervention. Those of us reading in the developed world may think it to be a ridiculous notion for Iran to have, that we would, unprovoked, attack and dislodge the Iranian government, but we are not Iranian and do not see the world from an Iranian point of view. For Iran, it sees itself as a pitifully weak country relative to the developed world, one which could easily be blown to smithereens by the US military. In recent years, Iran sees multiple countries on its border invaded by the developed nations (Afghanistan and Iraq), sees the orchestration of the collapse even of regimes that attempted to repair damaged relations with the developed world (Gaddafi), and sees even firm allies of the developed world abandoned at the drop of a hat (Mubarak, Ben Ali, Saleh). With no hope of conventionally matching the nations arrayed against it, and with an recent history that shows a high mortality rate for Middle Eastern regimes at the hands of developed states, Iran chooses to follow the North Korean model–develop nuclear weapons so as to become untouchable.

The nuclear programme is really a cry for help on the part of Iran. It is afraid, utterly terrified, of the developed world (though of course it will never admit it publicly). This is a regime that knows it is in extreme danger, that at any moment on a whim an American president could choose to annihilate it, and whose only example of another regime America loathes similarly surviving in the long-term is North Korea. Its nuclear “ambitions” are really just the desperate act of a nation with few friends in a region where governments are routinely cast aside. It is not fear of Iran we should feel, but pity for it. Let’s let it come in from the cold and offer it a normalisation of relations with the developed world, with an end to embargoes and sanctions, normal trade relations, and true impartiality in its conflict with Israel, in exchange for a cessation of its nuclear programme.