The way the United States government is treating Iran is an absolute disgrace. At a time when Iran has been, on balance, behaving with relative moderation and decency, America has responded with vile callousness and additional sanctions.
The worst, of course, comes from President Trump, who responded to a terrorist attack in Iran by blaming it on them for their support of terrorism. But Senate Democrats, who voted overwhelmingly to impose additional sanctions on Iran, mainly to hit Russia, are nearly as bad.
For the last several years, Iran has been involved in a tense standoff with Western powers, most of all the United States, driven by ethno-nationalist hatred and religious fanaticism on both sides. In Iran, conservative religious hardliners and belligerent warmongers argue for maximal aggressiveness and confrontation; in the United States, a virtually identical group of people argue for the exact same thing (up to and including a nuclear first strike, in the case of one notable plutocrat). The mutual dependence of both groups is so obvious that sometimes they don't even bother to disguise their advocacy of the other's political success.
But up through the Obama presidency, open war was avoided through strenuous effort by peace-favoring factions in both countries. After some initial problems — most notably when conservative elites (probably) stole the 2009 Iranian presidential election and installed the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the 2010 Stuxnet cyber-assault on Iran's nuclear program — tensions were slowly ratcheted down. The 2013 Iranian election was not stolen, and returned the moderate reformer Hassan Rouhani. The 2012 American election replaced the hawkish Hillary Clinton as secretary of state with moderate John Kerry, who pursued a diplomatic bargain to restrict Iran's nuclear deal with a fervent intensity.
Iranian elites have long been suspicious of American intentions, for completely justifiable reasons, but the government grudgingly engaged with the multi-party diplomatic talks, which eventually produced the nuclear deal — supported by a huge super-majority of the Iranian public. It was the best news to come out of the Middle East in decades — a possible route for an influential partly-democratic Muslim nation to rejoin the community of nations on an equal footing, with the rights and responsibilities that entails.
American hardliners were infuriated by the deal, because it seemed to rule out their next planned war of aggression. Since it passed, they have yowled like cats in heat about Iran's support for Hamas, Hezbollah, and other such factions. And while one might criticize Iran for such behavior, the Middle East is a rough place, and it's easy to imagine nations thinking that supporting terrible groups simply can't be avoided. For another example, look no further than the United States, which supports the brutally repressive Saudi dictatorship (and their quasi-genocidal war in Yemen) and has armed extreme Islamist factions all over the globe (most notoriously the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s).
Whatever Iran has done, when it comes to arming and supporting morally odious nations and factions in the Middle East, the United States simply doesn't have a leg to stand on. And now we have elected President Donald Trump — our very own Ahmadinejad, except more inept. Worse still, many of the economic benefits for Iran predicted by the nuclear deal have failed to materialize, in part due to business worries that American hardliners will clamp down again.
Remarkably, the Iranian public did not respond to these developments by electing their own conservative hardliner in the May elections this year. On the contrary, they returned Rouhani to office again — and by a larger margin than his first term. It's a triumph of willful optimism.
Only a couple weeks later, the Iranian parliament and its most sacred national shrine were attacked by terrorists, apparently ones linked to ISIS. In response, the Trump administration sent a two-sentence memo containing a pro forma expression of sympathy and a piece of absolutely vile victim-blaming: "We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote." On the very same day, the Senate voted 92-7 to impose new sanctions on Iran, ignoring warnings from Kerry that they risked undermining the nuclear deal. Because Iran has upheld its side of the deal, the supposed justification — that the state continued to violate human rights and supports terrorism — only thinly disguised a desire to land a blow on a Russian proxy.
Iran is fighting ISIS on the same side as American forces in several countries. Anti-American hardliners could ask for no better gift than American politicians acting with such grotesque callousness after an ISIS attack.
The balance of evidence strongly suggests that the vast majority of ordinary Iranians, and a significant fraction of Iranian elites, favor reduced tension with America. After the 9/11 attacks, ordinary Iranians responded with a massive outpouring of sympathy, and the Iranian government tried a back channel outreach to help American forces root out al Qaeda and concede on various points. For their trouble they were labeled part of the "axis of evil" by George W. Bush and his speechwriter David Frum.
It's not surprising that belligerent, dimwitted warmongers like Bush or Trump mistake Iran for Germany circa 1942. But Senate Democrats are if anything more intellectually and morally debauched. I believe that with a bit of effort and good faith, Iran might be peeled off the Russian orbit, at least into relative neutrality — and at a minimum, it's worth trying.
Instead, Democrats are risking President Obama's finest diplomatic accomplishment to strike a tiny blow against a completely different country. I don't know what it will take for the party to gain a bit of good sense on foreign policy, but nearly two decades of constant failure of just this sort of omnidirectional belligerence apparently isn't enough.