One reason for these unintended consequences is nationalism. People in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have not behaved as the United States hoped they would, in part, because many Afghans, Iraqis, and Libyans—despite loathing their anti-American leaders—also deeply distrusted the United States. That’s likely also the case in Iran. Pence may believe, as he claimed in his op-ed, that the United States “has long stood with those who yearn for freedom.” But most Iranians don’t. In 1953, after all, the United States helped overthrow a democratically elected Iranian leader and then spent the next several decades propping up Iran’s repressive shah. The U.S. supported Saddam Hussein in a war in which he gassed Iranians. And it has still never apologized for accidentally downing an Iranian passenger jet in 1988, and killing 274 people. The United States is also largely responsible for the economic sanctions that have impoverished ordinary Iranians, and which, according to polls, they bitterly resent.
Trump has added to this ugly record by banning Iranians from entering the United States and repeatedly denigrating Muslims and Islam. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that according to a 2016 survey by the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies, 87 percent of Iranians held a negative view of the United States government. And that by a margin of three to one, according to a Zogby Research Services poll taken last summer, Iranians think Trump has made U.S.-Iranian relations worse.
Given these conditions, it’s quite plausible to fear—as Obama did—that heavy-handed American intervention could provoke a nationalist backlash that helps Iran’s regime perpetuate its repressive ways. Conservatives should understand this because they, more than liberals, grasp nationalism’s appeal. To the extent Trumpism means anything, it means the celebration and exploitation of American nationalism against a series of adversaries—immigrants, trade deals, the UN, disloyal minorities, globalist elites—who supposedly threaten the sovereignty and integrity of the United States. Trump celebrates that kind of nationalism in Europe too. Thus, his supporters, of all people, should understand that Iranians value their sovereignty too, and are unlikely to welcome American interference, no matter how badly they want their regime overthrown.
Why can’t Pence understand that? I suspect a lot of it has to do with Ronald Reagan. Reagan, according to conservative legend, denounced the USSR—calling it an evil empire and demanding that it tear down the Berlin Wall—and thus helped inspire the revolts that brought down the Soviet empire. Pence wants to do something similar in Iran. But it’s a poor analogy. Eastern European countries like Poland were suffering under Soviet domination, and had little history of being dominated by the United States. Thus, Reagan was able to help stoke a Polish nationalism that expressed itself largely against Moscow. Iranians, by contrast, are rising up against homegrown dictators who use the specter of American domination to justify their hold on power. Iranians are thus less like Poles in the 1980s than Nicaraguans in the 1980s, who distrusted Reagan’s denunciations of their repressive Sandinista government because of their long, ugly experience with American power.
It’s ironic that Pence, in his oped, called Iranians “proud.” It’s precisely because they are proud—because, like Americans, they desire both individual freedom and national self-determination—that they can reject Ayatollah Khamenei while also rejecting Donald Trump.