Trump Didn't Start The Anti-Iranian Fire

Trump built on and rode the wave of a project that has been years in the making.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives at a Capitol Hill rally to "Stop the Iran Nuclear Deal" in Washington September 9, 2015.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives at a Capitol Hill rally to "Stop the Iran Nuclear Deal" in Washington September 9, 2015.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Last week, Adam Purinton – a 51-year-old white man – reportedly stepped into a bar in Kansas and shot at two Indian men, killing one. He then left the bar and went to a restaurant where he allegedly confided to a barmaid that he had just killed two “Iranians.” With that act, the anti-Muslim and anti-immigration rhetoric that rode Donald J. Trump to the White House has now spilled over into fear for the physical safety and security of Iranian Americans.

Yet Trump is not the sole author of this newfound dread. He was not present when the foundation for the climate of fear and hate that so suffocates our politics today was being laid. Instead, Trump built on and rode the wave of a project that has been years in the making. While there can be no mistaking Trump’s contribution to this project, Trump is nothing but the most outward symptom of an affliction that has long plagued our country. To chalk up the killing in Kansas to him and him alone – while ignoring the anti-Muslim and anti-Iran rhetoric that has long toxified our discourse – risks misdiagnosing a cause for its most prominent champion.

We believe that it is time to deal with the root causes. We can start by calling out those who have forged and dedicated themselves to a project aimed at treating the Muslim world writ large as an enemy of the United States and as a threat to the safety and security of “ordinary Americans.” We can start by calling out those who pushed war with Iraq – cratering a country and subjecting its people to a paroxysm of violence that has yet to dissipate more than a decade later – as well as those who remain intent on pushing war with Iran. It is these individuals and organizations that have utilized the most exaggerated rhetoric, up to and including the threat of nuclear holocaust and domestic terrorism, to build a climate of fear so that Americans unflinchingly support U.S. adventurism and aggression overseas. It is these individuals and organizations that have helped lay the groundwork for Trump and his Breitbart acolytes to take the reins of power and push repressive anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies.

For more than a decade, there has been an organized effort on the part of groups like the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), The Israel Project (TIP), Secure America Now, and United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) and propagandists like Michael Rubin, Eli Lake, Adam Kredo, and Josh Block to push war with Iran in the most hyperbolic terms, all the while defaming those – most particularly, those in the Iranian-American community – who urge a peaceful resolution to the historical tensions between the two countries. Many of these seek to do nothing more than reprise their role during the lead-up to the war in Iraq by exaggerating the threats from Iran. Nor is it a surprise that their mode of argumentation – their modus operandi – so closely resembles that of the most hardline and pro-war elements in Iran, who for decades have likewise worked diligently, but unsuccessfully, to make the Iranian public fear and hate America, while accusing voices for reconciliation of being U.S. spies and agents.

Consider, for instance, the historical analogues for rhetoric like this, which rivals, if not routs, the most hardline voices in Iran:

Or for the virulently racist agitprop that David Keyes, now the English-language spokesperson for the Prime Minister of Israel, organized during the nuclear negotiations in Vienna, depicting “Iranians” as medieval religious zealots:

Or Michael Rubin, infamous for cheerleading the Iraq War and then overseeing Iraq’s destruction from his perch in the Green Zone, who once suggested that Iranian tourists to the United States might be planning terror attacks in New York City and who has never failed to accuse a viable Iranian-American political organization of working on behalf of the Islamic Republic:

The parade of horribles can go on. But the central point is that this anti-Iran project has perfected the art of pushing war with Iran, recognizing that its work is made all the easier by resorting to exaggerated threats and repeating racist themes ― by so indelibly connecting Iran (and Iranians) with terrorism that the identification cannot come unglued; by characterizing Iran (and Iranians) as medieval religious zealots so as to deny them the humanity we reflexively accord all others; by hyping the threat of apocalypse in the homeland if the United States fails to take the fight to Iran. It is a mode of argumentation that worked so well in pushing war with Iraq and the broader Middle East; its replication with Iran should be none all too surprising. And ironically, the very same fear mongering is done by hardliners in Iran, though they have largely failed to convince the Iranian public to view the American people as their enemies. Anti-Americanism in Iran is strong within the Iranian government, but not amongst the Iranian public.

A decade of messaging like this, though, has now had its payday: Adam Purinton walked into a bar and shot to kill what he believed to be Iranians. More attacks like this will be inevitable if we confine our protests to President Trump and fail to push back hard against those who have for so long propagated the idea of Iranians as enemies of the American people.

Tyler Cull is a Legal Fellow at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). Trita Parsi is author of Losing an Enemy - Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy, and President of NIAC.

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