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U.S.-Iran: Two Countries in the Iron Grip of Conservatives

Counting the ways in which Iran and the United States are alike.

January 17, 2014

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (Credit:

The United States and Iran are said to be sworn enemies. U.S. politicians, especially in the Congress are still trying their darndest to intensify the economic choke hold on Iran, even as the preliminary nuclear deal takes effect. They are not interested in giving Iran a chance to prove itself because they have a preconceived forecast of the results.

Meanwhile, the Iranian people, especially the urban professionals and many of the young, actually like Americans and the United States. To them, the country has many attributes they are striving for, individually and collectively.

For all the official enmity, if not hatred, what is most puzzling is to observe the many ways in which the countries are currently alike.

This is especially true with regard to Iran’s and the U.S.’s domestic political challenges — and I don’t just mean the obstacles both countries’ leaders face over implementing any kind of nuclear deal at home.

The ironic parallels extend far beyond the events that are in the headlines. To begin with, both countries have reformist presidents, even though Barack Obama is now in his second term, while Hassan Rohani just got started on his first term.

Two reformers, sort of

Both politicians rose to the top post rather unexpectedly. And both were carried into their high office by a sudden wave of popularity and economic discontent that helped them outflank old foxes that had been deemed to have the upper hand, whether Hillary Clinton and John McCain in Obama’s case or a range of conservatives in Rohani’s.

Regarding both Presidents, there are also real doubts about how reformist they actually are. Obama may be called a “socialist” by Republicans, but is widely seen as a pure establishment politician even by many Democrats.

And Rohani is a conservative cleric, a former nuclear negotiator, traditionally close to Ayatollah Khamenei and, despite his public image, hardly a softy.

In short, campaign rhetoric aside, both Obama and Rohani have always acted as part and parcel of their country’s respective political establishments.

Meeting mercilessness

Despite this conformism, both men’s efforts at implementing reforms, however modest, are running into a buzz saw of fierce domestic opposition. In Iran’s case, the battle is over human rights in general. In the U.S. case, it’s over health care, which is also a core human right.

In Obama’s case, virtually all his efforts are met with a veritable blockade by the Republicans in both houses of Congress, and especially so in the House of Representatives. His Republican adversaries are basically not prepared to give him an inch, while always demanding at least an arm from Obama in any negotiations.

Hassan Rohani isn’t much luckier in Iran. His country’s parliament is even more dominated by conservatives than is the case in the U.S. The conservatives are giving him a hard time even getting his cabinet choices appointed — just as Mr. Obama has experienced on numerous occasions.

By comparison, the U.S. President — hard though it may be to believe — actually is the luckier of the two. In Iran, the parliament is threatening to impeach ministers appointed by Rohani — for such crimes as hiring reform-minded people for the leadership of the higher education ministry.

Conservative courts in both places

As is the case with the U.S. Supreme Court, Iran’s judiciary is a bastion of conservatism. However, for all its judicial activism, the Supreme Court has thankfully not stooped to the level of Iran’s courts, which deem social media such as Facebook and Twitter illegal.

In Iran, much of the reasoning that the courts and the conservatives use to justify their causes has to do with the fact that they view the country as being in a continuous emergency, if not a permanent war against the West.

Supplant that Iranian cause with the war on terrorism, and you have a direct parallel in the United States. Measured against Western traditions, the U.S. courts and government agencies such as the NSA have equally grossly overreached in many ways. And not to be outdone by Iran, they have often justified their acts with unspecified threats from abroad.

Iran’s and U.S. conservatives: Starting out together

None of this is an accident. Even when you look at the two countries, their respective revolutionary events were very closely related, not just time wise.

Iran’s clerics came in 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini seized power. From the vantage point of U.S. Republicans, their seminal event happened soon after, in November 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan.

An early triumph for the Reagan Revolution was supplied by Iran’s ayatollahs. They withheld the return of Iran’s U.S. hostages until Jimmy Carter had left the White House and Reagan was freshly ensconced. Yes, currying favors with Washington was once their M.O.

Despair in both conservative camps

Over three decades afterwards, the hardliners in both countries are acting in an especially obstinate fashion. Why?

Because both live in the same mortal fear. With good reason, they worry that their message no longer resonates with the population at large. More and more, it only reaches the true believers, whether it’s Tea Party folks in the U.S. case or religious conservatives in the Iranian case.

It is never pleasant for any political grouping that has long called the shots domestically to lose the hold over power and see its support by the people slipping significantly.

In Iran, the conservatives tried to stem what seems like the inevitable by engaging in populist economic policies. But Ahmadinejad and Co.’s efforts to keep prices down has only led to galloping inflation, currently at 40%, and high unemployment.

U.S. and Iranian conservatives love military spending

Inflation may be low in the U.S. case, but unemployment is high. In both countries’ cases, public investment has been disproportionately focused on military matters, whether the nuclear issue in Iran’s case or defense goods in the U.S. one.

As a result of feeling power slip away, Republican leaders such as Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority leader, have made no secret of their intent to engage in nothing but obstruction when it comes to dealing with the sitting President.

In both Iran and the United States, the demographics are moving the country away from the conservative camps — the ayatollahs and the Republicans. With one-third of the population of Iran under 30, their stern brand of religion no longer serves as an enticing opiate for the masses.

In the U.S. case, it is the ever-larger shares of immigrants that reshapes the U.S.’s population and its electorate. Just as Iranian conservatives are not endearing themselves to the young with their mind-control policies, so do Republicans seem to cast a death wish upon themselves.

How else could one possibly understand the Republicans’ consistent refusal to pursue any policies that could make them attractive, for example, to Hispanic voters?

Protecting economic elites

One final ironic parallel: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, far from their role as custodians of the revolution, are mostly interested these days in using their power to preserve their influence in the Iranian economy.

U.S. Republicans play a similar game. With their insistence on no new taxes, and historically low rates on the rich (who mostly pay capital gains taxes, not income taxes), they are clear in what they see as their mandate: protecting the (past) winners in the U.S. economic race.

In conclusion, Iran and the United States may see themselves as nemeses. But in reality, the two countries’ domestic politics shadow, and even copy, each other in stunning ways.

Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared in Al Jazeera on January 16, 2014.


Regarding both the US and Iranian presidents, there are also real doubts about how reformist they actually are.

Rhetoric aside, Obama and Rohani are part and parcel of their country's respective political establishments.

Both Obama and Rohani's efforts at implementing reforms are running into a buzz saw of domestic opposition.

Iran's parliament is even more dominated by conservatives than is the case in the U.S.

As is the case with the U.S. Supreme Court, Iran's judiciary is a bastion of conservatism.

The hardliners in the US and Iran worry that their message no longer resonates with the population at large.

In both Iran and the US, the demographics are moving the country away from the conservative camps.

Iran and the US may see themselves as nemeses but in reality copy each other.