For nearly four decades, Iran has been a reliable villain in U.S. foreign policy, black hat firmly in place even as President Obama made engaging the mullahs over their nuclear program the centerpiece of his diplomatic legacy. So when Tehran test-fired a ballistic missile on Jan. 29 in defiance of a U.N. resolution, the newly minted Trump Administration knew what to do. National Security chief Michael Flynn informed Iran it was “on notice.” The Treasury Department followed with a fresh round of sanctions. Iran ratcheted up its military drills, and what do you know? It was just like old times.
President Trump’s Manichaean, us-against-them view of the world fits snug as a Lego with the opposing perspective of Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, who welcomed the new U.S. President with a clawed swipe. “We thank him, because he made it easier for us to reveal the real face of the United States,” Khamenei said on Feb. 7. Trump came back tartly on Twitter (calling Iran “#1 in terror”), a medium where the Supreme Leader has been at home for years; his feed goes out in five languages. The English-language version chirped, “#Trump says be scared of me!” Away from the Twittersphere, however, Iran removed a missile from a launchpad the same day.
And yet the most crucial impact the Trump Administration has had on the Islamic Republic so far may be that felt by ordinary Iranians like Zeinab, a 60-year-old mother in Tehran. Trump’s Jan. 27 Executive Order barred her from obtaining the visa she needed to visit her son in Virginia, where he is pursing a Ph.D. “I was so, so happy, and now I am so, so sad,” she told TIME. “Everyone always said America was the beacon of freedom, but after this I’m not so sure.” Iranians were dismayed to find their country among the seven whose citizens were barred from entering the States. Polls indicate that most Iranians like Americans. As many as a million Iranians call the U.S. home, having moved either to escape the regime or to earn a better living. More than 12,000 are currently in the U.S. on student visas and now find themselves in limbo.
The reality of Iran, in other words, is not black and white. Its missile program–widely viewed by outsiders as a possible delivery system for a nuclear weapon–is popular with ordinary Iranians, who remember having no reply to Saddam Hussein’s missile barrages in the 1980s war with Iraq. Yet that same population is far more liberal than its rulers. This matters, because popular sentiments will inevitably affect the complexion of the government in place nine years hence, when, under the nuclear deal, Iran can begin edging back toward uranium enrichment. And the sense on the streets of Tehran is that Trump’s visa ban drained the reservoir of goodwill accumulated by Obama. The ban also impaired the May re-election prospects of President Hassan Rouhani, who championed engagement with the West.
Nowhere are the complexities of the U.S.-Iran relationship more apparent than in Syria. Trump speaks of coaxing Russia away from its alliance with Iran in that country, where both back the brutal regime of President Bashar Assad. Moscow and Tehran are not normally pals, but their interests overlap in Syria: Russia will literally kill to keep its only Mediterranean naval base there, while for years Assad was Iran’s one and only ally, indispensable for supplying the Hizballah militia Iran created to battle Israel in neighboring Lebanon. So they work in tandem, if not as equals. Russia controls the skies above Syria, while Iran runs the troops on the ground, controlling huge paramilitary and militia forces, and much of the Syrian army, says Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “Iran is always going to be the party that’s in the better position,” he says.
Strange things happen when you venture outside your comfort zone and the real world awaits. Trump says his chief concern in the region is defeating ISIS–but Iran is in the thick of that fight too. In Syria, Iran-backed militias are helping pave the way for an assault on the ISIS capital of Raqqa. And in Iraq, Tehran arms and steers large Shi’ite militias engaging the Sunni extremists. That puts Iran and the U.S. on the same side–a disquieting place to find your most reliable enemy.
–With reporting by KAY ARMIN SERJOIE/TEHRAN
This appears in the February 20, 2017 issue of TIME.
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