The contemporary history of Iran-U.S. relations is replete with misunderstandings and mutual skepticism. Up to 1979, Tehran and Washington were staunch allies. President Jimmy Carter had famously referred to Iran as an “island of stability” in the Middle East, and the financial, military and political backing of the United States had emboldened Iran to boast of being a regional gendarme.
Besides, frequent trips by the Iranian king and government officials to the States and official visits to Iran by consecutive U.S. Presidents since 1943, when Franklin D. Roosevelt first traveled to Tehran to confer with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill at the Tehran Conference, underlined the importance of maintaining the mutual ties. From 1949 to 1977, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi visited the United States 12 times, perhaps a record for any foreign dignitary.
However, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran turned the tide, and after the dethronement of the U.S.-backed Shah in a popular uprising led by the exiled, revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the two allies became bitter adversaries, mostly on the grounds that the newly-born Islamic Republic was a theocratic system of government that opposed Western influence, and sternly contested what it called “global arrogance” led by the United States and its “oppression” of the poor nations in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
As Dr. Scott Savitz, a senior analyst at the Department of Homeland Security’s think tank, the Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Institute observed in a 2009 paper, the startling and unusual aspect of Iran’s revolution was its ideological underpinning, and that it was not simply aimed at improving the lives of thousands of people who had taken to the streets to call for the Shah’s ouster. The Iranian revolution couldn’t be simply defined in political and economic terms; rather, it was an ideological movement that championed a transnational cause: the cause of the global oppressed. That’s why some Iran experts opine that it’s not always the national interests that characterize Iran’s foreign policy decisions.
The Shah and JFK
The revolution, which introduced the world’s first Islamic Republic, also gave rise to the latent religious sentiments of the people of Iran, a historically conservative society – where Islam began to grow and flourish following the Muslim conquest of Persia in 633 AD – and paved the way for the open and unrestricted practicing of Islamic rituals and the implementation of Sharia law, to be put above the civil code – practices which were mostly confined to the mosques and prayer rooms during the Shah’s reign, but surfaced to the public sphere, media, universities and the top echelons of the government after the revolution. The deposed Shah of Iran, himself a Shiite Muslim, adhered to a secular mindset, and was opposed to the society becoming Islamic on the surface or putting into force laws that had Islamic undertones. Now, the Islamic Iran, as a strictly religious society whose leaders would constantly disparage the American culture and lifestyle, doesn’t appeal to the secular West, and so there’s been a noticeable religious aspect to the disagreements that have kept Iran and the United States away from each other for so long.
The face-off between Tehran and Washington has spanned through decades, and some 37 years after the Iranian revolution, the arch-foes haven’t been able to settle all of their differences. The American media still give references to the 1979 hostage crisis, an event that triggered the severance of diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States. A group of 52 American diplomats working at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran were taken captive by a number of Iranian revolutionary students for 444 days – most of whom are repentant now – over the allegations that the Americans were conducting espionage activities at the diplomatic mission in Tehran and trying to subvert the Islamic Republic. It seems that this hostage crisis mantra won’t fade away from the U.S. media coverage of Iran, even though the story predates four decades. The Americans have been forgiving to the Israelis over the USS Liberty incident and to the Japanese over the Pearl Harbor disaster; however, they seem not to have pardoned the Iranians yet. And the Iranian news outlets still debate the shooting down of the Iranian passenger aircraft over the Persian Gulf by the USS Vincennes cruiser on July 3, 1988, the U.S. support for Saddam Hussein during the 8 years of war with Iran and their sponsorship of the Shah regime – which during its late years had become increasingly repressive and violent against intellectuals and dissidents.
Other issues also emerged which made the idea of a possible rapprochement seem more unlikely. During the past four decades, there have been several prominent thinkers, authors, journalists, activists and diplomats who put the idea of Iran-U.S. detente forward from time to time, but each time the idea would fizzle out with a new counter-productive development. The scorching, vitriolic rhetoric by leaders of the two countries has also added fuel to the fire of enmity. George W. Bush called Iran a part of the so-called “Axis of Evil” in a State of the Union address in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks – which offended millions of ordinary Iranians, and not simply its leaders – and Iranian officials responded by saying that the United States would remain a Great Satan forever.
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One of the major points of controversy involving Tehran and Washington was Iran’s nuclear program; a controversy that lasted about 12 years, and nearly killed every chance of dialogue between the two sides. After allegations came out in the early 2000s that Iran was producing atomic weapons, the United States immediately took action to penalize Iran, and a new file was opened under the Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter which would categorize Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to world peace and security. Several rounds of intensive, thoroughgoing economic sanctions were slapped on Iran to force it into abandoning its nuclear program – which Iran refused. The imposition of the sanctions, injuriously affecting the livelihoods of Iranian citizens, coincided with the years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in office as the President of Iran. Ahmadinejad was a hard-line conservative totally against any sort of dialogue or interaction with the West, and under his rule, Iran sustained great damages in terms of its foreign relations; most notably, two major English-speaking countries, Canada and Britain, closed down their embassies in Tehran – although the latter has just been reopened after four years – and many European countries downgraded their economic, financial and diplomatic exchanges with Iran.
As Ahmadinejad left office and was replaced by the moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani in the June 2013 elections, Iran’s attitude to its nuclear program changed drastically and intransigence gave way to rationality and realism. Ahmadinejad’s adventurous foreign policy was a failure. However, Rouhani’s innovative and audacious diplomacy and direct negotiations with the United States, even though it cost him a great deal of pressure on behalf of the hardliners and conservatives, yielded substantive results, and resulted in the conclusion of the first and second formal agreement connecting Iran and the United States after the 1979 revolution.
Rouhani knew that he needed to convince the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to get permission to hold talks with the United States. And he made this apparent impossibility an ultimate solution. After two years of breathtaking, day-and-night negotiations with the United States and five other world powers, Iran validated its nuclear program as a civilian project subject to international inspections and technical scrutiny – a legitimate nuclear program that poses no threat to world peace and security – and got relief from the crippling economic sanctions following the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on July 14, 2015 that came after the interim accord of November 24, 2013 known as the Joint Plan of Action. In each of these two accords, Iran agreed to limit parts of its nuclear program in return for the removal of certain portions of the sanctions. Now, as Iran and the six world powers started implementing the deal earlier this year, there are no nuclear sanctions at work, and the UN Security Council’s punitive resolutions against Iran have been terminated altogether. Even though there are logistical hurdles on the path of the complete actualization of the nuclear deal and Iran’s full enjoyment of the benefits of sanctions relief, as President Obama said in his Persian New Year (Nowruz) greeting message to Iranians, these benefits are “undeniable.”
It seems like President Hassan Rouhani’s initiative of breaking the taboo of talking to the United States can serve as a brilliant example of how diplomacy and face-to-face talks can address the most insurmountable dilemmas. President Rouhani, and his erudite, well-informed Foreign Minister Javad Zarif were incessantly attacked by the state TV, conservative media organizations and peace-hating pundits, “apprehensive” MPs – as they call themselves – and other influential public figures for daring to engage in direct talks with the United States, Iran’s favorite villain, or if you don’t mind, the “Great Satan.” Some of them even openly insulted Javad Zarif, Iran’s lead nuclear negotiator and foreign policy strategist, and issued death threats to him. A member of Iran’s parliament (Majlis) called Zarif as useless as a “chicken” and another said – after Zarif shook hands with President Barack Obama in an unplanned encounter on the sidelines of the 70th UN General Assembly last September – that if he liked to hug President Obama and Secretary John Kerry every day, he’d better leave Iran and relocate to the White House and live next to them.
Obama on the phone with Rouhani
However, Rouhani and his team resisted the smear campaign. The nuclear deal has been praised by leaders, diplomats and nuclear experts worldwide as a milestone non-proliferation agreement and a victory for multilateral diplomacy. And indeed it marked a juncture at which Iran and the United States literally put aside their entire ideological differences and talked to each other on equal footing.
Now, as the two adversaries continue clashing on such matters as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Saudi intervention in Yemen, the war in Syria and Iran’s human rights record, it looks as if these collisions can be evaded if Iran and the United States build on the nuclear experience and consider it a beginning for collaboration, not an end in itself, which can teach them how to talk to each other courteously and find a common solution to the challenges ahead.
For Iran and the United States to be able to overcome a history of mutual cynicism and mounting distrust, what they simply need to do is to consign the grievances of the past to oblivion and realize that in order to achieve normalized – not necessarily amicable – ties, they should refrain from offending the other side and look for win-win solutions, not zero-sum games. Look at the U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis don’t resemble any of the democratic values that the United States stands for. For the Saudis, the concept of women rights is a myth – they have denied women their most essential social rights, including driving. They hold elections – a representation of democracy – once in a blue moon. They defiantly torture prisoners and unabashedly sentence the critics of the royal dynasty to death or lashes, as in the controversial cases Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and Raif Badawi. However, they’re arguably the biggest U.S. ally in the Arab world, and even the Middle East, with the U.S.-Saudi goods and services trade totaling a mind-boggling sum of $81 billion in 2012. They’re the largest U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) customer with contracts valued at approximately $97 billion. So, it’s quite conceivable that Iran, with a way more acceptable human rights record and a far more tolerant society, can be considered an ally – an ally which can benefit the United States in several ways, including in its race to combat global terrorism. Unofficial counts in 2010 say that there are more than 289,000 Iranians living in the United States. This dynamic minority can be an impetus for change in the Iran-U.S. relations and a reason why Tehran and Washington should take “detente” seriously. Many of these Iranians are among the most gifted entrepreneurs, technology experts, scholars, academicians, physicians, artists and public servants in America, and a thaw in Iran’s relations with the United States would be what almost all of them would support unconditionally and enthusiastically.
Just as tensions between Tehran and Washington have been detrimental to peace and security in the Middle East through four decades, their reconciliation would directly benefit the whole region, and of course the entire global community. That’s why the two rivals need to disregard the grievances and overcome this long history of mutual skepticism through constructive engagement and capping their reciprocal pessimisms; what they have demonstrated, at least once, that they’re able to do.