American-Iranian Relations: Should the United States Attempt to Reestablish Diplomatic Relations with Iran?
The 1979 Iranian Revolution, which overthrew the U.S.-backed regime of the Shah of Iran and replaced it with an Islamic government led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, set the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran on a collision course that has yet to abate significantly. Diplomatic relations were severed between the two countries shortly after the November 1979 hostage crisis, when U.S. embassy personnel were held by forces loyal to Khomeini for 444 days, setting the tone in American-Iranian relations for more than two decades. The United States was cast as the “Great Satan” by revolutionary Iran for its support of the repressive regime of the Shah, the deleterious effects of its decadent cultural influence, and its unwavering support of the state of Israel, which the Islamic Republic refused to recognize; indeed, hostility to the United States became one of the main premises of the Iranian Revolution.
While the United States initially attempted to establish a working relationship with the Khomeini regime, the hostage crisis thwarted any hope of continuing in any way, shape, or form the close strategic relations Washington had built with the Shah. Soon enough the Islamic Republic was seen as a destabilizing force in an area that contains half of the globe’s oil reserves and for which U.S. policy has consistently worked to ensure stability so as to secure easy access to and safe transport of oil from the Persian Gulf region. The Khomeini regime was bent on exporting the revolution to its immediate area and beyond, which not only helped precipitate the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), but it also compelled Washington to tacitly support Iraqi president Saddam Hussein for a time in an attempt to counterbalance the perceived influence of revolutionary Iran. The United States began to view Iran as an aggressive force in the region, accusing it of supporting international terrorism, acquiring weapons of mass destruction, and opposing the Arab-Israeli peace process (Teheran denies the first two charges). A host of sanctions by the United States on Iran were implemented as well as the freezing of billions of dollars in Iranian assets.
The war with Iraq took its toll on Iran economically, politically, and socially, and combined with the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, produced more willingness in succeeding years to follow a more pragmatic rather than revolutionary foreign policy. This culminated in 1997 with the landslide election of avowed reformist Muhammad Khatami as president, along with a new parliament dominated by reformists who wanted to open up to the Page 37 | Top of ArticleWest more (and even to the United States) and who wanted to relax the political and social restrictions that had been in place since the revolution. Their efforts, however, have been incremental at best since real power still resides with those forces in Iran who are committed to the Khomeinist legacy, including hostility toward the United States. From the vantage point of Washington, therefore, Iran still engages in a host of activities inimical to U.S. interests, ultimately leading to Iran’s inclusion in the so-called axis of evil states (along with Iraq and North Korea) enunciated by President George W. Bush in his 2002 State of the Union address.
Former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger once remarked that few countries have so many strategic interests in common as the United States and Iran, a scenario that was partially reaffirmed during the U.S. military action against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan following the tragic 11 September 2001 attacks. Clearly, however, there are still significant barriers to any measurable improvement in relations, much less a resumption of diplomatic ties. As such, there are those who believe that resuming a relationship with Iran could have tremendous benefits for the United States, especially during the current atmosphere, while others hold the view that Iran is actually a major part of the problem, and it must drastically change its behavior before Washington even contemplates negotiations with Teheran.
Viewpoint: Yes. With the strategic situation in the area regarding Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. global war against terrorism, and the rise of moderates to positions of power in Teheran, the timing is right for an improvement in American-Iranian relations
In the words of a Lebanese journalist, the West has historically viewed the Middle East as “geographically strategic” and, because of its oil reserves, “geologically abundant.” The perception in the United States of Iran has not been any different. As part of combating Nazism during World War II (1939–1945) and communism after the war, the United States meddled in Iranian affairs and established close ties with a monarchy that many considered a U.S. stooge. In 1941 the United States, along with Britain and Russia, forced the then Iranian monarch, Reza Shah (King) Pahlavi, out of office and into African exile and set up his young son, Mohammad Reza Shah, as a figurative king and head of state. By the early 1950s popular support for democracy, independence, and, to some extent, socialism, was on the rise in Iran. Such sentiments annoyed the United States and Britain, who in 1951 imposed a ban on purchase of Iranian oil. The oil boycott was also due to Prime Minister Muhammad Musaddiq’s move to nationalize Iran’s petroleum industry, which the British and the United States considered as a violation of their economic hegemony.
In 1953 the United States took advantage of an already unstable situation, allowing the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to foment a coup in Iran that resulted in the toppling of Musaddiq’s nationalist government and the return of Mohammad Reza Shah from a brief exile. Following that incident the Shah became increasingly autocratic in his rule and, among other things, imposed a systematic campaign to suppress any form of dissent, especially those of liberal nationalists and Marxists. To do so he undertook a system of repression using his notorious CIA-trained secret police, SAVAK. By the late 1970s the Shah also manifested increasing levels of megalomania and political incompetence. Corruption had become commonplace, with many government officials and contractors regularly skimming from state coffers. There was no room for ideological and political dissent, and the gap between the rich and the poor was rapidly expanding.
The most organized opposition to the Shah’s rule was that of the Islamists, headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who managed to unify a broad spectrum of anti-shah and anti-American sentiments. There now appeared a united coalition of the ulama (Islamic school), bazaaris (merchants), Marxists, and secular nationalists and their sympathizers working alongside each other against the Shah. This situation resulted in the toppling of the monarchy, what is known as the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran. Much of the current antipathy between Iran and the United States was solidified that year. Soon after the Revolution the United States, then headed by President Jimmy Carter, denied an Iranian government request to extradite the Shah, who was undergoing cancer treatment in the United States. On 4 November 1979, during what had become a daily anti-American rally outside the U.S. embassy in Iran’s capital city, Teheran, a group of students, on what may have been a whim, climbed over the embassy walls, disarmed the guards, and took over the compound. This group, with backing from Ayatollah Khomeini, continued to hold a total of fifty-two American diplomats hostage for 444 days. Several months into the hostage crisis the United States formally broke off diplomatic ties with Iran. For the past Page 38 | Top of Articletwenty-three years, despite some attempts to revive political dialogue, relations between the two have been sour with no formal negotiations having taken place.
The Iranian hostage incident coupled with an energy crisis cost Carter a second presidential term. To ensure Carter’s loss the Iranians who were now conducting informal negotiations with the United States toward the release of their American captives eventually released the American hostages, but only after the U.S. presidential election of 1980 and mere hours prior to the swearing-in ceremony of the newly elected president, Ronald Reagan. The humiliation experienced by the United States as a result of the Iranian hostage crisis and U.S. fears that an anti-American Islamist revolution could spread throughout the Middle East—not unlike the domino theory and the spread of communismtranslated into policies, which among other things, sought to ensure that Iran would not be victorious in its eight-year war (1980–1988) with neighboring Iraq. Soon after the commencement of that war, Henry Kissinger reportedly commented: “I hope they kill each other.” Indeed, unofficial U.S. policy on the Iran-Iraq War sought a stalemate in that bloody conflict that took the lives of as many as one million mostly young and economically disadvantaged men. To achieve a stalemate the United States aided both sides of the war with military hardware but primarily sided with the underdog, which was considered to be Iraq. The U.S. collusion with Iraq against Iran went to such an extent that in addition to weapons provision, halfway into the war American military and CIA advisers were regularly briefing their Iraqi counterparts with aerial photos and intelligence reports on the status and whereabouts of Iranian troops. Under the first Clinton administration, U.S. policy in the region was similar, one of “dual containment,” seeking to isolate both Iraq and Iran. By 1995 the United States banned all trade and financial deals with Iran. That event was followed by a 1996 law that imposed sanctions on countries that invest more than $40 million in Iran’s gas and oil industry.
After the election of President Muhammad Khatami in 1997 a wave of hope was felt by both Iranians and Americans. President Khatami had called for an unofficial dialogue between Iran and the United States, and President Bill Clinton reciprocated Khatami’s good faith by allowing a series of academic and sports exchanges between the two countries. There were some signs of hope that a U.S.-Iran rapprochement was in the making. In 2000 then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright praised the changes occurring in Iran and acknowledged Iran’s right to determine its own type and pace of democracy. Her comments followed a 1999 Clinton statement admitting Iran having been historically “subject of quite a lot of abuse from various Western nations.” Signs of rapprochement ended, however, with the presidency of George W. Bush and the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks.
In February 2002 President Bush labeled Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as part of an “axis of evil,” supposedly in hopes of modifying their behavior. The labeling of vast geographic regions of the world in terms of the “evil” East versus the “good” West, however, can alienate the moderate and reformist elements in these states, such as President Khatami of Iran and his vast and mostly young voting Iranian constituency. Painting a broad evil brush on Iran, a country with an immensely rich heritage composed of seventy million people, is a reflection of the degree of ignorance and ethnocentrism of Washington policy makers. Such rhetoric combined with the continued U.S. political and economic boycott of Iran is considered offensive by the vast majority of Iranians on grounds of cultural and nationalistic sentiments.
The United States should vie not to intervene politically in the internal affairs of Iran. In retrospect, what makes the American-engineered 1953 coup appear so increasingly foolish is the fact that Musaddiq’s government, which embraced enlightenment values and sought full independence for Iran, would have been, according to Richard Cottam, a “natural strategic and ideological ally” of the United States. Through that despicable act the United States altered the path of Iranian and Middle East history. The coup was the precursor to much of the misery and suffering that has since plagued the region. If it were not for the 1953 coup, Iran may well have flourished into a democracy, and there would not have been a reason for the 1979 Revolution.
The current U.S. war on terror cannot be a reason to continue sanctions and the political boycott of Iran. Despite some evidence that in the past, Iran has been involved in anti-American and anti-Israeli activities, such activities have been dramatically reduced since the election of Khatami as president. There also has been virtually no evidence that Iran (or Iraq) was involved with the tragic 11 September incidents. If anything, the culprits of that terrorist attack (namely, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida organization) had received financial assistance from the Saudi Arabian royal family. (It should also be noted that bin Laden and similar terrorists used to be labeled as “freedom fighters” by the United States, which had recruited and trained them and financed their activities during the 1980s in Afghanistan.)
Even a realist such as Kissinger agrees that sanctions have often driven the United States
into irrational unilateralism and occasional bullying. Among other things, American-sponsored economic sanctions on Iran have had a negative cumulative effect on U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, there is no evidence that any sanctions and rhetoric have been successful in significantly modifying Iranian government behavior on international affairs and internal human rights policies. Not only does an increasing number of liberal opposition members in Iran oppose such sanctions, the United States itself admits that its policies have at times led to a backlash, retarding existing progressive trends and strengthening the hands of hard-liners.
Sanctions on Iran are hurting American businesses. As an example, Iran, which had previously relied on American Boeing and European Airbus aircrafts, has been forced because of its economic downturn and U.S. sanctions to rely increasingly on aircraft technology from former Soviet republics. This reliance has had some catastrophic consequences with nearly five hundred casualties as a result of four major disasters involving Ukranian and Russian aircraft in Iran. Aside from a ban on Iran to purchase superior U.S. technology, various American businesses, particularly in the petroleum and aircrafts industries, are losing money. Furthermore, forcing American allies to uphold similar economic sanctions on Iran has backfired (as in the Cuban case) and has led to accusations of violations of World Trade Organization principles. Iran’s top trading partners, Germany and Japan, view any type of economic sanctions on Iran as self-defeating. Indeed, Japan and European countries have simply absorbed the additional surplus Iranian trade resulting from U.S. sanctions—all to the detriment of American businesses.
Among the serious differences between Iran and the United States is the latter’s objection to Iran’s desire for developing medium-range conventional and nonconventional weaponry. Iran rightly justifies such a desire as its legitimate national defense strategy in the hostile geography of the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent where at least three states—India, Pakistan, and Israel—are known to possess weapons of mass destruction in the form of nuclear bombs. The United States, on the other hand, considers the Iranian government’s efforts toward securing new medium-range weapons as preparation for a new round of aggressive action with Israel being a potential target. However, Iran’s desire to develop its atomic energy has been deemed by experts of the International Atomic Energy Agency as one of civilian and peaceful use and therefore in line with the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (1970). Any U.S. or international criticism and effort to restrain Iran’s conventional and possible nonconventional nuclear weapons system must occur in a multilateral and regional manner, such as an effort to declare and transform all of the Middle East and eventually the Indian subcontinent into a nuclear-free zone. Among other things, it would require the United States to recall its nuclear submarines from the region and to persuade Israel to dismantle its nuclear bombs.
Diplomacy should be looked upon as an imperative by itself. Diplomacy is not an act merely reserved among friends or between governments who agree on any or all issues. One should note that the United States kept its diplomatic relations with both Germany and Japan during World War II (1939–1945). Iran and Iraq, who despite being at war for eight years in the 1980s, also maintained ambassadorial relations. The hostile U.S. stance against trade and diplomatic relations with Iran is based on mostly unfounded assumptions that Iran has continued to engage in activities inimical to American interests and regional stability. Even if such assumptions were true, the opening of dialogue and diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States does not by itself indicate an acceptance of the other side’s internal and international policies. Engagement for a superpower such as the United States does not mean merely the demonstration and practice of violent military power. Indeed, diplomacy, bartering, cooperation, and conflict prevention and resolution should be the essential core of foreign policy.
–PAYAM FOROUGHI, UNIVERSITY OF UTAH
Viewpoint: No. Iran is still engaged in activities that are inimical to U.S. interests and regional stability, and it would set a bad precedent to begin a dialogue with Iran before it meets the conditions Washington has set for a resumption of diplomatic relations
For more than twenty-five years Iran played the role of an American policeman in the Middle East; a cornerstone, along with Saudi Arabia, upon whom the United States and the West relied to contain the threat of communism. The two Middle Eastern states were strategically located in important areas of the region and governed by pro-West regimes. They were supposed to help the United States maintain political and economic stability in the region. This plan was part of the Cold War strategy. While the Soviet Page 41 | Top of ArticleUnion relied particularly on Syria, the United States had a special relationship in the Persian Gulf with Iran. The outbreak of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 ended American influence and deeply affected relations between Iran and the United States. The policy pursued by the Shah during the 1970s resulted in contrasting effects: if on one side Iran had become America’s closest ally, on the other side it became home to an array of opposition movements, criticizing Iran’s political and economic dependence on the West and the loss of its national cultural and religious identity. In the months following the Revolution, two events definitively compromised the relations between the two countries: the hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Teheran (November 1979) and American support of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War that began in 1980. Behind the American decision to back Iraq, there was the attempt to maintain a certain balance of power in the region, avoiding not only possible Soviet expansion but also, and above all, the spread of Iran’s Islamic revolution beyond its borders.
The end of the Cold War has changed American foreign policy. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has remained the only world superpower, with unparalleled political, military, and economic strength. It no longer faces a global threat, but rather a series of regional challenges. In the Persian Gulf area these regional challenges are represented by Iran and Iraq, which are considered by Washington to be rogue states; that is, states engaged in producing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and in supporting terrorism. Before 1991 the United States had two basic aims in the Persian Gulf: to keep the oil flowing freely and to prevent the Soviet Union from controlling or expanding in the area. With the Soviet collapse the United States faced the threat of Iran and Iraq jeopardizing the stability of the whole area. The concept of rogue states has become an important aspect of U.S. foreign policy. The United States pursued a policy of weakening these states through heavy economic sanctions and politically isolating them. After 11 September 2001 new American foreign policy dictated by the terrorist threat has strengthened the concept of rogue states. President George W. Bush is unwilling to cancel the economic sanctions against Iran, and he has also included Iran in the so-called axis of evil, along with Iraq and North Korea, because of their support of international terrorism and programs of producing WMD. Only if Iran stopped supporting terrorism and producing WMD would the United States be inclined to reconsider its policy toward the nation. These conditions are not acceptable to Iran, and they obstruct any resumption of dialogue between the two countries.
Since the 1980s Iran has been committing itself to the production of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as well as long-range ballistic missiles. This production increased during the 1990s, thanks also to the cooperation of Russia, China, and North Korea, which supplied Iran with necessary materials and technology. This program of WMD production negatively affects the whole Middle East, posing a danger to the interests of the United States and its allies in the region. Although Iran maintains that this program is a defensive one, some American analysts observe that the mere possession of these means of destruction and the threat to use them could result in disproportionate Iranian influence in the region. Iran will likely be the next state to have nuclear weapons, and this eventuality will help to achieve its foreign policy aims in the area: to defeat its regional enemies and to prevent a global power from intervening and strengthening its position in the Middle East. While the United States cannot stop the Iranians from producing WMD, it can certainly intervene in an attempt to contain the threat. Such intervention has developed on two levels: economic and political. Sanctions launched in recent years have severely hurt Iran’s economy, limiting resources the state could commit to offensive military aims, and its political isolation has prevented most countries from supplying Iran with the technologies necessary for the execution of these programs.
Another reason why Iran is regarded as a rogue state is its support of international terrorism. As early as 1984 the U.S. State Department had included Iran in the list of the countries supporting terrorism, and this support has increased over time. Although it is not yet clear how much Iran is involved in anti-American attacks in the Middle East, according to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), two state organizations, the Revolutionary Guards and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, support terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hizbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Supporting these groups is a religious duty for the Islamic Republic. In fact, one of the Revolution’s aims, sanctioned by the constitution, was to export the religious message all over the Islamic world. Article 154 states that the duty of the Islamic Republic of Iran is to support “the right struggles of the oppressed and the have-nots in every part of the globe.” The words of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Revolution, strengthened the idea that it was one’s Islamic duty to support liberation movements of the have-nots in the world. Therefore, Iran’s foreign policy was realized through jihad, or holy war, against heathen nations or individuals promoting dangerous alternative models to Islamic renewal, such as Israel. The Israeli question is the prime reason for friction between Washington and Teheran and one of the major obstacles to an improvement of their
relations. Iran has never recognized Israel’s legitimacy, and it has always opposed the peace process, instead, backing several terrorist groups considered by Teheran as national liberation movements fighting for the liberation of Palestine.
The reasons for Iranian opposition toward the Jewish state are both ideological and political. Since the first days of the Revolution, Iran has embraced the Palestinian cause, financing and supplying those movements fighting against the “Zionist entity.” Iran continues to back such groups by supplying them with war materiel and vehemently opposing the peace process. Yet, behind Iranian rhetoric in the Middle East, Israel is considered a formidable competitor for political and economic supremacy in the area. In fact, should the peace process be successful it would help Israel gain a predominant position that could isolate Iran in the region. According to Teheran, the Turkey-Israel alliance is an important indicator of what could happen. Although in recent years Iranian foreign policy has been less aggressive than previously, in the eyes of the West, Iran is still a repressive country and a threat to stability in the Middle East. Muhammad Khatami’s election as president of the Republic in 1997 gave way to a new Iranian policy that was more moderate and open toward the West. On the home front Khatami has promoted a series of reforms to liberalize Iranian society. In the area Page 43 | Top of Articleof foreign policy he has, above all, tried to reintegrate Iran in the international community. He has improved relations with neighboring Persian Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, as well as several European countries, and he is showing a willingness to restart dialogue with the United States itself. These attempts, nevertheless, have been withdrawn by Iranian religious leaders who are the real power base in Iran and who have reaffirmed their hostility toward the United States and their opposition to the peace process in the Middle East.
The terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York and damaged the Pentagon produced a dramatic change in U.S. foreign policy. After 11 September the American foreign policy imperative became the struggle against terrorism. In the National Security Strategy of the United States of America report issued in September 2002, President Bush underlined that the United States is engaged in the export of American values—freedom, democracy, and free markets—all over the world: “We will defend the peace by fighting terrorists and tyrants. We will preserve the peace by building good relations among the great powers. We will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent.” The threats the United States has to face are without precedent: WMD, nuclear proliferation, and the emerging threat of global terrorism. Traditional containment policy is no longer enough and has not been successful in those countries that, in spite of international prohibitions, secretly carry out their criminal policies. The Bush Doctrine considers that preemptive strikes can be launched against those regimes who are able to initiate hostile attacks at the United States and its allies. Therefore, the new U.S. national security strategy is to strike against those states possessing WMD and who are financing international terrorism. Because the nuclear power stations in Bushehr can be operative in 2004, Iran is a potential target for an American preemptive strike. This attitude is more active and unilateral than the previous Clinton administration’s conciliatory policy toward Iran, which confronted the Iranian conservatives’ opposition to any dialogue with the United States. According to some analysts, a hostile policy against Iran could weaken the reformist movement headed by President Khatami, thus favoring the conservative Islamist clergy. For others, this development would favor the efforts of those reformist elements working within the Persian country. Indeed, the ruling mullahs have lost both the support of the young, who grew up after the Revolution, and also of those ayatollahs and religious leaders who have accused them of abusing their authority.
Bush’s new strategy underlines the necessity to go beyond the traditional containment policy. At the heart of the new American security doctrine is the realization that authoritarian regimes with WMD can represent fertile ground for the development and spread of terrorism. As the historian John Louis Gaddis observes, it is a question of completing President Woodrow Wilson’s ideological commitment: “the world must be made safe for democracy, because otherwise democracy will not be safe in the world.” So, until Iran changes from within and moderates its foreign policies, the United States should maintain the pressure, especially since it seems to be working.
–VALENTINA VANTAGGIO, UNIVERSITY OF LECCE, ITALY
W. Seth Carus, “Iran and Weapons of Mass Destruction,” Middle East Review of International Affairs, 4 (September 2000): 57–67.
John Louis Gaddis, “A Grand Strategy,” Foreign Policy, 33 (November-December 2002): 50–57.
Amirahmadi Hooshang and Eric Hoogland, US-Iran Relations: Areas of Tension and Mutual Interest (Washington, D.C.: Middle East Institute, 1994).
Geoffrey Kemp, Forever Enemies: American Policy and the Islamic Republic of Iran (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1994).
Lawrence G. Potter and Gary G. Sick, eds., Security in the Persian Gulf: Origins, Obstacles, and the Search for Consensus (New York: Palgrave, 2002).
A. William Samii, “Teheran, Washington and Terror: No Agreement to Differ,” Middle East Review of International Affairs, 6 (September 2002): 53–66.
Kenneth W. Stein, “The Bush Doctrine: Selective Engagement in the Middle East,” Middle East Review of International Affairs, 6 (June 2002): 52–61.
Robin Wright, “Iran’s New Revolution,” Foreign Affairs, 79 (January-February 2000): 133–145.
Stephen Zunes, “Iran: Time for Détente,” Foreign Policy in Focus, 28 (November 1999): 1–3.