Not since the Iranian hostage crisis of a quarter-century ago - when more than 50 American diplomats were trapped by Iranian students in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for 444 days - has the confrontation between the United States and Iran reached such an impasse.
But referring Iran to the United Nation's Security Council for possible sanctions to curb its nuclear ambitions is the wrong approach. It would raise short-term tensions while reducing long-term chances of reaching a negotiated settlement. And President George W. Bush's threats of economic sanctions and military action reveal a profound misunderstanding of the behavior of that Middle Eastern regime - just as President Jimmy Carter misunderstood it decades ago.
The Carter administration failed to anticipate the takeover of the U.S. Embassy because it did not understand how Iranians viewed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi's medical visit to the United States.
Iranians believed the Carter administration was plotting to return the deposed shah to power by overthrowing the revolutionary regime as the CIA had done to the nationalist government in 1953. And nothing that has happened in the ensuing years has changed their view.
The Bush administration's policy statements - placing Iran in the "axis of evil" and declaring a goal of regime change - have only compounded Iranians' deeply felt suspicion of the U.S. government. And they view America's dogged opposition to Iran's nuclear program as merely a pretext for coercive action.
Iran's fierce resistance to foreign pressure is as predictable now as it was in 1979-81. During those 444 days, Iran defied the condemnation and criticism of its action by the U.N. Security Council and the International Court of Justice. It also stared down the United States, which broke diplomatic relations with Iran, imposed an oil embargo, froze Iranian assets and launched an ill-fated military intervention, resulting in the deaths of eight American helicopter crew members.
Iranian defiance stems from the revolutionary regime's quest for survival. The Persian country has a long history of facing foreign pressure, invasion, occupation and intervention, beginning in 331 B.C.E. with Alexander the Great and continuing into the 1980s with Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
Coercive measures failed to settle the hostage crisis and they won't succeed now.
In the former instance, once Iran's revolutionary regime, led by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, consolidated domestic control, it moved to resolve the hostage dispute. Iran took the initiative to negotiate indirectly with the United States through the "bankers' channel" and Khomeini's son-in-law. Iranians discussed the dispute with German officials before reaching an agreement with the United States through Algerian mediation. Because the regime's control is even more entrenched today, the prospects of a negotiated settlement are better now than they were then.
Despite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's misguided statements about "wiping Israel off the map" and the "myth of the Holocaust," the goal of Iran's nuclear program is peaceful energy production. Iran is serious about a negotiated settlement of the nuclear dispute, just as it was about settling the hostage crisis.
The driving force in both cases is the same - survival of the revolutionary regime. Iran says that "diplomacy is the only clear answer to the current situation" and that it is interested in "serious and constructive negotiations." Iranian Supreme Leader Khamene'i says, "Nuclear weapons are against our political and economic interests and our Islamic beliefs. We want to continue on the path of scientific progress."
Most Iranians believe that civilian nuclear development is their right, that it is necessary for the nation's growing need for electricity, and for social and economic progress. They would like to see the U.S.-Iran nuclear dispute resolved by peaceful negotiations. That is why U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's statement that the only "viable solution" to the dispute is a "negotiated one" resonated so positively with Iranians.
When Washington threatens Tehran's political independence, Iranians all unite behind the regime. Since the hostage crisis, U.S. policy toward Iran has repeatedly hurt moderate factions and helped extremist ones. Stepping up the pressure with more sanctions, let alone military strikes, would only help extremists all the more.
Rather than relying on threats and inflammatory rhetoric, the Bush administration should get off the sidelines and play a serious role in the negotiating process. It should support the Russian-Iranian discussions, help the resumption of negotiations between Iran and the EU-3 nations, allow the inspection process of the International Atomic Energy Agency to continue, and welcome third party non-nuclear power mediation.
Only the United States can offer the kinds of incentives - economic, diplomatic and security - that can influence Iran's policies. The Bush administration needs to move away from the failed policy of containment and engage the Iranian government in discussions that would allow it some face-saving measures to preserve its political sovereignty while enhancing nuclear security for the U.S. - and the rest of the world.
About the author:
R.K. Ramazani is the Edward R. Stettinius Jr. Professor Emeritus of Politics at the University of Virginia. He has published extensively on U.S.-Iran relations, including "The United States and Iran: The Patterns of Influence" and, most recently, "Iran's Hostage Crisis: International Legitimacy Matters" in "Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East."
... Payvand News - 1/30/06 ... --