On March 10, the representatives of the United States and Iran faced each other in a regional conference in Baghdad, Iraq. The event has raised crucial questions. Is this a real shift away from the Bush administration’s dogged stance against talking to Iran, allegedly "the world’s greatest sponsor of terrorism"?
Is it a real change in American strategy or is it a tactical gimmick, one of pretending to pursue diplomacy while preparing for confrontation and war?
Washington has engaged Iran briefly before and then abandoned it abruptly. In the invasion of Afghanistan, for example, Bush first worked with Iran to destroy the Taliban regime and to install the Hamid Karzai government in power and then turned around and made the proud and cultured nation of Iran a member of his moralistic "axis of evil."
The Bush administration has adamantly refused to talk to Iran, claiming that to do so would bestow legitimacy on its revolutionary regime.
Even a novice in world politics would know that a regime’s legitimacy is given or withheld by a combination of international and domestic acceptance. Muhammad Reza Shah’s international legitimacy was in effect bestowed by America rather than by the international community. He lost his throne ignominiously because the Iranian people no longer trusted him.
Washington lost a rare opportunity to speak to Iran constructively in 2003. Iran offered America a comprehensive plan to resolve all outstanding issues in dispute between the two countries, including American concerns with regional security, Iran’s alleged role in terrorism and its support of Hezbollah and Hamas. Iran also offered to accept a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and to negotiate its nuclear enrichment program.
The Iranian offer was callously dismissed. Its rejection has been blamed variously on Whit House adviser Karl Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney. Regardless of who is to blame, its cavalier dismissal robbed Iran and the United States of a great opportunity to serve their national interests constructively. It also convinced Iranian leaders that the United States had no genuine interest in engaging Iran in serious negotiations because it seeks regime change in Iran.
Nevertheless, the fact that U.S. officials did speak to the Iranians attending the regional conference in Baghdad, and the expectation that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will sit at the same table with her Iranian counterpart in April, would seem to be at least symbolically important. Even substantively the Iranian and American officials did more than exchange accusations. They spoke of their common interests in the stability of Iraq, in the reconciliation of Iraqi sectarian factions and in the eradication of violence and bloodshed.
Yet these expressions of common interest between Iran and the United States may yet founder on shoals of inveterate hostility and mistrust that have developed over the past half a century. It was not always that way.
During the first half of the 1800s, American traders, scholars, economists and even medical missionaries left lasting, positive imprints in Iran. By 1881, Iran took the initiative to establish diplomatic relations with America. The United States responded positively by introducing a bill in Congress, arguing that America could serve its national interest by establishing diplomatic relations with "the oldest government in the world" and a country of "great strategic importance."
The mutual interests and good will that were thus established was followed by nearly a century of American championship of Iran’s political independence and territorial integrity. But then the CIA overthrew the democratically elected and popular government of Muhammad Musaddiq in 1953. As a result, the Iranian image of America as a beacon of democracy began to fade, especially after the United States returned the dictatorial shah to the throne. From then on the Iranian people viewed America as the domineering power in Iran, and the shah as its puppet.
No wonder then that the revolutionary Iranians called the shah "the American king" and in 1979 made the twin goals of the Iranian Revolution the destruction of the shah’s regime and the eradication of American domination.
After the shah fled the country, militant students took over the American Embassy out of fear that the Carter administration would repeat what the Eisenhower administration had done in 1953 - that is, return the shah to the throne.
The holding of American diplomats hostage undoubtedly violated the law of nations. It also humiliated the United States. To this day, the hostage crisis casts a long shadow over U.S.-Iran relations.
America’s subsequent refusal to recognize the Iranian Revolution, and President Carter’s rupture of diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980 set the stage for the imposition of severe U.S. economic, commercial and technological sanctions against Iran that have endured for the past 28 years. Moreover, the U.S. support of Saddam Hussein’s war of aggression against Iran burned a deep scar in the Iranian psyche.
President Bush in particular has added fuel to the fire of decades of mistrust between Iran and America. His repeated denunciation of the Iranian regime, his criticism of the Iranian electoral process, his frequent threat of military strikes against Iranian nuclear sites and now his gunboat diplomacy in Iran’s back yard in the Persian Gulf have added to his insult of placing Iran in his axis of evil.
Yet all hope is not lost. The thaw in U.S.-Iran relations that began in Baghdad could pave the way eventually for direct, comprehensive Iranian-American negotiations, if the leaders on both sides will it. The indications would seem to point in the direction of less confrontational postures on both sides.
At least for the moment the influence of the hawks in Washington seems to be declining. With the changes in the leadership of the Pentagon and in Congress and with calls for diplomacy by Secretary Rice, the chances for a less belligerent stance towards Iran have improved.
In Iran, the will to negotiate has always been there in principle. The founder of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, articulated that principle: "Iran could have relations with the United States if it behaved humanely" - that is, if America did not try to dominate Iran as it had during the shah’s regime.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy style is causing concern at least among Iranian pragmatist factions and especially among the reformers. Former President Seyyed Mohammad Khatami has declared that "the taboo of talking to America has been broken," has called for compromise on Iran’s nuclear policy without prejudice to its right to peaceful nuclear energy development, and for "serious revision" in "the government’s behavior in diplomacy."
If the voices of reason in Washington and Tehran were to prevail, the present thaw in U.S.-Iran relations could become the first important step in confidence building. It could also eventually revive the century-old Iranian-American tradition of amity. This is decidedly the hope of millions of highly enlightened young Iranian women and men.
An historic return to the tradition of U.S.-Iran friendship and mutual trust could immensely facilitate the realization of common American and Iranian interests in the stability of Iraq, in greater security of Persian Gulf oil supplies for world markets and, above all else, in the removal of the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and beyond.
The author is the Edward R. Stettinius Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia. He has published extensively on U.S.-Iran relations, and has occasionally advised the U.S. government.
R.K. Ramazani is Edward R. Stettinius Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia. He has published extensively on the Middle East.
Note: This article was first published by Charlottesville Daily Progress on March 19, 2007
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