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History of Iran-US Disputes

By Seyed Jalal Dehqani Firouzabadi, Professor of International Relations, Allameh Tabatabaei University, Iran
Source: Iranian Diplomacy (IRD); translated By: Iran Review

US, Iran flagsAfter leveling false charges about Iran’s complicity in an assassination plot targeting the Saudi ambassador to US, Washington has once again posed new threats against Iran and is doing its best to put more pressure on the country. This is not the first time that Iran and the United States confront each other at international level. However, it seems that Washington is boosting its efforts and threats against Iran as a means of compensation for its foreign policy failures elsewhere in the Middle East.

A glance at the history of the two countries’ relations in more than three decades will show that the dispute between US and Iran has been the most lasting dispute in the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran since its very inception. The tension between the two countries has sometimes escalated since diplomatic relations were officially cut between Iran and the United States in April 1980. At other times, there have been speculations about possible dialogue between Tehran and Washington. The hostage taking crisis, inhuman attack on Iran's passenger airline carrying Iran Air Flight No. 655 by the USS Vincennes over the Persian Gulf, and mounting threats against Iran by the US following 9/11 terror attacks, including introduction of Tehran as part of the “Evil Axis,” marked peaks in the escalation of mutual hostilities. On the other hand, there have been efforts aimed to reduce animosity between the two countries. the story of McFarlane in the 1980s, the direct dialogue of the former Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, with the American people in his interview with CNN, the apology offered by the then US officials over their countries’ complicity in the military coup of August 19, 1953, and finally, insisting on dialogue with Iran by the incumbent US President Barack Obama were highlights of such efforts. However, neither dispute and confrontation has ever led to outright military faceoff, nor dialogue has helped to normalize bilateral ties. Therefore, despite ups and downs and occasional limited military encounters, the dispute has continued relentlessly. Meanwhile, at times, both countries have shared common interests in certain areas or have been dealing with common enemies.

The last instance of such efforts was made by Barack Obama who talked about his government’s willingness to engage in direct talks with Iran just one week after taking office. During his election hustings and when challenged by his Republican competitor, John McCain, Obama clearly talked about the possibility of negotiations with Iran if necessities called for.

All these slogans, however, failed to bear fruit and, before long, relations between Iran and the United States reached the zero point where they were under Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.

The main question is where this dispute stems from? Given the basis and nature of the dispute, is there any possibility of reconstructing the ruined relations between Iran and the United States? The answer will differ depending on the attitude toward and the understanding of the nature and quality of the United States and, subsequently, understanding of the quality of differences between Tehran and Washington. On the one hand, as long as the US diplomacy is based on arrogance, hegemony, and opposition to the Islamic Revolution and Iran, the conflict between two countries will be a substantive one. Therefore, as long as a substantial change has not taken place in the US government’s approach to Iran, there will be no possibility of normalization in two countries’ relations. If, on the other hand, differences between Iran and the United States stem from conflict of interests, normalization of ties will depend on the recognition of the Islamic Republic of Iran's interests by the United States. If the confrontation is result of different views as well as positions and policies that have their roots in misunderstandings and misinterpretations, elimination of those misunderstandings should clear the way for detente and confidence building through critical and constructive dialogue and subsequent improvement in relation.

Review of History

Review of Iran-US relations after the Islamic Revolution will reveal that three major attitudes have governed Iran's foreign policy approach to the United States in response to Washington’s words and deeds. In early years after the revolution, the general conduct of the United States and its approach to revolutionary forces and the revolutionary government of Iran made revolutionary elements conclude that the conflict between Iran and the United States is a substantive one.

During the war with Iraq, domestic, regional and international conditions and developments made the Iranian decision-makers believe that the dispute between Iran and the United States was not substantive anymore, but a result of the conflict of interests. As a result, the most important precondition that Iran had for starting dialogue with the United States was a tangible change in the latter country’s behavior. Continuation of US hostile attitude toward Iran, however, which was at odds with changing tone and discourse of the then American leaders, did not allow for the resolution of bilateral differences.

As reform period began in Iran and the government gave priority to detente, confidence building and peaceful coexistence within framework of constructive interaction strategy, was the dominant discourse which also believed that differences between Iran and the United States stemmed from misunderstandings and mutual lack of trust. Therefore, mutual changes began to appear in both sides’ discourses. However, continuation of the United States’ hostile behavior, once again, prompted the Islamic Republic to argue that the apparent change in tone of US statesmen did not represent a true face-about in the country’s foreign policy approach towards Iran. The election of neoconservative politicians in the United States and Bush’s outright military threats against Iran further exacerbated the substantive conflict between the two countries. Obama’s mottos of “change” and “negotiation with Iran” were construed as an outward cover which aimed to conceal the traditional behavior of the United States. Therefore, the most basic questions are: why Iran and the United States have been unable so far to find a solution to their problems and differences? And “What motivates Washington to continue its hostility toward the Islamic Republic and what encourages Iran to continue its struggle against the United States?”

Theoretical Approach

According to rationalistic theories of international relations, especially in line with the dominant views of realists, one cannot answer these two questions. Because on the one hand, the American foreign policy toward the Islamic Republic of Iran has taken an ideological turn, so that, the United States as symbol of liberal democracy, considers the Islamic Republic and its religious democracy as its antithesis. Therefore, even when common interests exist, they cannot interact and collaborate.

On the other hand, in its confrontation with the United States, including during the war with Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran has not acted solely upon the rationale of the balance of powers and instrumental rationality to ensure its physical security. Therefore, despite possible benefits in relations with the United States and Washington’s willingness to have normal ties with Iran, the revolutionary government of Tehran preferred to confront the United States. That policy first led to the occupation of the US embassy in Tehran followed by severance of relations between the two countries. Of course, decision-makers of the Islamic Republic were aware of material benefits of having normal relations with the United States. Therefore, such interests alone cannot be taken as the reason behind Iran’s approach to the United States and calling the country “the Great Satan.’

The principle of balance of powers is not also able to explain Iran’s approach to the United States. Logically speaking, Iran should have not stood in the face of a superpower to protect its own physical safety, or should have inclined more toward the Soviet Union. Iran, however, did none of those two things. As a result, the answer should be sought somewhere else.

The most common answer and theoretical argument is replacement of realism by a culturalist, spiritualist and constructivist approach. Thus, some studies have focused on the role of ideology in setting the course of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy. According to these studies, the most important reason for the outset and continuation of Iran’s confrontation with the United States is requirements of the Islamic ideology as the main identity element of the Islamic Republic of Iran. As said before, this will further highlight the role of identity in determining the course of Iran’s foreign policy, though it falls short of explaining the main reasons behind Iran’s behavior. Therefore, the main motive behind the faceoff with theUnited States in Iran’s foreign policy should be explained on the basis of the significant role of the identity.

The theory of ontological security makes such an analysis and explanation quite possible because this approach expounds determining role of identity in the foreign policy within framework of rational player model.

To explain Iran’s foreign policy approach in counteracting the United States on the basis of ontological security, one must first explain about primary trust system in the country. The primary trust system of Iran in relation to the United States is quite rigid and inflexible. Therefore, the process of learning and changing behavioral model has been rendered much difficult. The most important reasons behind that rigidity include historical background as well as relations and performance of both countries before and after the Islamic Revolution. From the viewpoint of Iran, the United States has an interventionist, hegemonic and arrogant identity which has not changed in the course of time. Of course, the performance of various US governments upholds this notion and understanding of the US identity as a hegemonic state. Supporting the military coup d’etat in Iran on August 19, 1953, providing unbridled support to Iranian Shah’s regime, supporting antirevolutionary groups, backing Iraq in its war against Iran, imposing sanctions and economic punishments on the country, and doing its best to deprive Iran of the peaceful uses of the nuclear energy all attest to Washington’s hegemonic and hostile identity.

Persistence of this identity through continuation of the US behavior toward Iran since the victory of the Islamic Revolution up to the present time has given birth to a rigid system of primary trust in Iran. As a result, ontological security has been given priority in the foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Therefore, confident of the hegemonic and anti-Islamic identity of the United States, Iran has been trying to ensure its ontological security, which means to maintain the identity of the Islamic Revolution, through confrontation with the United States. In fact, fighting the United States has become part and parcel of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s primary trust system as well as its identity, so that, in the absence of the confrontation with the United States, the Islamic Republic cannot maintain its Islamic and revolutionary identity.

Therefore, more than being aimed at ensuring the country’s physical security, continued confrontation with the United States is used as a means to materialize ontological security of the country and to protect the Islamic and revolutionary identity of the country. As a result, as long as the Islamic Republic has this image of the United States, itself, and its relation with the US and as long as Washington’s performance serves to bolster that image, the confrontation will continue.

Identity-related elements and interests of the United States, as the main components of the country’s ontological security, can be summed up as protection of Islam and Shiism, the Islamic Revolution, independence of the country and Iran’s role as a regional player. The confrontation between Iran and the United States is aimed at establishing an Islamic government on the basis of Islam, strengthening the Islamic Republic of Iran in the world and promoting its international standing, obtaining independence and freedom of action in foreign policy, and recognition of the Islamic Revolution as a regional and Muslim power. Iranian decision-makers have believed, and still believe, that fighting the United States is requisite to achieve the above goals. As a result, confrontation with the United States will continue as long as it helps the country to achieve those goals.

The important point here is that follow-up and ensuring ontological security is done within framework of a rational player model. Therefore, if somewhere down the road in fighting the US, ontological security seems to be at odds with the physical security, one of them will be given precedence over the other through cost-benefit analysis. Therefore, as said before, the Iranian decision-makers have been of the opinion that the benefits of fighting the United States in terms of meeting the country’s ontological and identity-related interests outweigh its material costs.

As such, the relentless confrontation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States will only end when that confrontation ceases to play a role in ensuring the country’s ontological security and identity-related interests anymore. This will, in turn, happen when firstly, hegemonic and bullying nature of the United States changes, so that, Iran would make sure that Washington has given up its bullying ways and has changed from an expansionist and hegemonic state to an ordinary country seeking to protect its own security. Secondly, when the United States assumes that new identity, it should be reflected in Washington’s behavior and approaches. The United States can only prove its new and peaceful identity through a change in behaviors and approaches which would alter Iran’s primary trust system. Therefore, the leaders and decision-makers of the Islamic Republic have frequently announced that if the US changes identity and behavior with regard to Iran, normalization of relations would be quite possible. The change, however, has not taken place thus far and quite to the opposite, the US hostility toward Iran has been escalating during the past days and weeks.

Quality of Confrontation

In reality, the confrontation between Iran and the United States can be assessed at three levels, which include identity, conflict of interests, and misunderstanding. Thus, the sum total of those three kinds of conflicts has been severance of bilateral relations and incessant confrontation. This confrontational state is the end result of a process of belligerence which has been in effect for over three decades.

Therefore, reengineering relations and resumption of normal and non-hostile interactions can be only possible through a multiphasic process.

Normalization of relations between Iran and the United States can take place under expedient conditions and through three logical and, of course, consecutive steps. This means that observing precedence and sequence of these steps is of logical importance and a necessity because every phase is logical prelude to the next without which the next phase cannot exist.

In addition, every step and phase of this process has its own specific requirements. For example, expecting changes in the first phase which are actually special to the third phase, will invariably make relations more hostile and confrontational. These three steps or phases are as follows: change of discourse, change of behavior, and change of identity.

First Step: Change of Discourse

The change in discourse is manifest in a change of language used and is necessary, but not enough, for the reconstruction of relations between Iran and the United States. Therefore, although change of Washington’s tone toward the Islamic Republic of Iran is not enough for the reconstruction of bilateral relations, detente will not be possible in its absence too. A change in tone reflects a change in discourse, which is both requisite and harbinger of further change in manners and procedures.

Changing identity of the United States will not be possible without a parallel change in discourse, because identities are discourse-based constructs, which are shaped by language and discourse. A change in discourse can mark the beginning of critical dialogue within framework of constructive interaction. Such dialogue may be indirect or mediated.

Negotiations between Iran and the United States over the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan are good examples to the point. For this step to be taken successfully, the following principles should be observed:

Firstly, a change of language should be responded with an identical change of language because use of belligerent language in reaction to the other side’s reconciliatory tone will only cause more tension in relations. The United States’ unfriendly reaction under President George Bush to Iran’s reconciliatory tone is a good instance in this regard. Secondly, a change of language on one side raises expectations for a similar change on the other side. Change in behavior can and may follow this step, but expecting it too soon in this stage may backfire. Thirdly, the beginning of bilateral dialogue does not mean an end to conflict of interest and identities. In other words, dialogue, per se, can neither help a nation to meet its national interests, nor changes its national identity. Dialogue can only clear the way for further steps to do away with conflict of interests followed by resolving the conflict of identity. This situation governed Iran’s relations with the United States at the beginning of President Obama’s term in office. Today, however, does not exist anymore, but the language, behavior and deeds of the United States have once more entered both countries into a phase of conflict of identity which has obliterated all hope.

Second Step: Change of Behavior

In case that the first step of mutual responsiveness to oral signs of reconciliation proves successful, the second step for normalization of relations between Iran and the United States is change in US behavior toward Iran. Such behavioral change will necessitate recognition of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s national interests by the United States within framework of a peaceful coexistence strategy. Therefore, while accepting each other’s ideological differences as well as discrepancies in values and norms, they also try to prevent tension and crisis in bilateral relations by following up on their legal interests. A change in US behavior can pave the way for establishment of relative calmness in relations and provide an opportunity to first discuss and then solve differences in a peaceful way. The United States, however, has not only refrained from recognizing the reality of the Islamic Revolution as well as revolutionary - Islamic identity of the Islamic Republic, but has also tried to deprive Iran from its vital interests. Such an approach will only reproduce conflict and will never foster reconciliation.

Third Step: Change of Identity

The confrontational identity of Iran and the United States has developed in relation to the belligerent and confrontational process that has governed their interactions in the past 30 years. As a result of the United States’ behaviors and approaches to the Islamic Republic of Iran, the country has produced and reproduced its anti-Iranian and hegemonic identity time and time again. A change of identity will lead to a change in Washington’s interests which will not be necessarily in conflict with the national interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran. In addition, as a result of change in the United States’ hegemonic and anti-Iranian identity, dialogue and normalization of ties with that country will not pose any threat to Iran’s national identity. This factor has been, and still is, the most formidable hurdle to normalization of Iran-US relations in the past and present. The Islamic Republic of Iran believes that finding a basic solution to Iran’s problems with the United States and normalization of relations will be only possible in the third step and after a change of identity in the United States. Therefore, one should differentiate among these three steps of dialogue, establishment of relations and normalization of ties between Iran and the United States.

However, President Obama, who came to office with his promise of “change” and alteration in the US foreign policy through readiness to engage in unconditional dialogue with Iran, is now following suit with George Bush Jr. and is constantly beating the drums of war.

About Iran Review:
Iran Review ( is the leading independent, non-governmental and non-partisan website - organization representing scientific and professional approaches towards Iran's political, economic, social, religious, and cultural affairs, its foreign policy, and regional and international issues within the framework of analysis and articles.

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