Friday, May 13, 2016

Iran and the United States

Iran and the United States: An Insider's View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace
© 2014 Seyed Hossein Mousavian
368 pages

The United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran have not been on speaking terms since the hostage crisis of 1979 - 1981,  in which students drunk on revolution seized the American embassy in Tehran and held scores of American workers captive for well over a year.  This was not a random outburst of anti-American violence, but a carefully planned demonstration designed to spurn the United States' foreign policy in Iran.  The revolution in which these students played their part  had before thrown a US-installed dictator out of power -- and they would not accept his return.  The old relationship having been rejected, neither American nor Iranian leaders have been able to establish a new one -- but, according to this briefing by Sayed Mousavian, it's not an impossible task.  Both sides have attempted to come to some level of rapprochement, but misunderstanding, inconsistency, and timing problems have destroyed every trial balloon.  Iran and the United States reviews the whole of Iranian-American foreign relations, identifies the issues which are most problematic, and finishes by proposing a path to concord.

Once upon a time, the United States government was not a world power, but an idealistic Republic that held to a path of nonintervention. The Persian people looked at America as the shining light of the west: unlike the British and Russian empires, the Americans had no desire to  manipulate or force their will on the middle east. Even when Iran attempted to stay out of the West's way, as it did by declaring itself neutral during the Great War, the imperials insisted on dragging Iran into it -- as they did when Britain and Russia used Iran to attack the Turks, turning Iran into a warzone and reducing many of its people to refugees or worse.  During the Second World War, Iran became even more important for the west as a route for supplies to the Soviets, and a source of oil to power the legions of airplanes, tanks, ships, and service vehicles that supported a global war.   WW2 cost the United States the last vestiges of its innocence: it landed troops in Iran and thereafter would take a very active interest in Iranian politics.  When the Iranians attempted to resume control over their oil from Britain in the early 1950s, Britain and the US worked together to throw out the Iranian government and replace it with one that would do their bidding.

That government, the Shah's, was the one the Iranian revolution so forcefully rejected -- and not merely because he was foreign-imposed and allowed imperial powers to harvest the majority of Iran's oil wealth, but because he used brutal methods like the secret police to support his reign.  After the revolution, an overtly Islamic  government was installed, and thereafter relations with the outside world went steadily downhill. The Islamic nature of the government was in part religious, and in part a defense of Iranian traditions which had been supplanted by western mores.  The nuclear program that Britain and the United States had once encouraged in Iran was now forbidden, in part because of Iranian's militant rebuke of the decades of coercion endured from Britain, Russia, and now the Americans.   The new government's hostility extended to Israel, as the creation of the west in response to its own tragedy.  Iran would support militias fighting against Israel in Syria and Lebanon, and thereby earn a reputation for itself as a sponsor of terrorism -- even though some of the attacks attributed to it were actually perpetrated by the same Saudi terrorists who would later attack the United States.  The Islamic Republic had been founded on rejection of foreign meddling, and would spend its first decade fighting for its very life against Saddam Hussein -- a man who opportunistically invaded Iran, aided and armed by the Americans.  Although Iran was able to take back land stolen by Hussein's army, when it began an offensive into Iran it was warned discretely that the west would never allow it to 'win' the war by sacking Hussein, and the west has continued low-level hostilities since: destroying an Iranian fleet during the Iraqi invasion, assassinating its nuclear engineers, and even inaugurating cyberwar to disable its reactors.  Little wonder Iran regards the west with deep suspicion.

  Previous attempts at restoring connections have been marred by the gap between American and Iranian culture:  when a hostile American media sneers at Iranian leadership,  this is perceived as being the opinion of the American president.  When Congress and the president take opposing stances on the subject of Iran, this is seen not as a quirk of the American political process, but deliberate misleading on the part of the president.  On the other side, Americans fail to understand how deep the scars of the early 20th century go:  the Islamic Republic's entire raison d'être is reaction against western humiliation. Iran would rather perish than cave to the threat of violence. If concordance with the Iranians is to be achieved, it must be by appealing to their interests. One especially potent source of collaboration is counter-terrorism.  While Americans might include Iranian leadership in the ranks of 'Islamic extremism',  Iran's status as the center of Shi'ia Islam makes it an target to Sunni groups like ISIS.  Iran's leaders have acute interest in developing their economy further,  the sort of interest that makes stabilizing parts of the middle east a potential shared goal as well.  Other past attempts at patching together a peace have been hindered by misalignment between the nations' respective leadership: when the Iranians feel chatty, the Americans are bellicose, and vice versa. The Bush-Ahmadinejad years were a perfect combination of idiot dancing, as both men sent messages indicating they wanted to talk, then referred to the other party as the Great Satan the next week.

This is a fascinating volume, in part because it's by an Iranian who, until his arrest for treason by Ahmadinejad, faithfully served the Iranian government as its ambassador to Germany and on the nuclear negotiation team. He is not hostile toward the United States, despairing of both governments' talking past one another, and is able to understand the American side of the story.  The combination of his amiability and his experience as a journalist (later editor for the Tehran Times)  results in a thorough but approachable history and analysis of Iranian-American relations.  There certainly seems to be reasons for hope,  though the ramifications of the nuclear deal arrived at with the Iranians just recently are has yet unclear. The White House is very proud of the deal ,but the White House is also very proud of the ACA website.  Hopefully what little progress made can be sustained through the next president, though this is stretching it given that a proven warmonger is most likely to win.   At any rate, for Americans and Europeans attempting to get a handle on Iran, this is a commendable beginning.  The fact that we continue to attempt to control mid-east politics when every previous attempt has backfired and created larger problems is awe-inspiring in its historic obliviousness.

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