Forget the rhetoric: Iranian-American relations seem set to blossom during Bush's second term of office, writes Mustafa El-Labbad
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Iran and the United States through the years. From the top left clockwise: Iran's late spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini; US President Harry Truman greeting Mossadaq; US President Richard Nixon and the shah; US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the shah and his wife; Clinton; Khatami; Bush
For the last half-century Iranian-American relations have been a unique example within the wider field of international relations. They have swung between extreme degrees of closeness and hostility, covering every point in between on the way. Yet whether close or hostile, these relations are a clear indicator of the state of Middle Eastern politics.
Their importance stems from a series of objective factors, of which the first is the United States' role as a leader of the international community. The US has played this role since the end of World War II, and following the collapse of the Soviet Union and its socialist order, it seems to have assumed sole responsibility for deciding the fates of both the world order in general, and that of our region in particular.
The second factor is Iran's pivotal role in the Middle East based on its geo- political status and resources. These considerations are in turn intimately linked to the country's military and human capacities. Iranian-American relations are characterised by their changeability and dynamism, which prevent any reliance on static hypotheses or unchanging "givens" when analysing their constituent parts or attempting to read their twists and turns. They are relations that contain all the ingredients necessary for both continuity and division.
The period between the counter- revolution that toppled the government of the nationalist leader Mohamed Mossadaq in 1953 and the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 sowed the seeds for cooperation and understanding in Iranian- American relations. It was then that an alliance was forged between the two countries and their different roles and interests in the region were mapped out. These relations would later be plunged into a dark tunnel. But observers consider that the superlative bilateral relations that existed during the quarter-century that separates these two critical junctures provide an example that should be followed for relations between regional and international powers. Then, the national interests of each party in the region neighbouring Iran coincided exactly.
Following the Iranian Revolution, relations between Tehran and Washington were turned on their head, and the previous cordiality was replaced by an antagonistic bond of a kind rarely seen in modern international relations. The result was a new media discourse, in which the United States became "the Great Satan", whilst for its part Iran was increasingly referred to as a state that "sponsored terrorism". From the revolution until the emergence of Iranian President Mohamed Khatami and his reformist movement, Iran was at the forefront of the radical trend in the region. The regime was consistently opposed to the policies of Washington and its allies, even if the severity of its position could vary in response to circumstances.
The Iran-Iraq war served to set this hostility between Tehran and Washington in stone. The former perceived Washington as throwing its weight behind its Iraqi foe, despite such manoeuvres as the Iran- Contra scandal, in which the US supplied Iran with weapons with the connivance of Reagan's presidential office, behind the backs of the American legislative. Following the war, already hostile relations took a turn for the worse, and Iran soon found itself added to the US State Department's annual list of state sponsors of terrorism. Then Congress passed the D'Amato law that prevented American companies from investing more than $20 million in Iran annually. Nor did the onslaught stop there, as the US proceed to freeze Iranian bank accounts and halt bilateral import agreements between the two countries.
The nature of the conflict has changed considerably since the rise of the reformist movement in Iran, and the appointment of its leader, Khatami, to the presidency in 1997. These internal developments coincided with Bill Clinton's second presidential term in office, and both sides soon indicated their desire to soften the combative nature of their relations. Iranian national interests demanded an improvement in relations with Washington, the sole remaining power in a unilateral world order. These national interests ultimately boil down to the issue of Iran's regional role. Tehran is simply unable to impose itself on the region or increase its sphere of influence amongst its neighbours without Washington's consent.
It is clear to everyone that Iran's regional role has topped the list of national security priorities ever since the foundation of the modern Iranian state. No matter who has ruled the country, from Safavids, Qajaris and Pahlavis to the contemporary Islamic republic, and however different their approaches to other matters, crown and turban have been in agreement on the necessity of affirming Iran's regional position. This broad heading covers a number of issues which, although secondary in strategic terms, are of considerable importance to decision- makers in Tehran. These include unfreezing American bank accounts, allocating the oil wealth of the Qazvin Sea, and lifting the economic embargo. However, despite the importance of these other issues, they can only be addressed once Iran's regional role is acknowledged by the world's only superpower. This recognition will require carefully defined conditions, precise understandings and some kind of division of roles and influence in the Middle East. With this in mind, and following Khatami's election to the presidency, Iran began to send out positive messages and signals in the direction of Washington. These included Khatami's famous television interview with Christine Amanpour on CNN at the end of 1997, efforts to facilitate the release of certain Western hostages held in Lebanon some months later, and the call for a "dialogue of civilisations" made by Khatami himself. The signals became even clearer with the visit of the parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karoubi to the US in 2000 and the meetings held in New York between him, members of the American Congress and leading figures in New York's Jewish community.
The Democratic administration managed to decipher these messages, and return the greetings with even stronger signals of their own. Then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright apologised for America's role in the overthrow of Mossadaq's nationalist government, and the apology was significant, even if for many it came 47 years too late. This détente reached a new level when Clinton himself described Iran as the guardian of "one of the oldest human civilisations".
From the perspective of the American Democrats, this relative improvement in bilateral relations was clearly anchored in the concept of the "double embrace" -- that is, of a rapprochement with both Iran and Iraq. It was further shored up by the firm intention to avoid any sort of direct confrontation with Tehran. This did not mean, however, that they desisted from harassing Iran and its interests, or were prepared to recognise and work with Iran's opposition to American perceptions of the region. In addition, Clinton's administration was obsessed with the issue of the economy: between 1997 (the year of Khatami's election) and 2000 (which witnessed the defeat of the Democratic Party and the rise of the current American president, George Bush). Decision-makers in Tehran never stopped dangling the tantalising offer of oil deals before American companies, especially Conoco and Amoco (now part of BP). Yet although both prospective partners got very close to making deals worth billions of dollars, in the end they saw their efforts thwarted by the D'Amato law which stood between them and the prize of Iranian oil.
The Democrats' caution in their approach to Iran is illustrated by the ways in which they sought to achieve American objectives in the region, including the use of military force (although they never used it exclusively, as is the case today). Their aim was to gradually alter the appearance of the region -- Iran included -- and support the Iranian opposition both within Iran and abroad, using a number of different approaches simultaneously to reach their objectives. These efforts were conducted as part of a far-sighted, long-term policy that sought to realise Washington's interests with maximum benefit to the US and a bare minimum of direct engagement. This explains why Iran's positive foreign policy gestures failed to receive an adequate response from Washington. Indeed, towards the end of Clinton's second term of office Congress extended the trade embargo on Iran for another five years, and left the country firmly on the list of state sponsors of terrorism.
Before the arrival of the reformists, Iranian-American relations were largely characterised by Tehran's historical confidence in their dealings with Republican administrations, which is attributable to the traditional closeness between the Republicans and the influential American oil lobby. The oil lobby is the main supporter of the Republican Iranian-American Council, whose executive bodies count amongst their members Iranians in exile with links to the Iranian state as well as both current and former American ambassadors and ministers. Since its foundation in the 1990s, the council has been involved in preparing various scenarios for cooperation between the two countries, as well as assessing the limits of any such exercise.
The Democrats' treatment of Iran was distinguished by its view of that country as a stumbling block to Washington's interests. Clinton's administration was unwilling to resort to the military option. At the same time, it was not keen to relax its stance and make deals with Iran, since the pre-condition for any such deal would have been that it would strengthen Iran's regional role. This was something the Democratic administration was unable to offer the Iranians because it went against the value system that the administration proclaimed (regardless of whether it actually adhered to these principles in practice), which was centred on democracy and human rights.
As a result, objective factors within both the regional and international situations became bound together, interacting with personal dynamics on both sides and preventing any rapprochement that could have served the national interests of both sides. On the one hand, the Democratic value system was a huge obstacle in the way of Clinton, who wanted to protect American interests both internationally and in the Middle East through a "velvet-gloved" approach, seeking to provoke change through a "knock-on" effect. This value system prevented him from making a rapprochement with Iran palatable either to America's legislative bodies or the world in general. On the other hand, Khatami, who champions the Iranian constitution and believes in theocratic rule, was not authorised by the Iranian system to take decisions at the highest level. For under the Iranian constitution, that prerogative belongs to the chief guide of the Iranian Revolution, Ali Khamanei. Khatami, a cultured man and a student of philosophy, was thus unable to do much more than utter liberal words, while remaining trapped within the confines of traditional Iranian religious thought.
In addition, the true focus of Khatami's political programme was to consolidate the legality of the Iranian Revolution within a constitutional framework, thereby promoting the concept of theological rule in an entirely new context: at times contemporary, and at others civic. Because of this, Khatami -- the promoter of a dialogue between civilisations, forever smiling and well-spoken, generally calm, and always powerless to act -- proved a weak partner in the effort to achieve a breakthrough in Iranian-American relations. For despite all the signals, smiles and meetings between Clinton's Democrats and Khatami's reformists, their efforts were little more than idle flirtation.
Then came the events of 11 September and their repercussions, internationally, within American domestic politics, and in particular in the region. The emergence of an extremist Republican administration in Washington initiated a revolution in both domestic and foreign policy and led to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- countries bordering Iran -- which continue today with no end in sight. This turn of events has coincided with the decline of the reformist movement in Iran, the return of conservative dominance in parliament and the approaching end of Khatami's term in office. But now, ironically, as the old constellation fades away, new opportunities for relations between Washington and Tehran are beginning to emerge. Each side, despite the legacy of enmity and hostile propaganda between them, find themselves, by virtue of their strategic interests, more in need of each other than ever.
With Bush's victory in the 2000 presidential elections, Iranian-American relations entered a wholly new stage. One of the constants of domestic politics around the world is that "institutional states" (i.e. those in which decisions are made by institutional bodies, such as the United States of America) do not make radical changes in their policies just because there is a new incumbent in the presidential seat. However, the election of George Bush overturned prevailing orthodoxies. And no sooner had the 11 September attacks taken place than the new Republican administration embarked on a "holy war against terrorism", which struck at the very foundations of international relations. The face of the region was changed completely, as the American forces who had attacked Afghanistan to destroy the "Al-Qaeda organisation" became, by virtue of geo-politics, Iran's immediate neighbours. Previously stable regional balances of power began to shift and crumble. It is true that for a long time the US, as a great power, had maintained a presence in the region surrounding Iran, either through regional alliances or military bases. But from a strategic viewpoint at least, the sheer weight of US forces and their continued presence in Afghanistan created a wholly new situation. The war and subsequent occupation of Iraq by British-American forces also contributed to an unprecedented situation in the region, not just because it was the first time America had embarked on the military occupation of an Arab country, but also because Washington under Republican control had now become Iran's neighbour on all fronts. In addition to occupying Afghanistan to the south-east of Iran, and Iraq to its west, US forces were also present in Pakistan to its south- west, the Persian Gulf to the south, Turkey to the north-west, Azerbaijan to the north and -- last but not least -- the central Asian republics to the north-east.
The Republicans easily surpassed Clinton's example when they bombed Afghanistan and Iraq to keep Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein "in-line". Under Clinton, the bombing campaigns, however severe, never led to occupation and thus could not change the existing regional balance of power. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington removed two regimes hostile to Iran, the first of which had engaged it in a brutally destructive war for eight years, while the second had murdered its diplomats and declared it an enemy for sectarian reasons. With the fall of these two regimes, Tehran saw real gains in its political and sectarian reach. A change in strategic balance in the surrounding area opened the door to dangers, but also created a chance to benefit from the changes created by the American military forces under Republican control. These developments led to the revival of Iran's long held ambitions to assume its regional role fully, after the political, economic and geographical siege of the Clinton years.
The great powers -- and the US is a prime example -- do not enter wars for their own sake, but in pursuit of strategic interests for which they are prepared in case of necessity to spill blood. If these interests can be protected through the use of allies and agents without incurring direct human and material losses, then the need for military operations disappears. The premise on which the new decision-makers in Washington based their strategic planning was that Iraq and Afghanistan could not be occupied except through the intervention of American armed forces. At this point, the importance of the Iranian factor began to increase: if Tehran was prepared to cooperate, it could help America realise its objectives, but if it decided not to collaborate, then it could theoretically stand in the way of these interests, by virtue of its geographical presence and sectarian reach within both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The current crisis for the American occupation of Iraq means the US cannot afford the luxury of sustaining a long-term restrictive embargo on Iran of the sort that was imposed by the Clinton administration. In dealing with Iran today, Washington therefore can choose between two options. The first is to attack Iran and change its political regime through military force. This would help avert the crisis in Iraq, but would also multiply the US's military fronts over this vast geographical expanse in a way that would likely prevent them from controlling the results of any such venture. The second option is to deal with Iran as a strong regional partner that is able to guarantee their interests, minimise their losses and bring regional stability to the new situation. This is the option that seems most likely at present.
Iran's position as a useful strategic partner in the region derives from its geographical presence and sectarian reach. It has an unmatched dominance on Iraqi soil: in addition to its historical ties with the Kurds, it has demographic and sectarian links with the Shia who form the majority of Iraq's population. In addition, Iran does not necessarily consider its foreign policy alliance with Russia as sacrosanct in the light of the conflict between Moscow and Tehran over the division of the Qazvin Sea oil and the struggle for control over the former Soviet Central Asian states. The ultimate alignment of Tehran's decision- makers is of vast strategic importance. For since the fall of the Soviet Union, Iran has been the only country in the region that has not formed an alliance with Washington, unlike other competing powers such as India, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt or Saudi Arabia.
The events now unfolding in Iraq offer the chance, at least theoretically, to forge new understandings between Iranian conservatives and the Republicans in Bush's administration. Tehran needs the consent of the Americans to impose itself on the region and enter fully into various regional projects. It needs to be acknowledged as a genuine political force by the world's only superpower. It is for this reason that Iran has persisted in making positive signals to Washington, in the hope of strengthening the understanding that could guarantee its unique regional role. This was especially noticeable after the re-election of George W Bush, who was clearly the favoured choice of the leaders in Tehran, as Hassan Rowhani, chairman of Iran's National Security Council, made clear at the time. Iran has since participated in the Sharm El- Sheikh conference along with other countries bordering Iraq, and it agreed to the conference's final statement that described operations undertaken by the Iraqi resistance as "terrorist acts". It is possible to see Iran's participation in the Greater Middle East conference, convened in Morocco by the Americans, and the conference for arrangements in the Gulf region to be held by the British, in the same light. Like the Bush administration, Iran supports holding Iraqi elections on the agreed date. Both conservative Tehran and Republican Washington agree on the need to re-draw Iraq's power structures as quickly as possible: the former wants to establish the Shia majority in Iraq's governing institutions, and thereby stack the deck in its favour in terms of regional power, while the latter wants to conclude legally binding treaties with Iraq to serve its interests, and that will only be possible if there is an elected and internationally recognised government.
The dispute between Washington and Tehran over Iran's nuclear file does not seem to represent a major obstacle to bilateral relations, but is rather one of the main vehicles for their strategic bargaining. America tries to politicise the issue and transform it from a matter of technological rights into another tool -- like Iraq -- with which to pressure Iran. Meanwhile, the Iranian conservatives are skilfully conducting negotiations with Germany, France and Britain as a way to sidestep the political pressure from Washington. In other words, the conservatives are boasting of Iran's nuclear capabilities, because they want to put the nuclear issue on the negotiating table with Washington in the hope that they may trade it for regional preeminence. Once more we see the two sides are in fact acting in the same way, this time by politicising the nuclear issue, even though superficial signs would suggest the contrary.
Ever since the first year of its revolution, Iran established a historic precedent that revealed its willingness to make agreements and bargains with American Republicans. It is worth remembering that it was the Democratic President Jimmy Carter who failed to free the American Embassy hostages, and that it was Tehran under the leadership of Imam Khomeini that delayed the hostages release until the 1980 presidential elections to ensure a victory for the Republicans over the Democrats, resulting in the election of Ronald Reagan. Ironically, under the presidency of George Bush Jr the value systems of both Tehran and Washington are now nearly identical, especially as concerns the "divine mission" that each side believes it has been entrusted with. This fact lends support to those scenarios that predict an impending rapprochement and a parcelling-out of roles and influence between Tehran and Washington in the Middle East.
Tehran has always believed in its divine mission ever since the foundation of its religious state some 25 years ago, in accordance with the theory of Shia theocratic rule. Washington meanwhile embarked on this path for the first time when Bush Jr and the new conservatives brought an extremist Protestantism into the halls of power. Both sides, therefore, are as one in their desire to carry out their respective divine missions: in Iran, through the politicisation of religion in Iran, and in the US, through the insertion of religion into politics.
Historically, Iranian-American relations are founded on Iran' pretensions to play a regional role, and the extent of Washington's consent to this ambition. They are complex and interwoven: the dosage of the two elements determines whether ties are strong or weak, while various secondary considerations can also increase or detract from the chances of a rapprochement. Unlike other bilateral relations, they are not a bond of mutual reliance, and it is thus impossible to deduce future developments from past events. Indeed, the severe fluctuations in the course of Iranian-American relations over the last half-century have made the task of mapping out future developments nigh on impossible most of the time.
Yet despite these fluctuations, Iranian- American relations have always been open to the possibility of change, mainly due to Iran's obsession with its regional position. On the basis of historical factors, and the current strategic interests of both sides, the possibility now rears its head that, given the control of religious conservatives in Iran and neo-conservatives in Washington, official political discourse does not necessarily constitute good evidence for either a development or a breakdown in relations between the two countries. Rather, that discourse should be taken simply as an indicator of the current state of strategic bargaining between the two countries, which in Iraq is now more frenzied than ever before.