Iran and the United States: History, Hopes and Missteps
As July 20th approaches, analysts are speculating whether Iran and P5+1 (five permanents members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) will conclude a comprehensive nuclear agreement after six months of intensive talks, or will extend the terms of the Geneva Agreement, limited suspension of nuclear activities for limited suspension of sanctions, and continue their bargaining throughout the second six-month span that was set for a final deal on Iran's nuclear program.
On June 3rd, 2014, the Asia Society think tank hosted two former diplomats from the two major sides of the talks, Iran and the US, to take a panoramic view at the history of Tehran-Washington relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran, and discuss its implications for the nuclear talks, and the future of bilateral (non)relations. Hossein Mousavian, a former nuclear negotiator during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami, now an associate research scholar at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and Gary Sick, a former member of the US National Security Council and adjunct professor of International Affairs and a senior research scholar at Columbia's School of International & Public Affairs, spoke of the roots of the prolonged 'cold war' between Iran and the US and ways to move towards reconciliation. The panel was moderated by Hamid Biglari, an Asia Society trustee. A transcribed version of this event will be presented in five parts by Iranian Diplomacy, the first of which comes in the following:
HB: Good evening ladies and gentlemen. To put this evening’s discussion into some context it is perhaps sobering to realize that the cold war between Iran and the United States, now in its 35th year, has been running 12 years longer than the cold war between the United States and the People’s Republic of China which you may recall lasted from 1949 to 1972. When Henry Kissinger undertook his secret trip to Beijing, he astutely spent several days with Zhou Enlai and Mao exchanging views about the world and the reason he did -that he describes in his book- is to understand how the two sides viewed each other because after not talking to each other for an extended period of time, not understanding the other side makes any negotiation impossible.
So it's perhaps fitting that as the world holds its breath to see if there is a comprehensive agreement between the two sides on July 20th, that we step back from the headlines and try to understand how the two countries think about each other and to achieve that, we have two highly informed experts to guide us through.
Hossein Mousavian is a senior diplomat and what I think is unique on his presence on the stage is that he spent 15 years as a senior diplomat from 1990 to 2005, of which eight of those years was spent in close proximity to Iran's current president [Hassan Rouhani]. Hossein was the head of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Supreme National Security Council which was chaired by president Rouhani at the time; and from 2003 to 2005 he was actually the spokesman for Iran in the nuclear negotiations. There really are not many people better than Hossein to give us insight into the thinking of Iran's leadership.
And Gary Sick needs no introduction: he has been a player on the scene since the time of the Shah, was the key White House aide during three administrations on Iran, both during Iran's Revolution and the hostage crisis, and has published his own books. Hossein's book which just came out and I highly recommend it, is unique in that, although there are many books talking about US-Iran relations, it is the only one or maybe one of the few ones that provides the perspective of how the Iranians have thought about this relationship. It has lots of interesting anecdotes and insights that I found interesting.
I would like to try to tackle somewhat ambitiously seven different topics. Those topics are first the issue of mistrust between the two countries; second who actually makes decisions in Iran between President Rouhani and the Supreme Leader; third allegations of terrorism; fourth allegations of human rights abuses; fifth hostility between Iran and Israel; sixth the nuclear negotiations; and last, prospects for US-Iran relations.
That ambition means that we are not going to any of those issues in any degree of depth but at least we'll paint a mosaic that hopefully will frame at least the elements of an al fresco about the nature of the two relationships.
So let me start with the question of mistrust. There is a school of thought that believes that since its foundation, the Islamic Republic has premises of existence on the basis of antagonism towards the United States and that antagonism also serves a domestic support to rally support for the leadership’s policies. According to that school of thought, the seizure of American diplomats as hostages for 444 days formed the foundation for the so-called ‘enemy narrative’ that has really continued to stay in various forms and guises. So let me start by asking Hossein, how accurate is this interpretation of the Iranian leadership's worldview in your judgment?
HM: First of all let me thank the Asia Society and all the participants for organizing the event. One of the major issues I have discussed in length in my book is the siege of the American embassy. When you read the book you would understand it was no decision by any Iranian official, neither the government nor the supreme leader. Even they didn't know that these students had such a plan and the first reaction of the late Ayatollah Khomeini the Supreme Leader was ‘kick them out of the embassy’. Therefore, it was not something organized by the system to use as a process of opposition to the US and lay the foundation for hostility.
The reason is more for the Supreme Leader which I have explained in the book: first of all it goes back to a deep mistrust because of the US policies from 1953 supporting the coup against the democratically-elected prime minister, to supporting the Shah, a dictator for 25 years, to supporting Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Iran for 8 years, imposing the most draconian sanctions. The leader is saying that regardless of a moderate president or a reformist or a radical, the US policies have been constantly raising pressure and sanctions. This is one issue for him, and for many other Iranian politicians. The second is they believe the core US policy is regime change and the US is really following regime change in Iran. The third is that he believes the US policy in the Middle East is dominated by Israel and its lobby in Washington. It is not the US president or National Security that is making policy in the Middle East; and the fourth major issue is that they really believe that the US is not after democratic independent governments in the middle: they would just want puppets like the Shah, like Mubarak: dictators - they have been supporting dictators not democratic systems - in the Middle East. These are the reasons of opposition to the US. This is not ideological or really it is not a matter of existence of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
HB: Thank you. Gary, in 2001, Henry Kissinger observed that there are few nations in the world with whom the United States has less reason to quarrel or has more compatible interests than Iran. Despite that, the mistrust between the two countries has persisted for 30 years. Was Kissinger fundamentally wrong or do you think that there are other reasons why that mistrust has endured this long?
GS: I would never argue with Henry Kissinger. But he was correct and I believe he still is correct that there are tremendous mutual interests between United States and Iran. But there was a revolution and Iran changed dramatically and I am very familiar with the position that Hossein has just outlined. It’s accurate except for a few minor points and I think the fact is that after the students came in and took the embassy, the government joined them. They didn't have to, but they did and then they maintained that crisis for 444 days and it could have been ended much longer.
So what happened during that time and people forget is that this was the first encounter of the United States with radical Islam; that was the first time the US ever ran into it. Secondly, this was the first televised foreign policy crisis in American history and every night for 444 days you had images of fanatical bearded man shouting Death to America in front of the embassy on live television in every American TV. That had an enormous impact. That was the beginning of the serious scar on the American psyche that we now have and it dominates us and in fact prevents us from making much forward progress. America has done a number of bad things as far as Iran is concerned and Hossein’s book covers those very adequately but we had real problems with Iran too. I mean I was a member of the Carter administration. I could argue quite correctly that Iran interfered with American domestic politics because of the hostage crisis. Primarily that was really why he lost the election. There were other things going on too.
So when Iran complains about the United States interfering I think it is fair for us to complain [too]. We've got to get passed that and remember Kissinger ultimately was right that we do have mutual interests with Iran and what we have to do now is go beyond the problems which we’ve had which are real. These are not minor problems, they’re not imaginary problems. We have to go beyond that and get to a state where we can actually begin to talk about those interests again and I think we’re starting to get close to that.