Journalist | Writer | Analyst
2 January 2007
The burden of history
CONFRONTING IRAN — The Failure of American Foreign Policy and the Roots of Mistrust by Ali M. Ansari
C. Hurst & Co. London and Foundation Books, New Delhi, 2006
When it comes to the United States and Iran, there’s simply no getting away from the burden of history.
Last month, when Washington prevailed upon the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to impose sanctions on Tehran because of the latter’s refusal to suspend its nuclear energy programme, the Iranian ambassador to the U.N. was quick to make the connection with the past. The resolution imposing sanctions, noted Ambassador Javad Zarif, “can only remind the Iranian people of the historic injustices this Security Council has done to them in the past six decades. It is reminiscent of the attempt made in this Council to punish the Iranian people for nationalizing their oil industry, claimed to present a threat to peace. It is also a reminder of the Council’s indifference in the face of a military coup, organized by two permanent members, which restored the dictatorship.”
Zarif was referring to the draft resolution brought before the UNSC in October 1951 by Britain, the U.S. and France opposing the nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry, and the subsequent sequence of events, which culminated in the overthrow of Muhammed Mossadeq as Prime Minister. Thanks to the Soviet Union, the 1951 resolution was never pressed and Mossadeq went ahead and nationalised the assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. But two years later, the Anglo-Americans ensured he was removed, and that constitutional, democratic rule was replaced by the authoritarian dictatorship of the Shah.
Then, as now, in the eyes of ordinary Iranians, the issue at stake was Iran’s sovereign right to the development of an energy resource free from outside domination or control. “For most Iranians, not just the politically active ones,” writes Ansari, the overthrow of Mossadeq on August 19, 1953 “marks the beginning of U.S.-Iran relations.” The anniversary of the oil nationalisation remains a national holiday half a century later and the coup is remembered “as a day of perfidy that ranks with Pearl harbour.” For most Americans, however, the coup “is at best a curiosity of the Cold War and at worst ancient history.” As a result, the U.S. leadership— both in 1979 and certainly today— is simply not in a position to appreciate “the impact of this deep scar on the Iranian political landscape,” let alone think about how to make amends.
Emergence as a power
Ansari’s book follows a chronologically straightforward storyline in which the brief period of national affirmation which followed more than a century and a half of interference and domination by outside powers— mainly Britain and Russia— was deliberately undermined and subverted. Even though the rule of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi saw Iran’s economy grow very fast— thanks, in part, to high oil prices, particularly after 1973— the Shah could never shake off the popular impression that he was merely an agent of the U.S. Encouraged by Washington, Tehran during this period emerged as a major regional power. The Shah was sold the latest American military hardware and encouraged to develop civilian nuclear energy as an alternative to oil. So close were the relations during this period that, as Ansari documents, more than 40,000 Americans were living and working in Iran by 1978 and Iran had become the fourth largest source of long-distance telephone revenue for AT&T. The fact that U.S. government personnel in Iran had immunity from local laws was seen by many Iranians as a national affront.
If 1953 was a watershed for Iranians, the hostage crisis of 1979 — in which radical students held more than 50 U.S. diplomats captive for 444 days — is perhaps the single most important event driving American perceptions towards the Islamic republic.
The irony is that in the radical Iranian perception, the seizure of the U.S. embassy is not regarded as an important event. “In the popular revolutionary conception,” writes Ansari, “the break in diplomatic relations between Iran and the U.S. is divorced from the reality of the hostage taking and instead interpreted as a natural consequence of the fact that the U.S could not relate to Iran’s Islamic Revolution… What distinguished the two interpretations was that the Iranians regarded it as an act of closure, while the Americans marked it as the beginning of an era.”
Having said that, Ansari also suggests the break, which came with the seizure of the embassy in November 1979, was not necessarily inevitable. After all, the U.S. maintained diplomatic relations with Iran for nearly 11 months after the Shah fled. Though most American citizens had left the country after the revolution, a U.S. embassy report notes in June 1979 that “many U.S. businessmen have continued their work or returned permanently or periodically without incident.” The U.S. administration was clearly in a `wait and watch’ mode.
Ansari quotes at length from an internal memo drafted by Bruce Laingen, U.S charge d’affaires in Tehran at the time, recommending that Washington publicly acknowledge the reality of the Islamic Revolution.
“As this embassy has recommended earlier,” Laingen wrote, “we believe we can and should find ways to speak publicly and positively more than we have to date about having accepted the change in Iran… This is not to say that we need to publicly embrace and endorse Khomeini… What we need to say… is that we believe we have long-term interests in Iran that continue and which we believe can be preserved in an Islamic Iran.” Laingen’s memo went on to ask the State Department to “find ways publicly to say we wish Iran well in putting its revolutionary objectives into forms and institutions that will command the support of all its people,” and that the U.S. has no interest in or intention of imposing any regime, monarchy or otherwise.
Laingen’s memo, unfortunately, was consigned to a bureaucratic dustbin because the U.S. even then couldn’t think beyond regime change. Worse, President Carter allowed the exiled Shah into the U.S. for medical treatment in October, a decision, which prompted fears amongst Islamist radicals in Tehran, that Washington had begun working towards regime change and restoration of the monarchy. Within the fortnight, student activists invaded and occupied the U.S. embassy compound.
If the seizure of U.S. hostages ended the chance of any semblance of a political understanding being established at the time, Washington’s tacit support for Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran took the hostility between the two countries to a still higher plane. To be sure, there were moments of cooperation and collaboration, such as during the Iran-Contra affair, but it was only 15 years after the revolution, that the possibility of a rapprochement seemed even remotely likely. Throughout this period, the U.S. itself made no effort. But in 1997, Mohammad Khatami, who was Iranian president at the time, raised the prospects of a reconciliation by speaking of a “dialogue between civilizations.” That Iranian opening went unanswered. After 9/11, Iran was one of the first West Asian countries to condemn the terrorist strike on the U.S. and express its condolences. But President Bush’s response was to list Tehran in the `Axis of Evil’ in his State of the Union speech in January 2002.
Need for dialogue
The Iranian side tried yet again in the spring of 2003, sending a non-paper via Swiss diplomatic channels for Washington’s consideration. The unsigned note, which was seen by senior Bush administration officials like Richard Armitage as nevertheless bearing the imprimatur of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, contained suggestions for both Iran and the U.S. to de-escalate and address each other’s concerns. Significantly, the note also signalled Iran’s willingness to discuss the Saudi initiative for a two-state solution to the Palestinian question. But like the Laingen memo, the 2003 offer was summarily rejected.
Since then, the U.S. has consistently sought to up the ante, using the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UNSC to coerce Iran rather than to seek dialogue with it. The concluding chapter of Ansari’s tightly argued book deals with the nuclear issue. Events have rapidly moved on since Confronting Iran went to press but his central message is one the U.S. will ignore at its peril: the more obsessed it is with war, the greater is the likelihood of conflict. It is only diplomacy and dialogue that can resolve the Iranian nuclear question.