By Iran Review
By Nabi Sonboli
More than three decades have passed from the time that Iran-US relations were cut, though a cold war situation, proxy war, and tension has continued between the two countries. This situation has incurred heavy losses on both countries. Both sides have spent a lot of energy on promoting their positions and situation. No clear outlook for ending the status quo is visible on the horizon. Although Iran and the US have constituted the most important challenges to each other in the past three decades and a lot of literature has been published on this issue, it still deserves more thought and scrutiny.
True cost of these conditions for both nations has not been precisely calculated so far. Also, less attention has been paid to pathological aspects of mutual relations, or in better words, absence of relations, and few people have made serious efforts to rebuild the ruined diplomatic relations. This article represents an effort made to scrutinize some issues which have ushered the two countries’ relations into the existing situation. The concept of threat, institutionalization of hostility, internationalization of bilateral problems, generalization, reductionism, sabotage, and opportunism are among the most important problems which have brought Iran’s relations with the United States to the brink of an all-out confrontation.
The first lasting damage done to Iran’s relations with the US was the result of the influence of the US behavior on global understanding of Iran threat. The existing problems stalling Iran’s relations with the United States, especially with regard to Iran’s nuclear energy program, started with prejudiced treatment of Iran’s nuclear program by the US and its European allies. The US and Europe spared no effort to support the dictatorial regime of Iran’s former Shah. After a popular government took over following the Islamic Revolution and despite their claims to be advocating human rights and democracy, they unilaterally canceled pre-revolution contracts and adopted a discriminatory approach to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
As Iraq’s war started against Iran, these countries [the US and Europe] withheld no support from Iraq and even provided Baghdad’s regime with chemical weapons. Intervention in Iran’s internal affairs, attempting to stage coup d’état in Iran, and supporting terrorist and separatist groups were other measures they took against Iran during that period. The war and military confrontation took eight long years and shaped mentality of Iran’s security, political, cultural, and economic officials about foreign threat for a long time to come. As a result, the United States was introduced as Iran’s main foe and its hostile measures were highlighted more than any time before. After the war with Iraq ended, war commanders and veterans took over the country’s managerial posts. As a result, the new understanding of the nascent Islamic Republic of foreign threat was institutionalized in Iran’s executive bodies due to discriminatory and threatening behavior of the West, especially the United States. At the end of Cold War between the US and the former Soviet Union, European countries started to gradually drift away from the United States for a while, but Washington continued its Iran containment and sanctions policy. Following 9/11 terror attacks, however, European countries gradually aligned their policies to the United States’ policy of political pressure and sanctions against Iran.
The second lasting damage done to Iran’s relations with the United States is institutionalization of hostility. After hostage taking in Iran, the concept of Iran threat and hostility was also institutionalized in the United States. The United States has also institutionalized its hostile treatment of Iran by approving anti-Iran sanctions through the Congress ignoring that such measures do not help Washington’s interests in any way, but only harm those interests. Although passing sanctions law is easy by banking on the media hype and exploiting existing tension and crisis, abrogating such laws and regulations is not as easy. To cancel such laws, they need support from various sectors of the society as well as desirable political atmosphere. None of these factors has been extant in the past three decades for various reasons. In addition, institutionalizing hostility by passing laws and regulations will limit the use of diplomatic means. Foreign policy calls for suitable resilience in order to make the most of opportunities. Institutionalization of hostilities in Iran-US relations, however, has prevented both sides from being resilient enough. Therefore, many opportunities have been lost by them.
The third factor which has brought Iran-US relations to the current situation is internationalization of bilateral issues. Both Iran and the United States have incessantly endeavored to attract more international support in order to improve their position vis-à-vis the other side. On the outside, this behavior may seem sound and logical, but there is a basic setback: internalization of bilateral issues and engaging the interests of new players will add to complexity of the existing problems. If problems between Tehran and Washington had remained at bilateral level, even the most challenging of those problems, namely the nuclear issue, could have been solved with more ease. Although new players may take apparently positive positions, their behavior is usually much more complicated than appears to be. An example to the point is positive votes of Russia and China for US and Europe’s anti-Iranian sanctions resolutions just two days before Tehran Declaration was forged through serious negotiations among Iran, Turkey, and Brazil.
The fourth factor that has perpetuated an atmosphere of hostility between Iran and US and even between Iran and Europe, is generalization or, in better words, equalization. Both Iran and the US have presented very negative images of each other and have generalized it. That image is so negative that it scares them, ignoring the fact that this image has been made by them and is far from the actual reality. Generalization of that negative image has prevented them from differentiating among various theoretical and political tendencies. The dominant notion in the US and even Europe is that there is no reasonable party in Iran with which they could enter into negotiations and various political factions thwart one another’s efforts. They also believe that advocates of interaction lack political influence. A similar image of the United States and European countries is also rife in Iran. This equalization prevents serious efforts from being made to resolve bilateral problems and help to keep the existing standoff in place.
This issue has also greatly restricted relations between two countries’ people. Limiting the role of interaction and dialogue has intensified the role and impact of negative media images, and has enhanced the influence of those who are against détente while marginalizing people who think differently. When negotiations have been undertaken, both sides sought to talk to people who shared their ideas. However, the most imperative is the need to facilitate talks among those people with different viewpoints. People thinking in similar terms can, in a best case scenario, only facilitate understanding and dialogue among different parties.
The fifth obstacle on the way of détente is reductionism. During the past three decades, both sides have focused on a series of negative and controversial issues despite there have been many fields for joint work and cooperation. Security of energy, security of marine transportation, fighting drugs, fighting terrorism and extremism, regional stability, establishment of popular governments, as well as scientific and educational cooperation and trade relations were among major instances on which the two sides could have engaged in positive interaction. However, all of them have been victimized for conflicting interests. Considering limitations for cooperation in common fields of interest has practically caused conflicting interests to dominate bilateral relations the result of which has been nothing but escalation of hostility and confrontation.
Sabotage is among other issues which have frequently characterized Iran’s relations with the West, especially the United States. Due to limited contacts between Iran and the West, terrorists and saboteur groups have been undermining bilateral relations. These groups distort information and present an incorrect image of Iran by falsely introducing themselves as sources of information on Iran. If normal relations existed between the two sides, none of these groups would have been able to present such a distorted image of Iran in the United States and Europe. Not only the public opinion, but many political elites are not aware of true nature of terrorist groups. Although there are informed people in Europe and the United States that are well informed about the goals and nature of such groups, instrumental use of these groups has largely prevented disclosure of their real identities.
Opportunism, especially on the part of the United States, is another impediment to détente. During the past three decades, the United States has consistently tried to gain Iran’s cooperation and support when it needed that support, but quickly forgot about its commitments once Washington’s goals were achieved. We have seen the White House behave in this way on many occasions, including during the hostage-taking crisis in Lebanon in the late 1980s, during occupation of Kuwait by Iraq and thereafter, during the occupation of Afghanistan and invasion of Iraq. Although taking advantage of opportunities is quite usual in international relations, where two sides are already distrustful of each other, it will further worsen the lack of trust. Washington’s opportunist behavior in the past three decades has been among major factors which have reduced Tehran’s willingness to engage in talks with Washington.
Wasting opportunities has been another characteristic of Iran-US relations. Wasting opportunities is the result of two factors. Firstly, decision-making systems in both countries are unable to give a rapid response to opportunities as a result of the aforesaid issues. Secondly, they have chosen a policy of patience and waiting. Both countries have waited for better opportunities that would enable them to realize as much of their goals as possible. Therefore, there has never been a serious resolve to solve problems. Experiences gained in the past three decades, however, prove that opportunities are usually accompanied with challenges. Meanwhile, absence of diplomatic relations has been so costly for both countries in the past three decades as to make them review their stances. No war or hostility is unending and it is for the wise leaders to determine the finishing line before they get to it.
Peace, as a prerequisite of development, can only be realized through diplomacy. Due to the aforesaid reasons, Iran’s diplomatic relations with the West, especially the United States, have been ruined in the past three decades. Although rebuilding these ruined relations calls for hefty investment, the number of people who think about further destruction, unfortunately, exceeds those who think about reconstruction. As a result, a lose-lose game has been, and still is, going on between Iran and the United States.
A peaceful environment is precondition of development. Realization of Iran’s 20-Year Vision Plan’s goals will be very difficult and costly under such conditions as international sanctions, tension and crisis. To get out of the existing deadline, which is taking both countries to the brink of all-out confrontation, it is necessary for both sides to build interactions on the basis of common interests while increasing channels for dialogue among intellectual elite, avoiding of further institutionalization of hostilities by approving appropriate laws and regulations, controlling terrorist activities, taking advantage of confidence-building mechanisms, and creating a positive media atmosphere. Efficient management and manpower is needed to achieve peace, understanding, and the use of diplomacy, as it is needed for defending the country, development and attraction of investment. Let’s not forget that the cost of achieving one’s goals through wisdom and logic is always less than the cost which should be paid through recourse to force.