Diplomatic relations between Iran and the United
States were broken off by President Jimmy Carter in April 1980, after the American
embassy in Tehran was overrun by Iranian students in November 1979 and 53 Americans
were taken hostage. The Reagan administration tried to secretly establish working
relations with Iran, but that led to the infamous Iran-Contra scandal. President
George H. W. Bush was so interested in reestablishing diplomatic relations with
Iran that, in his inauguration speech in January 1989, he declared that "good
will [on Iran's part] begets good will" on America's part.
After the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988 and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the
founder of the Islamic Republic, passed away in June 1989, the Iranian government
began to gradually distance itself from his revolutionary policies. Hence, in
response to the first President Bush's call, Iran helped the U.S. to free the
American hostages in Lebanon and provided support to the U.S.-led coalition
forces that expelled Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait in 1991. But Bush lost
his reelection bid to Bill Clinton, and the Clinton administration quickly let
it be known that it was not interested in rapprochement with Iran. In a gesture
of willingness to reopen relations with Washington, the government of the pragmatic
Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani granted a large contract to Conoco
to work on an offshore Iranian oil field in 1995, even though another oil company
had won the bidding. Rafsanjani went so far as to declare publicly that "the
era of Ayatollah Khomeini is over." But Clinton not only prevented Conoco from
doing the work, he also imposed tough sanctions on Iran.
The government of moderate Iranian president Mohammad Khatami was also interested
in reestablishing relations with the U.S. Khatami suggested the "dialogue of
civilizations" as an opening, but the Clinton administration did not take it
seriously until it was too late. At that time, Iranian hardliners were opposed
to rapprochement between Tehran and Washington, because Iranian reformists were
Khatami's government did provide crucial help to the U.S. when it attacked
Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 by opening Iran's airspace to U.S. aircraft
and providing vital intelligence on Taliban forces. The forces of the Northern
Alliance that Iran had supported for years against the Taliban were the first
to reach Kabul and overthrow the Taliban government. Then, during the United
Nations talks on the future of Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001,
Iranian representative Mohammad Javad Zarif met daily with the U.S. envoy James
Dobbins, who praised Zarif for preventing the conference from collapsing. Iran
also pledged the largest investment and aid to Afghanistan after the U.S. Two
months later, however, President Bush rewarded Iran by making it a charter member
of his "axis of evil."
In May 2003, Khatami's government made a comprehensive proposal to the U.S.,
offering to negotiate all the important issues, including recognizing Israel
within its pre-1967 war borders and cutting off material support to Hamas and
Hezbollah. The proposal was rejected. That was, of course, when Bush's "mission
accomplished" banner was the toast of Washington.
Contrary to popular belief, the Iranian hardliners are not opposed to reestablishing
diplomatic relations with the U.S. They are fully aware that the Iranian people
favor rapprochement. Therefore, the hardliners considered reestablishment of
diplomatic relations with the U.S. a "grand prize" that Khatami and his reformist
camp could not be allowed to receive. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal
on June 15, 2005, right before Iran's presidential elections, Shirin
Ebadi and I predicted [.pdf] that the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
would suppress internal dissent but still try to start negotiations with the
U.S. That is exactly what has happened. While cracking down hard on opposing
voices and committing gross violations of human rights of Iranians, Ahmadinejad
has tried to bring the U.S. to the negotiation table. He sent a long letter
to President Bush but did not receive any response. Every September he has participated
in the gathering of world leaders at the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly,
and he has met with many influential American political thinkers. In an unprecedented
move, he congratulated Barack Obama upon his election on Nov. 4. The collapse
of oil prices, a deteriorating economy, and the UN-mandated sanctions imposed
on Iran because of its nuclear program have provided additional impetus for
Iranian leaders to seek out better relations with the U.S. President-elect Obama
has also said that his administration will be willing to negotiate with Tehran
without any preconditions.
Therefore, the conditions seem to be ripe for U.S.-Iran negotiations and rapprochement
to begin, provided that Obama's foreign policy team takes the right approach.
One would think that such a step would be greeted with a great sigh of relief
by the other governments of the Middle East. Not so. Two powerful lobby groups
are opposed to any rapprochement between Iran the U.S. One is the well-known
Israel lobby. I will discuss Israel's opposition in a separate article, only
pausing to point out that it has nothing to do with the "existential threats"
Israel claims Iran poses to it.
The second group that opposes détente between the U.S. and Iran consists
of the Middle East's Arab governments. Their fears are rooted in their total
dependence on the U.S. for the survival of their regimes, the fierce anti-Americanism
of their populations, and the historical resentments that Arab governments have
had toward Iran. Let me explain.
In the 1960s, the Labor government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson recognized
that Britain could no longer afford to act as an imperial power. Thus, he announced
in January 1968 that by December 1971 all the British forces to the east of
the Suez Canal would be withdrawn, and he began setting up the United Arab Emirates
in the southern part of the Persian Gulf as a way of transferring power to the
Arab sheiks who had worked closely with Britain. But both the British and U.S.
governments were worried about the designs that the Soviet Union had on the
Since 1928, successive Iranian governments had declared sovereignty over Bahrain
(which currently houses the headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet), and so did
the shah, a close U.S. ally. At the same time, three strategic islands near
the Strait of Hormuz – the Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunb Islands
– that historically belonged to Iran were protected by the British Navy and
claimed by the emerging UAE, but the shah wanted them back under Iran's sovereignty.
The shah and Britain reached a secret compromise. In return for Iran's acceptance
of a UN report in 1970 that indicated that the Bahraini people wanted independence,
Iran sent its military to the three islands but agreed to share the Abu Musa
Island economically with the UAE. That happened on Nov. 30, 1971, one day before
the end of the official presence of British forces east of Suez Canal.
That made Iran the undisputed power in the Persian Gulf, which was also what
the Nixon administration wanted. The Nixon doctrine, announced by President
Richard M. Nixon in July 1969, had declared that U.S. allies had to take care
of the defense of their own regions. Nixon and Henry Kissinger had conceived
the idea of supporting local "gendarmes" that would protect U.S. interests around
the world, and Iran and the shah were the designated gendarme for the Persian
Gulf. Thus, they told the shah that he could purchase any U.S. weapon, and helped
him begin Iran's nuclear program.
The shah started throwing around Iran's weight. Iranian forces intervened
against a leftist insurgency in Oman. He forced Iraq and Saddam Hussein to accept
the Algiers Agreement of 1975 that settled a border dispute on terms favorable
to Iran. These events revived the resentment and historical fears that the Arab
governments of the Persian Gulf had toward Iran, even though Arabs invaded Iran
in the 7th century and converted Iranians to Islam.
The shah also had good relations with Israel, which was helping him with Iran's
internal security. Although he never hid his dislike of many Arab governments,
his plans for the revival of Iran's power did include close relationships with
some of them, whom he played off against other Arab nations, e.g., Egypt and
Sudan against Libya and Muammar Gadhafi, who was fiercely opposed to the shah.
Thus, after the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom the shah despised
(to the point that the Iranian press was not allowed to print Nasser's picture),
passed away in 1970, the shah developed close relations with his successor,
Anwar El Sadat. He also provided Jaafar Nimeiri, Sudan's president, a $150 million
loan after Nimeiri expelled Soviet advisers and reestablished diplomatic relations
with the U.S. in 1971. The shah had close relations with King Hussein of Jordan,
and in the mid 1970s he began paying at least lip service to the rights of Palestinians
in the occupied territories. In a 1976 interview with Mike Wallace of CBS' 60
Minutes, he even complained about the influence of the Israel lobby in the
These developments were not to Israel's liking. Nor were Saudi Arabia, the
UAE, Kuwait, and Syria happy with such developments. The shah's weapon purchases
from the U.S. and Britain had created a powerful military, and Iran's oil wealth,
strategic location, and control of the Persian Gulf had made it indispensable
to the U.S. Israel tried to dissociate the shah from the Arab world, but to
no avail. The Islamic Revolution of 1979, however, disrupted all of that. In
particular, Iran's diplomatic relations with Egypt were severed, and they have
never been restored.
The same dynamics drive the present Arab governments' fear of Iran, which
is why they are covertly opposed to the U.S.-Iran rapprochement. Iran's strong
influence on Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and
the Shi'ite groups that are in power in Iraq; the large Shi'ite populations
of Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE; and the fact that Saudi Arabia's Shi'ites (who
make up about 10 percent of the population) reside in the oil region of the
country all worry the Arab nations of the Middle East.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recently told his ruling party that "the
Persians are trying to devour the Arab states." He has also said that "most
of the Shi'ites are loyal to Iran, not to the countries they are living in."
King Abdullah II of Jordan has warned about a coming "Shi'ite crescent" from
Iran to Lebanon. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia accused Iran of trying to convert
the Sunnis to Shi'ites.
The Arab governments of the Middle East profess worries about Iran's alleged
attempts to spread its Islamic revolution to the entire Middle East. But this
fear has no basis in reality. As mentioned above, when it comes to foreign policy,
Iranian leaders long ago set aside their ideological fervor. The only exception
to this is Israel. In fact, Iran's foreign policy has been very pragmatic for
the past two decades. To give an example, in the dispute between Armenia and
the Republic of Azerbaijan, Iran has sided with Christian Armenia, not Shi'ite
Azerbaijan. Iran's support of Hezbollah and Hamas are meant to give it strategic
depth against Israel and the U.S., since its armed forces are relatively weak.
The Arab governments of the Middle East are also supposedly afraid of Iran
becoming a nuclear power and threatening them. Again, such fears are baseless.
It was the Arab governments that supported Saddam Hussein in his invasion of
Iran, providing him with $50 billion in aid to keep fighting. Even then, Iran
threatened almost none of the Middle East's Arab governments. Moreover, Iran
has no territorial claims against any nation.
But even if Iran were to develop a small nuclear arsenal – and there is no
evidence that it aims to do so – it would only be a deterrent against repeated
Israeli and American threats. The aforementioned Arab governments have been
buying tens of billions of dollars' worth of American, British, and French weapons,
while Iran, under an arms embargo by the West, has had to rely mostly on its
own domestic arms industry, which does not produce top-of-the-line weapons.
The fears of Iran expressed by the Middle East's Arab governments are simply
smoke screens. The real reason for their fears is threefold.
First, the Arab governments of the Middle East have proven impotent at stopping
Israel's siege of the Gaza Strip, which is nothing short of a crime against
humanity, or working with Israel on a reasonable solution to its conflict with
the Palestinians. On the other hand, thanks to Iran's support of the Palestinians
and Hezbollah's victory over Israel in the summer 2006 war, Iran's leadership
is very popular among the Arab masses (certainly much more popular than among
the Iranian people). So the prospect of Iran negotiating with the U.S. while
also supporting the Palestinians frightens unpopular Arab leaders.
Second, Arab leaders are worried that if the U.S. and Iran can begin to resolve
their differences, then it will demonstrate to the Arab masses that it is possible
to resist U.S. pressure, negotiate with the U.S. from a position of strength,
and preserve political independence from the U.S. instead of being totally dependent
on the U.S., as most governments in the Middle East are, which has generated
deep anger in their populations.
Third, the Arab governments believe that as long as Iran is under strong U.S.
pressure, the U.S. will not bother with them. While they say they support U.S.-Iran
negotiations, they do not wish such negotiations to resolve the differences
between the two nations. They do not want the U.S. to attack Iran, because they
will be forced to get involved, but they also do not want normalization of relations
between the two nations.
It's not just the Israel lobby that is frightened by the possibility of a
thaw between Washington and Tehran.
On the other hand, Iran is ripe for fundamental changes. Its democratic movement
will be greatly aided if negotiations do begin and result in a lessening of
tension between the two nations. Once the threat of U.S. attacks on Iran is
removed, Iran's hardliners will find themselves at a crossroads. They will either
have to address the aspirations – economic, political, and social – of the Iranian
people, or they will be removed from power one way or another. That will be
in the interest of the entire Middle East, including the Arab nations.