Shining a Light into the Darkness of Iranian-U.S. Relations

Article excerpt

The authors are retired U.S. foreign service officers. Charles W. Nass was country director for Iran from 1975 to 1978, then served as charge d'affaires in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. Henry M. Precht was political-military officer in Tehran for the four years prior to the Revolution, then served as the State Department's country director for Iran.

Of all the black holes in America's foreign relations few have been darker than Iran. How to understand a country that overthrew an autocrat in the name of freedom and then produced a theocracy whose human rights abuses make the shah's look mild? Proclaimed itself a leader of the dispossessed and the guide for the world's Muslims, yet earned international scorn and isolation by provoking the hostage crisis? Prolonged its war with Iraq, bringing a terrible loss of lives and treasure? Why?

The answers begin with history. Throughout much of the past century, Iran was manipulated by outsiders--first British and Russians, then Americans, and now, apparently, by Heaven. This bitter fate has fed national cynicism and suspicion, along with a tangle of conspiracy theories. More important, Iran's history has nourished a fierce nationalism which fuses its Shi'i faith with a strong pride in the country's rich culture. Nationalism, especially when superheated by revolution, is rarely rational. Yet, to continue with the paradoxes, Iran's absolutist rulers correctly think themselves vulnerable and are profoundly risk-averse.

How does this perspective play out? What openings, if any, might there be for the U.S.?

Regime Stability?

After 25 years, the revolution's fire has cooled. Sixty percent of the population is under 30 and has no memory of the shah. They know only the tight grip of the clerics and the weakness of the reformers.

Both conservatives and reformers share two emotions: disappointment in the failure to realize the revolution's promises (for reformers, greater freedom, and for hard-liners, stronger Islamic values) and revolution fatigue (fear of another violent conflict with uncertainty of outcome). For the ruling clerics, student protests are a way of letting off a little steam. They must be controlled, however, lest unrest spread to the working and bazaar classes and provoke the strikes and massive demonstrations that brought down the shah. Reform leaders, for their part, draw a line that should not be crossed by student demonstrators.

In these circumstances it is futile and counterproductive for President George W. Bush to label Iran as a spoke in the Axis of Evil while sending sweet words to the beleaguered democratic opposition. All Iranians resent President Bush's denigration of their country. The democrats, valuing their independence, reject any foreign intervention on their behalf. During the revolution there was little outsiders could say or do that did not produce unintended effects. That condition holds today. Informed silence and inactivity is in order for Washington.

Reaction to a U.S. Assault on Iraq?

While Iranians bitterly hate Saddam Hussain, they have no taste for his removal by an American-led invasion. Should U.S. forces take over Baghdad, Iran will face American power on all its borders, a situation no Iranian nationalist wants. (Even the shah disliked the heavy U.S. Navy presence in the Gulf, preferring to be its gendarme himself.) Will a defeated Iraq become fragmented, with an independent Kurdish state emerging in the north? Iran, like Turkey, would resist that attraction for its own Kurds. Will refugees flood across the border? What will be the fate of Iraq's long-abused majority Shi'i population? Iran has to be concerned with the uncertain future of its western neighbor, but is powerless to affect the outcome of a war.

Tehran, therefore, is most likely to resume the posture it adopted during the Afghan war: neutrality (with a friendly gesture or two toward the U.S.) and eagerness to assert some influence when the fighting ends. …