United States-Iranian Relations: The Terrorism Challenge

By Bahgat, Gawdat | Parameters, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

United States-Iranian Relations: The Terrorism Challenge


Bahgat, Gawdat, Parameters


With more than 70 million people, the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the most populous countries in the Middle East. In addition to this large and talented human-resource pool, Iran possesses a variety of natural resources, most notably hydrocarbon deposits: the world's second largest oil reserve (after Saudi Arabia) and the second largest deposit of natural gas (behind Russia). Iran enjoys a strategic location between the Middle East and Central Asia. In short, the Islamic Republic is too important a regional power to be neglected.

In comparison, the United States is the world's sole superpower with global economic and strategic interests. For more than half a decade America has been involved in two concurrent wars (Afghanistan beginning in October 2001 and Iraq since March 2003) on the eastern and western borders of Iran. Despite mutual interests and potentially resolvable points of contention between the world's superpower and a major regional power, Washington and Tehran lack official diplomatic relations, pursuing their strategic futures separate from one another.

Diplomatic relations were severed after Iranian students stormed the US Embassy in Tehran and held American diplomats hostage in November 1979. Since then suspicion and hostility have characterized relations between the two nations. This three-decade-long confrontation is fueled by three main charges against Iran--fostering nuclear proliferation, sponsoring terrorism, and obstructing the Arab-Israeli peace process. More recently, Tehran's role in destabilizing Iraq has been added to the list. Iranian officials categorically deny these accusations.

The United States accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons. America has not ruled out the military option, but the Bush Administration relied mainly on economic sanctions in attempting to force Iran to give up its nuclear aspirations. The United Nations Security Council issued four resolutions--1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), and 1835 (2008)--to establish and strengthen economic sanctions against Iran. In its latest report (November of 2008), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) demanded fuller cooperation from Iran in implementing nonproliferation accords, though the agency has never confirmed that Iran is actually constructing nuclear weapons. (1)

Iran has been on the US Department of State's list of nations sponsoring terrorism since the list was created in 1984. In the past several years the Department of State has bolstered this designation by highlighting the close connections Tehran has with the terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas. The latest Country Reports on Terrorism (issued in April 2008) states, "Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism." (2) The Islamic Republic, however, denies any involvement in terrorist activities and, as this article will discuss, conversely claims that it has been a victim of terrorism. Despite President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's inflammatory rhetoric regarding Israel, many Iranian officials and commentators believe that their country has no national interest conflict with the Jewish state. Many Iranians believe that Tehran has already paid a high price for its position with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

When questioned regarding its relationship with Iraq, Iranian officials claim that the American military presence is the main reason for Iraqi instability and have repeatedly called for a full withdrawal of US forces. Despite this strong public opposition to the American presence, the Iranians have been relatively supportive of political developments in the post-Saddam era. The consensus in Tehran is that Sunni domination in Baghdad was the main reason for Iraq's decade-long aggressive regional policy, including the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). The intended purpose of Iranian strategy in Iraq is to prevent the Sunnis from regaining power and to provide broad support for the Shia majority. …

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