For 35 years the United States and Iran have glared at each other across an abyss of hostility and traded insults, threats, and sometimes worse. In these exchanges, America represented "world arrogance” and the "great Satan;” while Iran was part of the "axis of evil” and "the world’s number one sponsor of terrorism.” U.S. military officials have made inseparable the words "Iranian” and "malign,” and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei never misses an occasion to remind his audiences of the inherently treacherous nature of America.
Changes Real and Symbolic
Things are changing. In the last six months the two sides have – after 35 years of futility – taken the first steps to change this dysfunctional pattern that has prevented them from dealing with each other, even when it was clearly in both countries’ interest to do so. To review what has happened:
The nuclear negotiations between Iran and P5+1 have gone from sterile exchanges of maximalist positions, and endless arguments over scheduling to meetings that both sides describe as "positive” and "productive.” Such adjectives are unprecedented in describing anything involving the United States and the Islamic Republic.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have held bilateral meetings that they have described as "positive.” The last such meeting of the two countries’ foreign ministers happened in October 1979, and by all accounts was anything but productive.
President Hassan (Rouhani) has spoken to President Hossein (Obama), by telephone. Such a conversation is the first ever between the two presidents. Even former Presidents Bill Clinton (1993-2001), who sought a "road map to better relations,” and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), who urged establishing a "dialogue of civilizations,” never held a dialogue of their own.
These changes are mostly symbolic. But U.S.-Iranian relations have long operated in the world of symbols. As disastrous as the actual follies – such the taking of the U.S. Embassy in 1979 and the destruction Iran Air Flight 655 brought down in the Persian Gulf by a guided missile from the USS Vincennes on July 3, 1988 — the symbols of the relationship have been at least as powerful (and as harmful) as its substance. Symbolic actions do not directly kill or injure anyone, but in the case of Iran and the United States they have had a profound negative effect on mutual perceptions and thus on the relationship between the two countries.
Thirty-five years of futility have taken a toll. Both sides suffer from an "empathy gap” in which they are unable to understand the symbolic power (usually destructive) of their actions or statements. The ghosts of the past – the 1953 CIA coup against Iranian Prime Minister Mohamed Mosaddegh, the 1964 controversy over the Status of Forces Agreement, and the 1979 U.S. Embassy occupation – are in the room whenever Americans and Iranians meet. There are even older ghosts – the treaty of Turkmanchai (1828) and the D’Arcy oil concession (1901) — that haunt the Iranian side and which still shape Iran’s approach to the outside world. Of course, the American side has its own ghosts that have nothing to do with Iran: Munich, the holocaust, and the recent punishing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have all worked to form U.S. attitudes.
When Iran and the P5+1, including the United States, signed an interim nuclear deal in November 2013, opponents on both sides evoked the symbols of past humiliation and defeat. "Another Turkmanchai!” shouted hardliners in Tehran, recalling Iran’s catastrophic loss of both sovereignty and territory to Czarist Russia. "Worse than Munich!” shouted their counterparts in Washington, recalling France and Britain’s failure to stop Hitler in 1938 and their selling out of Czechoslovakia. Were these correct historical analogies? Correct or not, they remain powerful symbols of dishonor and surrender that one side understands perfectly and of which the other side remains ignorant.
We ignore these ghosts at our peril. Disregard them, and they will return to haunt us. In October 1979, for example, U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance helped convince President Jimmy Carter to admit the ailing and deposed Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi into the United States despite the clear advice of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran not to do so. Vance told President Carter that we should "tell the Iranian government that we were admitting the Shah only for medical and humanitarian reasons and that there was no political agenda.” Such a statement, of course, ignored the specters of Mossadegh, the CIA coup, and twenty-five years of unwavering American support for the Shah. These realities ensured that no Iranian would believe that Washington had only humanitarian motives for its action.
The price of such obliviousness is high. These ghosts destroyed Jimmy Carter’s presidency, when what began on November 4, 1979 as a 1970’s style student sit-in became, with the backing of those in authority in Tehran, a full-scale international crisis in which Iranians’ held American diplomats hostage for fourteen months and America, in Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s words, "couldn’t do a damn thing.”
Now that the two sides have finally started talking, they have moved back from the abyss into unfamiliar and unmapped territory. Tehran and Washington know well how to insult each other. They have been doing so for thirty-five years. Now they have to learn something different: how to keep from making the kind of misstep or misstatement that will send the two sides back to familiar ground at the edge of the abyss. Being there may not be productive, but it has the comfort of dysfunctional familiarity.
What Were They Thinking?
The recent controversy over Iran’s appointment of a new ambassador to the United Nations illustrates how fragile the whole process is. When Tehran mentioned sending Hamid Aboutalebi to New York as ambassador, one could only ask what one often asks in politics: "What were they thinking?” Although Aboutalebi sought to minimize his own role in the 1979-81 hostage taking as "translator,” it appears from his account that he was acting as a member of the "Moslem Student Followers of the Imam’s Line,” the group that occupied the U.S. Embassy and detained its personnel for fourteen months. He was working neither as a free-lance contractor nor for a commercial translation service. While he may not have been a guard or an attacker, he was still part of the group responsible for overrunning the embassy.
For the Rouhani administration to propose such a person – whatever his current political views – as Iran’s U.N. ambassador resident in New York reveals a breathtaking obliviousness to American public opinion and to the effects of such an appointment. Given the absence of bilateral relations between Tehran and Washington and given the enormous attention in the United States on Iran issues, this New York-based ambassador becomes by necessity the only official spokesperson for the Islamic Republic on American soil. His predecessors have gone well beyond their international mission to become de facto ambassadors to the United States. As such they have argued Iranian positions to American audiences in the media, public meetings, and private meetings with Americans, both official and unofficial.
Aboutalebi, with his toxic history, will make a very poor spokesperson for Iran. Who will listen to him, when his past creates so much hostility? His very presence in New York will open wounds that still fester from events of thirty-five years ago. It is almost impossible to understand such an appointment when Washington and Tehran are engaged in very sensitive negotiations and having "productive and positive” conversations for the first time in thirty-five years.
In his January 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama sent a clear message to Tehran, In effect he said, "I intend to follow the negotiation process. I will do all in my power, including vetoing a congressional sanctions bill, to ensure that this time the process – unlike previous attempts at engagement – is not derailed. I expect that you in Tehran will keep your side of the bargain and not take ill-considered actions or make ill-considered statements that could sink the current efforts.
After such a message to Tehran, one can only ask, "With Aboutalebi’s appointment, what were they thinking?” Or were they thinking at all?
Obliviouser and Obliviouser
Of course the obliviousness has not been all on one side. There is a large empathy gap in Washington, where officials have long revealed themselves as unaware about the effects of their words and deeds.
In 1973, twenty years after a CIA coup overthrew a nationalist Iranian Prime Minister, President Nixon appointed the former head of the CIA as ambassador to Tehran, and the Shah was too submissive to reject him. At least the Iranians waited thirty-five years before making a similarly insulting appointment.
In 1990, the Captain of the USS Vincennes, which in July 1988 had shot down an Iranian airbus with the loss of 290 lives, was awarded the Legion of Merit ”for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer … from April 1987 to May 1989.”
In 2013, a senior administration official (presumably qualified as a geneticist) told Congress that "deception is in [the Iranian] DNA.”
In the above cases, like in the Aboutalebi appointment, what were they thinking? Whatever the intention, the effect was to insult and remind the other side of its humiliation – to rub its face in the dirt.
With thirty-five years of no official contact and with profound distrust between the two sides, it is certain there will be more such gaffes as Iran and the United States traverse the unexplored ground of engagement. Perhaps the Aboutalebi appointment is less a deliberate insult than a demonstration of how the Islamic Republic prefers to deny or bury the events of 1979-80, rather than acknowledge their ugliness.
In the coming months and years, as the two countries inch their way back from the abyss, they will need to deal with these kinds of inevitable missteps and ensure that they do not destroy the whole house and wreck the fragile process of changing three decades of futility, into something more productive for both Tehran and Washington.
* source: muftah