Who’s Afraid of US-Iran Détente?

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 in power.

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 Persian Gulf.

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 U.S.

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.