Presidential candidate Barack Obama promised during his campaign that his administration will take a new approach to the crises in the Middle East and, in particular, to the long-standing confrontation with Iran. He promised that his administration would negotiate with Iran without any preconditions. Most recently, President Obama told the al-Arabiya TV, "If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us."
Like all of his predecessors, however, Obama is not explaining to the American public why Iran’s fist is clenched in the first place. If the reason for this were understood and put in the proper context, it would represent a quantum leap toward resolving most, if not all, of the important issues between Iran and the United States, which would then contribute greatly to stability and peace in the Middle East. It all comes down to Iran’s historical sense of insecurity, and U.S. policy toward Iran since 1979.
A glance at history tells us why Iranians have a long-lasting sense of national insecurity. Iran is in one of the most strategic areas of world. This was as true 2,000 years ago as it is today. Because of its location, as well as its natural resources, Iran has been invaded and occupied many times by foreign powers, from Alexander the Great and his army to the Arabs, Moguls, Turks, Russians, and British. Over the last 200 years alone, Russia, Britain, and the U.S. have tried to control Iran.
Two Russo-Persian wars that resulted in the Treaty of Gulistan in 1813 and the Treaty of Turkmenchay in 1828 enabled Russia to separate and occupy a large part of Iran in the Caucasus region (the present Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia), and the British empire ended Iran’s political influence in Afghanistan through the Treaty of Peshawar in 1855. In the late 1800s and early 1900s Russia and Britain divided Iran into their spheres of influence. Russia supported the forces that were opposed to Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1908, and it opposed the industrialization of Iran, in particular, the construction of railways. Britain played the key role in the 1921 coup that brought Reza Shah to power in Iran and established his dictatorship. British and Russian forces invaded and occupied Iran during World War II. The CIA-sponsored coup of 1953 overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government of Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh and started the era of U.S. influence in Iran. The U.S. helped establish and train the SAVAK, the shah’s dreaded security services. These events ultimately led to the revolution of 1979.
The hostage crisis of November 1979-January 1981, during which 53 American diplomats and embassy staff were taken hostage by Iranian students, should be viewed in light of Iran’s bitter experience of the 1953 CIA coup. As one of the student hostage-takers told Bruce Laingen, chief U.S. diplomat in Tehran at that time, "You have no rights to complain, because you took our whole nation hostage in 1953."
The history of Iran-U.S. relations since the resolution of the hostage crisis in 1981 shows that the U.S.’ goal has been to hamper Iran’s economic development and prevent its integration with the rest of the Middle East. This has meant only one thing to Iranian leaders: the U.S. has never recognized the legitimacy of the 1979 revolution and has always been intent on overthrowing their government. This perception, backed by Iran’s historical sense of insecurity, is not difficult to understand.
The U.S. directly encouraged Saddam Hussein to invade Iran in September 1980, hoping that the invasion would topple Iran’s revolutionary government. When the war started, the U.S. refused to supply Iran with the spare parts for the weapons that it had sold to the shah of Iran, even though Iran had already paid for them (the funds paid to the U.S., lawfully Iran’s, are still frozen after 29 years). After the war began, the U.S. prevented the United Nations Security Council for several days to convene an emergency meeting, and after the UNSC finally met, the U.S. prevented it from declaring Iraq the aggressor, or even calling for a cease-fire. Only after Iranian forces pushed back Saddam’s army out of most of Iran in the spring of 1982 did the UNSC call for a cease-fire. President Ronald Reagan imposed economic sanctions on Iran in 1983, in violation of the Algiers Agreement of January 1981 that ended the hostage crisis.
The U.S. dropped its pretense of neutrality in December 1983 when President Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad to offer Saddam U.S. support. It kept silent as Iraq showered Iranian troops with chemical weapons. While Iraq was attacking Iran’s oil installations in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. and other members of NATO sent their naval forces to the Persian Gulf to protect Arab oil tankers that had provided Iraq with $50 billion in aid to keep fighting Iran. The U.S. destroyed a significant part of Iran’s navy in the Persian Gulf, as well as several of Iran’s offshore oil platforms.
The U.S. intervention in the war culminated with the shootdown of Iran Air’s Airbus A300B2 on Sunday July 3, 1988, by the USS Vincennes. The civilian aircraft, which was flying from Bandar Abbas to Dubai, was carrying 290 passengers and crew, including 66 children, and was flying within Iranian airspace, while the Vincennes was in Iranian territorial waters in the Straits of Hormuz. All 290 passengers were killed.
The war finally ended in July 1988, with 1 million Iranian casualties (at least 273,000 dead) and $1 trillion in damage to Iran’s economy and infrastructure. At the same time, Iran’s extreme Right used the war to suppress progressive forces, stopping Iran’s evolution toward democracy.
When it came to compensating the Vincennes victims’ families and showing remorse, the Clinton administration exhibited utter contempt for any sense of justice. Although the U.S. agreed in 1996 to pay $61.8 million as compensation for the Iranians killed, it never accepted responsibility nor apologized for the shootdown. In addition, the compensation paid to the Iranians should be compared to what the U.S. forced Libya to pay for the victims of Pan Am Flight 103, which was destroyed on Dec. 21, 1988, over Lockerbie, Scotland: $10 million for each victim.
But the hostility of the U.S. government toward Iran did not end with the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war. Every subsequent move toward Iran small or large has been meant to either strangle Iran’s economy or prevent Iran from making political gains in the region. Consider, for example, the U.S. government’s refusal, in violation of its international obligations, to supply the spare parts for the civilian aircraft that it sold to Iran. The U.S. has also prevented the European Union from selling civilian aircraft to Iran. As a result, Iran’s civilian fleet consists mostly of old and obsolete Russian aircraft, many of which have crashed, resulting in high casualties.
While preaching that Iran does not need nuclear energy because it has vast oil and natural gas reserves, the U.S. has made every effort to prevent foreign companies from investing in Iran’s oil and gas industry and helping Iran develop its untapped natural gas reservoirs. The U.S. also prevented the transportation of Azerbaijan’s oil by a pipeline through Iran and instead pushed for a purely political pipeline through Georgia and Turkey.
Whereas, according to every report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has abided by its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its Safeguards Agreement, the U.S. has repeatedly, and without presenting any credible evidence, accused Iran of having a secret nuclear weapons program, even though its own latest National Intelligence Estimate from November 2007 stated that Iran stopped its weapons program in 2003 (and there is actually no evidence that Iran had such a program even prior to 2003). In violation of the IAEA Statute, the U.S. forced its Board of Governors to demand the suspension of Iran’s legal uranium enrichment program. The Board of the IAEA has no legal authority to make such a demand.
Such baseless accusations, together with the U.S. blackmail of some members of the IAEA Board, were the primary reasons for sending Iran’s nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council (UNSC). But, this was illegal, because it was against Article 12(c) of the IAEA Statute, which clearly states the conditions under which a member state’s nuclear dossier should be sent to the UNSC. As Michael Spies of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms has explained [.pdf]:
"Verification and enforcement of the non-proliferation objectives contained in the NPT are limited, in part to maintain the balance of rights and obligations of state parties. NPT Safeguards, administered by the IAEA, are limited to verifying that no nuclear material in each non-weapon state has been diverted to weapons or unknown use. These safeguards allow for the IAEA to report a case of non-compliance to the Security Council only if nuclear material is found to have been diverted."
According to every report of the IAEA, such a diversion has never occurred in Iran’s case. As a result, even the legality of the three UNSC resolutions against Iran is in doubt, because they are based on the illegal actions of the IAEA Board. Regardless, not only has the U.S. pressured others to enforce the resolutions, it has also imposed unilateral sanctions and blackmailed others to do the same. Moreover, the U.S. has opposed Iran’s membership in the World Trade Organization, hence preventing integration of its economy with the rest of the world.
Iran provided crucial help to the U.S. to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the Bush administration rewarded it by making Iran a member of the "axis of evil." The Shi’ite groups that spent their exile years in Iran, and were supported and funded by it, are now in power in Iraq and are considered allies of the U.S. But, instead of recognizing and appreciating this fact, the U.S. has accused Iran of aiding "special groups" in Iraq, meaning extremists and radicals. And in a show of force, in addition to surrounding Iran with the U.S. forces on three sides, the Bush administration dispatched two carrier battle groups to the Persian Gulf in May 2007. Dick Cheney used the deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis to threaten Iran: "We’ll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region. We’ll stand with our friends in opposing extremism and strategic threats."
The U.S. has also pushed for the formation of regional alliances against Iran, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, and has sold tens billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to the Council’s members, weapons that they neither have the capability nor the need to ever use.
Even now that the supposedly realist Obama administration has taken over and the president is looking for Iran’s unclenched fist, the threats have not stopped nor changed in nature. Asked if the military option was still on the table with regard to Iran, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Jan. 28, "The president hasn’t changed his viewpoint that he should preserve all his options. We must use all elements of our national power to protect our interests as it relates to Iran."
Given decades of hostility, sanctions, threats, and attacks, is it any wonder that Iran’s fist is still clenched? How is Iran supposed to forget 55 years of hostility without even a simple apology by the U.S. for its misdeeds?