After the Iran Deal: Getting Beyond Enmity

by Charles Naas

The nuclear agreement with Iran, finally reached in Vienna in July, has now been accepted by all the negotiating partners. Pope Francis has endorsed the deal. Even Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have extended grudging support. Indeed, all countries have commented favorably on the accord—except for Israel, which tried mightily to persuade the American Congress to reject it. In recent memory no agreement took longer to negotiate or received such near universal acclaim.

The accord has been significant not only for its impact on nuclear proliferation but also for putting Iran in regular and open diplomatic contact with the West on how to address the political morass in the region. The coming together of six permanent members of the UN with Iran promised to force changes in the political calculus of the region.

Even before the new political balance of power could be assessed and understood, the Russians have moved to overt heavy military participation in the Syrian civil conflict in support of the Assad regime and the multinational efforts to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). The reverberations of this policy decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin will be felt for a long and uncertain time on the chaotic Syrian and Iraqi battlefields and in multilateral diplomacy. The main regional powers–the Arab states, Turkey and Iran– have been at sword’s point for several years in their competition to protect perceived national and ideological interests. Israel’s reliance on the U.S. mitigates somewhat its major security concerns.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif both indicated their willingness to move beyond the accord to other cooperative actions in the region and Afghanistan. Yet, President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, former Secretary of State Clinton, a substantial number of members of Congress, and the general public act as if the bilateral relationship with Iran remains the same and have continued to charge publicly that Iran continues its malign, nefarious, and unacceptable policies in the region. From Iran we still hear now and then “Death to America.” However, over the weekend Secretary Kerry, undoubtedly spurred by the Russian intrusion in Syria and Iran’s lengthy cooperative ties with Russia in the survival of Assad, finally admitted that Washington is ready to discuss other political factors.

Why has the United States been so unwilling to take advantage of a closer tie with Iran, the most internally stable nation in the area with a population of roughly 80 million, a post-sanction burgeoning economy with substantial American investment opportunities, and sizable energy resources? Why have we been unwilling to recognize that Iran has legitimate national and religious interests—some quite compatible with our own regional concerns?

A Revolutionary Break

The animosity has roots that go back 41 years. The Iranian revolution was a warning that political Islam had taken a radical turn that the United States neither understood nor welcomed. Under the Shah, Iran had been a pivotal ally in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and his overthrow created a major vacuum in the Middle East at a time when the bipolar confrontation was at a peak. The Shah had frequently described Iran’s position as the arc of defense against a southern push by the Soviet Union and its ambitions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Islamic government faced somewhat the same security issues but needed an enemy to provide national fervor and cohesion and mass support for Khomeini’s revolutionary rule of the clergy. U.S. ties with the Shah easily made us that enemy.

In the early years of the revolution, several events happened in succession to cause a surge of U.S. hatred toward Iran. There was, for instance, the seizure of the U.S. embassy hostages and the resignation of the moderate Bazargan government. Subsequently came the bombings of the Marine barracks and the U.S. embassy in Beirut, with heavy loss of life, and the kidnapping of Americans in Beirut, all believed to have had Iranian participation. This U.S. hatred toward Iran persists, particularly within the Republican Party and among those strongly support Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The sense that Islamic extremism threatens American regional interests and perceived responsibilities to allies Israel and Saudi Arabia burrowed deep into the American consciousness. Later in the history of the Iraqi conflict, the U.S. military was convinced that the armed assistance Iran provided to Iraqi Shi’as caused U.S. forces substantial casualties. No proof was ever presented, but the belief has lingered on and still embitters many.

On its part, Iran had a host of reasons to instill public fear and distrust of the United States. Washington backed Iraq in the eight-year war with Iran and refused to change this policy despite Saddam Hussein’s use of poison gas and rocket attacks on Iranian cities. The United States shot down of an Iranian civil airplane with the loss of over 200 lives. Washington coordinated with and used Saudi Arabia money, personnel, and Sunni extremism in the resistance to the Soviet invasion. The United States supported Sunni tribes against Shi’a militants in Iraq. More recently, Washington tried to destroy Iran’s nuclear centrifuges with the Stuxnet computer worm and allegedly cooperated with Israel in the assassination of nuclear scientists.

Putting History Behind

Iran, however, took the lead in overcoming this history of enmity when it indicated 14 years ago that it wished to build upon a new relationship that had already developed in Afghanistan. President Bush’s “axis of evil” comment about Iraq, Iran, and North Korea put a damper on efforts toward rapprochement. In 2003, Iran again suggested talks to find a settlement of differences. But again the U.S. was unmoved.

In the new atmosphere after the July 14 agreement, can the United States and Iran finally bury the hatchet and achieve some semblance of regional stability by defeating IS, a grave threat to countries in the Middle East and beyond, and easing the region’s religious and political rivalries? Does Washington have the finesse to handle a confusing mix of varied interests in which each involved country itself has conflicting interests and policies? Should the now-bloated National Security Council become leaner and more focused on only the critical issues?

Unfortunately, success will avoid us if we continue with the same old policies and are tied down by bitter domestic divisions. The admission that our Syrian efforts have so far failed is a welcome first step toward realism.

Charles Naas

Charles Naas was Deputy Ambassador and Charge d'Affairs in Tehran during the initial stages of Iran's revolution. Preceding that he was Director of Iranian Affairs and served also in Pakistan, India, Turkey, Afghanistan, as the ME advisor at the US's UN delegation, and retired from The Policy Planning Staff.