Iran & America: How Quickly Things Change

Iran and the P5+1 signed the interim deal on Iran's nuclear program on Nov. 24, 2013.

by Charles Naas

The negotiators of the P5+1 and Iran will convene again this month to see whether the nuclear agreement of November can be developed into a formal treaty laying out in detail  the commitments by the parties. What a distance we have come in less than a year of overt and secret discussions! But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Many difficult issues are yet to be resolved — for example, how much uranium will Iran be able to enrich per year? What happens to its civilian nuclear power program? What is done to the Arak complex?

Any agreement also faces serious domestic opposition. In the US, the senators most concerned about Israeli security simply don’t trust this reversal of policy by Iran and assert that increased sanctions are still necessary to bring Iran to heel. Iran has responded that any increase in sanctions will sink the diplomatic process. In Tehran, there are the powerful conservative elements who don’t trust the West, particularly the US, and fear that increased ties with the West will slowly undermine the basis of the religious autocracy.

Despite these hurdles, there is a palpable change in attitudes among area specialists and business executives who are wagering that the agreement will be signed. For them, the big questions are: what trade and business opportunities would become available; how can US-Iran relations develop to increase each other’s regional security interests; what do both countries get out of a break in the enmity of the last 35 years; and what impact would an agreement have on the larger Middle East issues? Failure to agree would likely result in, as a minimum, additional sanctions and military action by Israel and possibly the US to destroy the nuclear facilities.

For many Americans, the principle images of Iran are still the humiliating taking of our diplomats as hostages during its revolution, acts of terrorism in Lebanon, the spewing of “Death To America” by huge crowds in Iranian cities, and a religious conservative government that exhibits little mercy for its opponents.

Forgotten history

But Iran was once a keystone in the policy of resistance to the expansion of the Soviet Union during the cold war. It had a bilateral treaty toward this objective with the US, was an original member of the Central Treaty Organization, provided the CIA with invaluable electronic listening stations in the North, and was the recipient of the sale of over $10 billion in sophisticated arms including F-5s,-F-4s, F-14s, helicopters and ground and naval equipment. Within the Middle East, Iran was conceived in the Nixon Doctrine as the regional nation that would be first in line to assume responsibility for defense of the region, particularly the Persian Gulf’s petroleum resources.

An integral part of the relationship was a trilateral understanding between the US, Iran and Israel that encompassed exchanges of intelligence, the repair of Iran’s American military equipment in Israel, Iran’s provision of oil to Israel, Israeli agricultural aid, their cooperation in opposing Saddam Hussain in Kurdistan, and plans to coordinate missile development.

There was considerable geo-political sense to this arrangement. Iran in the East was the largest regional state, it was not Arab and not obsessed with Israeli-Palestinian issues, was worried about Russian aims, was a major  petroleum producer, and had a political leader who tended to see the threat to world peace and local stability in terms similar to us. Israel saw Iran as a supplier of oil and as a counterpoise to Iraq, that had on occasion threatened to invade Israel, and to the Arab monarchies. The US, Iran and Israel were in a sense the “outsiders” and drawn together by this.

For Iranians born during and shortly after WWII, its ties with the US arouse very mixed feelings. The US assisted getting the Russians to leave occupied areas in the North, provided extensive economic aid, opened its educational institutions, and provide security against the USSR. In apposition was the galling presence of 50,000 Americans who had little or no understanding of Persian culture, the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh with the aid of the CIA, the major economic problems caused by the excess arms purchases, the increasing megalomania of the Shah and his ignoring the nation’s religion and culture, and the long list of young Iranians who were imprisoned for political activities without serious American objections.

In the decades since the Iranian Revolution, there has been a number of occasions when efforts to heal or just paper over the differences were ventured but both sides could not agree at the same time.

A rebalancing?

The election of President Hassan Rouhani and his nomination of Mohammad Javad Zarif as Foreign Minister — both holding extensive experience with the West — was the major overt indication that Iran might be on the edge of important political change. Factors influencing this softening of attitudes perhaps were the economic pain of the sanctions, the chaotic political conditions in the Middle East that were not in Iran’s favor, the instability of Iran’s neighbors, Afghanistan and Iraq, and most significantly, Iran’s isolation in the world. Saudi and Gulf monarchies strident support of Sunni insurgencies in Iraq, Syria, and assistance to anti-Shi’a activities from Pakistan to Lebanon have also been particularly irksome and worrying. In addition to the political realities facing the nation was the need to avoid conflict over its nuclear program and to set it on an accepted and secure path.

The American press and many of its politicians decry the US “retreat” from its near hegemony in the Middle East as well as worry over Israeli security. But the US remains the most powerful economic and military power in the world and every country must contend with that fact. President Obama’s sincere and obvious reluctance to reintroduce military force in the region has probably encouraged Iran’s politicians to fear us less and to recognize that there are many significant parallel interests from Pakistan to the Mediterranean to provide grist for a newer and more balanced relationship. The differences are many, of course, but they are manageable and it is highly unlikely that we have traveled this far without some understandings with Israel. President Rouhani and Zarif are much too experienced to underestimate the ties that bind us to Israel and not to see the value for Iran of decreasing tension with that country.

Looking ahead, we are far from a reestablishment of the old trilateral axis and it might be wise not to seek it. But the sharing of strategic interests and keeping anchors in the East and West while the Arab countries attempt to settle their domestic problems of governance and their external rivalries and tensions is highly attractive, if fraught with serious differences.

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.



  1. Good piece. Let’s hope that the process continues, despite the present Congressional proclivity of serving a foreign power instead of what’s good for the U.S. as well as the people of the M.E. who have suffered from the wars the U.S. launched, with Israeli intelligence, or so it’s said. That the Congress has fallen into the trap of revenge that has been the backbone of the fight[s] between the Muslim sects, tells the tale, that the U.S. Congress critters haven’t the common sense to come in out of the rain, especially when they are willing to give up their own security to appease a foreign power, one who doesn’t care about anyone else but themselves.

  2. Another enlightening and balanced account by a veteran diplomat with vast experience of Iran-US relations! It is very important to be reminded of the long history of cooperation between Iran and the United States and indeed Iran and Israel prior to the Iranian revolution and the changes that have occurred since. Looking back at that history, it seems that the shock of the revolution and the hostage taking for the United States, and on Iranian side the continuous sanctions that have been imposed on her ever since the revolution and, above all, the US support for Saddam Hussein during the devastating eight-year war that killed and wounded hundreds of thousands of Iranians and inflicted hundreds of billions of dollars worth of damage on Iranian economy are the real causes of estrangement between the two countries, and the nuclear issue has been merely an excuse to stoke the fires of hostility and to pile more sanctions on Iran.

    The fact of the matter is that at least since 2007 when NIE declared that Iran did not have an ongoing nuclear weapons’ program, and indeed Iran’s offer of a grand bargain with the United States in 2003 including over the nuclear issue by President Khatami’s government, and even suspending Iran’s enrichment program for over two years were all clear sign that Iran was not pursuing a nuclear weapons’ program. The opposition by the Israeli Lobby and some members of the Congress to a nuclear deal that would drastically limit Iran’s nuclear activities and allow full transparency again clearly shows that Iran’s nuclear program is not the real cause of the dispute.

    While many things have changed since the revolution, global issues that affect US and Iranian interests in that part of the world have remained the same. Before the revolution, the United States and Iran worried about the expansion of the former Soviet Union and its revolutionary agitation in the region, while now both countries are worried about the spread of a most virulent form of Islamic radicalism, and the Persian Gulf oil is still vital to US allies if less and less so to the United States herself. The present Iranian government seems to have realized that Iran has many shared interests with the United States and that her interests would be better served by cooperating with the United States, rather than fighting her. Many sensible people in the United States have also come to the same conclusion.

    Those who are trying to prevent the rapprochement between Iran and the United States are not serving US interests. They should be confronted and their real motives must be exposed. They should be forced to be honest to the American people and should not be allowed to hide behind the alleged danger of a non-existent Iranian nuclear arms program.

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