Linking the US and Iran

by David Collier*

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, recently cast fresh doubt on the possibility of a nuclear deal by the July 20 deadline for the ongoing talks between Iran and world powers in Vienna. This came after Iranian foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claimed the West was suffering from illusions regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

Should the talks fail to reach agreement, what happens next? More sanctions, more enrichment, and more talk of military action are the most likely outcomes. What has been missing from the debate, and what could save the long-term relationship between Iran and the West, is more talk of enhancing “linkage” with Iran.

In a 2005 article in The Journal of Democracy, Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way defined linkage as the density of ties between two countries or regions. It forms a web of back and forth interaction on economic, geopolitical, social, and communication matters as well as amongst civil society. This interaction enhances mutual cooperation, trust, and understanding.

The current Western approach to Iran has centered on leverage, the use of overt tools for changing a country’s behavior through the use of sanctions, threats of military action, and attempts to isolate Iran from the international community. Linkage however, is more ethereal and subtle with a focus on deep connections and long-term relations. It can be understood as the soft power to the hard power of international leverage.

While some analysts and officials credit Western leverage with bringing Iran back to the negotiating table, others don’t regard this as a long-term solution. Patrick Clawson and Gary Samore have both cautioned that while sanctions may have helped kick-start negotiations, they do not guarantee their successful conclusion, or that Iran will stand by any agreement in the months and years ahead. It is to this end that the concept of linkage must join the debate.

Past Mistakes

The United States has historically enjoyed and abused the benefits of linkage with Iran, as well as suffered the consequences of its absence. In the 1940s and early 1950s, Iran was awash with American financial, military, and intelligence missions, as well as an active and influential embassy that maintained contacts with Iranians across the political spectrum.

It was this depth and scope of linkage, coupled with the leverage of the US’ position as a main source of financial aid to Iran, that allowed successive US administrations to greatly influence Iranian governmental policies, laws, cabinet position appointments, and even who should be prime minister. The success of the coup in 1953 against Iran’s only democratically elected prime minister would not have been possible without deep levels of linkage with Iranian society. While these policies proved ultimately disastrous for both the US and Iran in the long-term, Washington’s ability to achieve its aims, however misguided, was only possible thanks to the high level of linkage it maintained with Iran.

By the time the revolution began in 1978, however, this linkage had evaporated. Trust in the permanency of the Shah’s regime led to a decrease in contact and surveillance over Iranian society. As a result, the revolution came as a surprise to which Washington was unable to adequately comprehend or respond until it was too late.

This absence of linkage continued in the post-revolution era, with Iranian and American leaders refusing direct contact for close to 35 years. The tradition was not broken until late in 2013 when President Hassan Rouhani spoke briefly with his American counterpart by phone on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. This was a remarkable break from no presidential contact following the revolution and functions as an example of linkage that must be maintained and consolidated.

However, amid Tehran’s wariness of American desires to overthrow the regime, and the ongoing attempts by Iranian hardliners to scuttle the talks, establishing additional links will be difficult. Persistence will be necessary but is not a quality so far associated with Obama’s Iran policy. His engagement with Iran has instead been likened to a single roll of the dice with efforts made to reach out ending at the first sign of obstruction.

Engaging Iran

Instead, the US must be persistent and take every opportunity to engage Iran and Iranians on all levels. Influential American actors could take their lead from the scientific community, which has had numerous American-Iranian collaborations in recent years. Norman Neureiter, acting director for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, states that as a result of these efforts “Iranian and US scientists get along quite well.” More than that, one US Laureate invited to Iran was so feted by his hosts that he was measured for a sculptured bust, which now rests in the garden of the Pardis Technology Park outside of Tehran.

Another example of perhaps unexpected linkage was a meeting between the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Supreme Council of the Seminary Teachers of Qom in March of this year. Their dialogue led to a joint statement declaring opposition to violations of human life and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Sport has also transcended political obstacles; the US Wrestling Team was cheered on enthusiastically during the Greco-Roman World Cup in Tehran in May. American coach Steven Fraser was so moved that he gushed: “they love us Americans, and we love them!” Although the USMNT and Team Melli will not meet at the Estádio do Maracanã on July 13 to decide the 2014 World Cup, soccer diplomacy through friendly matches and tours could also be used to build relationships and understanding.

Collaboration in any form establishes linkages, both at the grass-roots level and between governments; Americans must seek every opportunity to reach out and create contacts with their Iranian counterparts. Recent reports of discussion between Iranian and American officials over Iraq is a perfect example of an unexpected window of opportunity that will hopefully be seized upon and lead to greater lines of communication on a wider range of issues in the future.

Such contact and collaboration, if taken, will help consolidate and institutionalize trust and cooperation. The primary goal of these endeavors should be the reestablishment of an embassy or interests section in Iran. Such a permanent and direct point of contact is the essential core of any linkage regime. Washington will hopefully be watching with interest when the United Kingdom reopens its own embassy in Iran that closed in 2011 following its ransacking by protestors.

If a deal is reached on July 20, establishing linkage with Iran will increase the probability of it being adhered to by both sides, even if future obstacles and disagreements present themselves. If no agreement is made, linkages must be established to prevent US-Iranian relations returning to the brink of conflict.

Creating this web of linkages between the United States and Iran will take time and can easily be destroyed by political rhetoric and grandstanding. However, through persistence and positivity, the two countries can rebuild trust and build peaceful relations in the long-term.

*David Collier holds a PhD in political science from Boston University and is currently working on a book on US-Iranian relations during the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. He has studied Persian at Boston University and Ohio State University and is now based in Washington, DC.

Photo: Iranian (silver) and American (gold) wrestlers pose together during the 2012 Olympics. Credit: Fars News

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  1. Interesting post. The question to be asked and answered, has anyone in Washington the smarts to see this? Grandstanding, we all know where that leads to, without naming names. This isn’t your Grandmas kitchen, so all those Neocons bleating about what to do, should in the words of a certain Federal Judge, excuse my slang here, just STFU. They have caused enough trouble already, the world doesn’t need more.

  2. This is consistent with my own experience in Iran twelve years ago; but I fear the hardliners on both sides won’t let linkage take root.

  3. The better corollary is the US relationship with the Soviet Union. Over the course of the Cold War there have been moments of detente and exchange, but what never changed was the commitment by the US, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike, that the Soviet empire’s form of government and way of life were at its core antithetical with the US. The belief that Soviet communism had to be ultimately defeated resonated as a core policy of the US for over 50 years and in the end was proven true with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It took that kind of commitment, focus and bi-partisan resolve to accomplish the task and the approach to Iran needs to be similar because at its core, a religiously orthodox nation controlling the largest standing army in the region with an abysmal human rights record that is at odds with our way of life needs to be fundamentally changed in order to progress.

    Now many would say who are we to impose our Western values on another nation. I would submit the same argument can be applied to Iran’s attempts to export its brand of Islamic fundamentalism through its support of terror groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas and support for regimes such as Assad and Maliki. The creation of similar bastions of radical Islamic fundamentalism that oppresses women, bars free speech, discourages creative expansion and criminalizes homosexuality is eventually going to be at odds with us to such an extent that conflict will continue ad infinitum. To think the US and Iran can join hands and sing along is simplistic, naive and dangerously childlike in its world view.

  4. changeirannow says:
    July 10, 2014 at 10:51 pm

    Your view might have more credibility if the us didnt support and prop up regimes in the region that make iran look like a paragon of western values by comparison,so maybe before we impose our western values on iran we impose them on bahrain and saudi arabia,at least then we might have some consistency,also the last time I looked it was our good ally saudi arabia who was the exporter of “radical Islamic fundamentalism that oppresses women, bars free speech, discourages creative expansion and criminalizes homosexuality” and we seem to tolerate them just fine

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