The Strange Bedfellows of U. S.–Iranian Animosity

by Mansour Farhang

A semi-irony of the 37-year-old animosity between Iran and the United States is the repeated convergence of short-term interests between hard-liners in the Iranian theocracy and right-wing political forces in America. The latest example is the dispute over the U. S. government’s $400 million payment to Iran. This money belonged to Iran as part of a $1.7 billion settlement to resolve a disagreement concerning Iran’s pre-revolutionary deposit in U.S. banks for the purchase of arms. After the 1979 hostage-taking at the U. S. embassy in Tehran, Washington froze the funds and the issue was finally resolved in 2015 along with the nuclear agreement.

The first man to refer to the settlement payment as ransom for release of “U.S. spies” was Mohammad Reza Naghdi, the commander of basij (Iran’s militia organization). His purpose was to discredit President Hassan Rouhani and the negotiations that resulted in the nuclear agreement. Virtually every hardline newspaper, website, and Friday prayer leader in Iran “confirmed” Naghdi’s assertion.

Now, six months later, right-wing politicians in America, including Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Paul Ryan, have decided to echo Naghdi’s words. Both in Iran and in the US, these men have misrepresented the truth in order to discredit their domestic political rivals.

A History of Convergence

This convergence of interests is not new. When Ayatollah Khomeini made the slogan “Carter has to go” as the goal of occupying the U. S. embassy in Tehran, the Reagan-Bush campaign team was pleased to hear it. Khomeini’s objective was to marginalize anti-American leftists at home and portray himself as an uncompromising opponent of U. S. influence in the Islamic world. The release of the hostages on January 20, 1981, minutes after President Reagan’s inauguration, created such suspicion about the possibility of collusion that both the Senate and the House decided to look into the story; and after four years of investigation, they concluded that the allegations lacked supporting documentation. I testified before both the House International Relations Committee and the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee that the coincidence of common short term interests between Khomeini and the Reagan-Bush campaign team was so obvious and mutually appreciated that there was no need for direct contact between them. Gary Sick’s All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran offers the most comprehensive and contextual treatment of this controversy.

During the 1980s, both Iran and the United States opposed the pro-Soviet government in Kabul. Iran assisted the Hezara fighters (the Farsi-speaking Twelver Shia Muslims) to fight the invading Soviet troops while the U. S., through Pakistan, armed and trained the Sunni mujahideen. When the Soviet Union withdrew its soldiers from Afghanistan in 1990, the civil war in the country intensified. At this time, Washington ended its involvement in Afghanistan, but Iran continued to help the Hezaras, who later joined the Northern alliance under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud. After 9/11, Iran and the U. S. renewed their unwritten cooperation in ousting the Taliban regime.

The Iran-Contra Affair of 1984-1987 was an exposed case of secret cooperation between the Reagan Administration and Ayatollah Khomeini. The decision to sell arms to Iran (at inflated prices) in exchange for the release of American hostages in Lebanon with the profits going to anti-Communist Contras in Nicaragua was illegal on both counts, but Iran was delighted. The Iranian official who exposed the transaction was executed, and to this day criticism of Iran’s decision to cooperate with Washington against the Sandinistas earns a jail term if not a death sentence.

Cooperation on Iraq

On August 2, 1990, the day Iraq invaded Kuwait, Tehran and Washington began to move toward unspoken cooperation. A year after the ceasefire in the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein’s Baathist army was the main security concern of Iran’s ruling ayatollahs. If the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait was going to be tolerated, then the recalibration of power in the Persian Gulf could threaten Iran’s territorial integrity as well as its position in the Gulf region. That is why Operation Desert Storm to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait was a gift of the Hidden Imam to Iran’s theocrats. Ironically, even during this period Iran’s anti-American propaganda did not diminish. When President George H. W. Bush decided against regime change in Iraq, Iran’s leaders used the decision to claim, as they did during the Iran-Iraq war, that Saddam Hussein was an American puppet.

In early February 2003, when it had become clear that the U. S. invasion of Iraq was imminent, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi declared, “Iran is basically against war and is not going to support either side.” At the same time, American officials and Iranian representatives were meeting in Europe to discuss the role Iran could play in the war. In fact, as early as November 2002, Tehran and Washington were engaged in secret talks to deal with military emergencies and the flow of refugees in the event of the US attacking Iraq. When President George W. Bush claimed that God had instructed him to invade Iraq, Iran’s Friday Prayers had a field day. The “Great Satan” had overthrown Saddam Hussein, the man they feared the most and portrayed as an American agent in their propaganda. The fundamentalist preachers explained the unexpected benefits in the usual way: God, in his magical way, used the Great Satan to eliminate the enemy of his viceroys on earth, the ruling ayatollahs of Iran.

Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq who represented the largest dissident group of Iraqi Shiite Muslims based in Tehran, was involved as intermediary between America and Iran. He had been living in Iran since 1980 and was closely tied to Iran’s ruling clerics. He received US funds for mobilizing anti-Saddam Shiites. The well-known Iraqi dissident as Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, regularly consulted with al-Hakim. He visited Iran to meet, according to Elaine Sciolino, The New York Times correspondent in Tehran, with “senior officials in agencies like the Revolutionary Guards and the security and intelligence apparatus.” Chalabi and his associates were democracy advocates for Iraq, but they did not mind using and being used by a ruthless theocratic regime that had its own agenda for post-Saddam Iraq. Al-Hakim was the nominal leader of the Shia militias stationed on Iranian soil near Iraq. In reality, these 12,000-plus forces known as the Badr Brigade were trained and equipped by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. What Iranian leaders could not imagine was the U. S. willingness to let the Badr Brigade, under the leadership of the Quds Force, enter Iraq to support the Shia groups engaged in ethnic cleansing of Sunnis in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country.

It is understandable that President Bush and his foreign policy team had no knowledge of the historic and highly emotional Shia–Sunni dispute in Iraq and, thus, were oblivious to how Iraqi Shia militias armed, trained, and led by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards would inevitably instigate a sectarian war in Iraq. But their knowledgeable advisers Bernard Lewis and Fuad Ajami should have known that Iran’s military and sectarian influence in Iraq was bound to frustrate Washington’s plan to make Iraq a stable client state.

Hardliners in Iran and right-wing politicians in America have very different long-term goals in the Middle East. And they both claim that the short-term convergence of interests is a way for them to pursue their ultimate goal. In reality, however, the ultimate goal of Iranian or American policies in the Middle East is a surreal fiction. Given the multifaceted crises plaguing the region, both regional and international players must deal with unfolding events without being able to predict the consequences of their own actions. Both Iran’s religious/ideological goal of leading a Shia-dominated Middle East and America’s imperial “nation-building” design for the region are bound to run up against the implacable realities of the region.

Photo: Mohammad Reza Naghdi

Mansour Farhang, a retired professor of international relations at Bennington College, was revolutionary Iran’s first ambassador to the United Nations but left Iran as a dissident in 1981.

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