Toward Better US-Iran Relations

by Derek Davison

The challenge of rebuilding the once strong but now broken ties between the United States and Iran was the topic of a June 3 Atlantic Council event, “US-Iran Relations: Past, Present, and Future.” The discussion, moderated by Barbara Slavin, included John Marks, founder of the international NGO Search for Common Ground, and former Iranian diplomat, Seyed Hossein Mousavian. Much of the event focused on Mousavian’s insights from his time as a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team (2003-05), and his involvement in talks between the US and Iran on combatting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan in late 2001.

Mousavian identified three distinct stages in Iran’s historical relationship with the United States. From 1856, when the first treaty between the two nations was signed, until 1953, when the CIA participated in a coup that overthrew the elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and replaced it with the autocratic rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, US-Iran ties were friendly, albeit not extensive.

Mutual distrust

Iranians believed that the American people and their government supported Iranian reform and anti-colonial efforts (an American missionary, Howard Baskerville, was killed by government forces while participating in Iran’s 1909 constitutional revolution). But the 1953 coup, and the response by the US and UK to Mossadegh’s plan to nationalize Iran’s oil industry, represented a fundamental shift in America’s policy toward Iran. Where it once opposed colonialism and autocracy, America, as a co-sponsor of the coup and as the Shah’s new great power patron, was now, as far as Iranians were concerned, fundamentally identified with both. According to Mousavian this period of “dominance,” ended in 1979 with the Islamic Revolution and the hostage crisis. Hostility has been at the root of US-Iran relations ever since.

There are many reasons to believe, as Mousavian does, that the current state of hostility between Iran and the United States cannot be maintained. The international sanctions that have been levied against it to force the government to agree to limits on its nuclear power program are not meant to last forever. They rely on an international consensus that is almost unprecedented and can be disrupted by any discord among the P5+1 member nations (US, UK, France, China, and Russia plus Germany).

Sanctions have severely damaged the Iranian economy, which President Hassan Rouhani promised to fix during his 2013 election campaign. Politics aside, the human cost of sanctions is also growing by the day. The progress that has already been made in the nuclear talks makes the current moment critically important; if negotiations break down now, it’s difficult to see a way forward without a resurgence of the debate here over military action.

Amidst the debate over how much uranium enrichment capacity Iran “needs” and how much it actually wants, or the dispute over modifications to the proposed heavy-water reactor at Arak, the basic, almost insurmountable challenge to the nuclear talks is that the US and Iran simply do not trust the other side to abide by the terms of a final settlement.

Washington, which maintains diplomatic relations with every country it fought a war with in the 20th century apart from North Korea, is unable to move past the 444 days from 1979-81 in which Iranians held 52 Americans hostages in Tehran, despite the fact that no American hostage was killed in the process. The Iranians meanwhile remember the US’ role in the 1953 coup and its support for Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Mousavian argues that broken American promises have also contributed to Iranian (and particularly Revolutionary Guard) mistrust. The IRGC worked to secure the freedom of Americans taken hostage in Lebanon in the 1980s, and likewise cooperated with US military actions in Afghanistan post-9/11 because, according to Mousavian, American diplomats promised that those efforts would lead to closer US-Iranian ties. In both cases, though, those ties never materialized.

Comprehensive negotiations

The solution, as Mousavian sees it, is for the US and Iran to engage in talks on a broad, comprehensive range of issues rather than focusing only on Iran’s nuclear program. He suggests starting with those areas where the two countries’ interests are broadly aligned: the need for stability in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fight against regional drug trafficking, the effort to contain Salafi extremism and to combat Al-Qaeda-style terrorist movements, and the need for security and stability for Persian Gulf shipping.

These talks can be supplemented with what Marks characterizes as informal, “person-to-person” diplomacy, especially cultural and scientific exchanges, perhaps eventually leading to formal apologies — from the Iranians, for the hostage crisis, and from the Americans, for the 1953 coup and the 1988 downing of Iran Air Flight 655. Once rapport has been built on these areas of common ground, the two sides can begin to tackle more challenging issues, such as (from the US perspective) Iran’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, its relations with Israel, its ballistic missiles program, and its human rights record.

While Mousavian may be right that a comprehensive approach to US-Iran talks would be preferable to the current process, there’s a problem: comprehensive negotiations will take a very long time. The fact is that the current state of affairs around the nuclear talks will resolve itself, one way or another, long before any comprehensive US-Iran talks have a chance to achieve anything. Likewise, the crisis in Syria, which continually threatens to engulf the region, is too immediate a problem to be part of an extensive long-term framework. Mousavian accordingly suggests a two-track approach, where issues of critical, near-term concern are handled in a multi-lateral way, while longer-term, more comprehensive bilateral talks are undertaken. This may not be ideal, but it’s possible that such an approach could have real benefits. As he points out, the nuclear talks, specifically the P5+1’s recognition of Iranian needs with respect to uranium enrichment, offer a blueprint for progress (to wit, the US being receptive and responsive to Iran’s wishes) on a range of other issues.

This is a critical point for the possibility of renewing US-Iran relations. Regional stability requires Iran and the US to find a way of cooperating together, and the resurgence of Salafi extremism and terrorist groups in the region has aligned the interests and incentives of both countries. But working toward that stability requires a considerable commitment to open, comprehensive negotiations before this potentially vital relationship can be repaired.

Photo: After decades of no contact between high-level American and Iranian officials, a historic meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif occurred on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York on September 13, 2013.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. I think Iran has been perfectly capable of impeding efforts to improve relationships on its own. It selected a nnut job like Ahmadinejad…twice…even going so far as to rig an election to get him elected. It’s Supreme Leader has repeatedly refused to soften his rhetoric regarding a jihad against America. Its Iranian Revolutionary Guard has actively fought in Syria, trained Hezbollah cells and funds militants in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Afghanistan. It shuts down Internet access for its people. Arrests and imprisons anyone for any hint of political dissent, going so far as sentencing people to 20 years for posting comments on Facebook. And it has accelerated executions within the past year, already topping 800 under Rouhani. And lastly, when it can secure a deal with the West on nukes, its has steadfastly fought for a huge increase in refining capacity that can only be explained as boosting its ability to enrich weapons grade fuel quickly. Believe me, Iran is doing a great job all on its own.

  2. Best available evidence indicates Ahmadinejad would have won the 2009 election even if it had been conducted in a totally “clean” manner.

  3. I think virtually all independent observers of that election have agreed it was illegitimate at best and an outright fraud at worst.

  4. @Mike F. An exhaustive examination of the 2009 voting in Iran for president can be found at The election was not “stolen” though there was some fiddling here and there.

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