Unhappy Birthday

by Henry Precht

US-revolutionary Iran relations were born in the aftermath of a heavy snowstorm in Washington. I was in charge of the Iran Desk in the State Department and was due in the office at eight am. Almost nothing moved on the unplowed streets in my neighborhood and I had to hitch a ride to the office with a faithful church sexton on his way to tend to his church. In the biting cold, I gave little thought to the role that religion would play in our coming journey with Shia clerics.

When the snow was cleared, a meeting was held in the White House Situation Room to decide on policy towards the new regime in Tehran. I wasn’t there, but afterwards my boss, Hal Saunders, said to me, “You’ll be pleased. They decided to try to build a new relationship with Iran.”

“Pleased” wasn’t the right word; daunted was closer to it. Or dubious. But we were good soldiers…

The question under today’s clouded but snow-free skies is, might the 34-year journey have led to a better place. The answer seems to be, probably not — given the history, ideologies, internal politics and external pressures of both sides.

History. From Mossadegh through Nixon/Kissinger and Brzezinski to the Iraq War and current nuclear impasse, the Iranians have compiled a grudge list against us. During the halcyon days of 1979, our men in Tehran used to be asked almost weekly, “Do you really accept our revolution? REALLY, Really, really?” No protestation of affection could persuade. We persisted and had the impression from the Bazargan people that they too wanted to maintain ties but a very different relationship.  We were okay with this.

On the American side there is the Hostage Crisis that won’t fade away and an ever-thickening file of alleged Iranian malfeasance and mischief.

Ideologies. The Iranian regime places high value on anti-Zionism, anti-imperialism and anti-Western values and pleasures.

We Americans seem to love the things they despise.

Internal Politics. Both sides court popular favor by flaunting the purity of their principles — from conservative US opposition to former Senator Chuck Hagel, to a [conditional) Iranian refusal of bilateral contacts. Very likely this kind of sloganeering has little interest or appeal to the broader populations which would just as soon avoid conflict and enjoy normal lives.

External Pressures. Hezbollah and Syria can pull heart strings in Tehran while Israel knows how to make Washington dance to its tune. Neither of the two principal antagonists is entirely independent in the exercise of its policy towards the other.

Still, looking backward, it might have been wiser in the beginning not to seek the “normal” bilateral relationship that was our goal. A period of living apart in mutual silence and minimal notice might have led in time to the healing of wounds. The wrong-headedness of our helping Iraq fight its unjust war and Tehran’s blind refusal to recognize power relationships in their region could have been avoided.  A more acute, realistic and independent calculation of our separate interests would still help. As would a far deeper understanding of the other.

What might have been can probably still become — given good will and the courage of leaders.

Photo Credit: Marey’s Flickr photostream.

Henry Precht

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, worked mainly in the Middle East. His assignments included the Arab-Israel Desk after the 1967 war, four years in Tehran as political-military officer, in charge of the State Department Iran Desk during the revolution and hostage crisis, and two tours in Egypt – Alexandria in the 1960s and deputy ambassador in Cairo 1981-85. Precht speaks and writes on the region, and has published a book of short stories, A Diplomat’s Progress.