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A Summary of the U.S.- Iran Relationship

Tomorrow Obama administration’s essay at diplomacy with Iran will take place.  While some are applauding this move as a new era in the Iran- U.S. relationship, the Wall Street Journal is reminding people that this is not the first time the United States has reached across to negotiate with Iran.  In his Op-ed, We’ve Been Talking to Iran for 30 Years, Michael Ledeen provides examples of rapprochement from the Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush administration that were repudiated by the Iranian government.  Though Ledeen fails to point out that in each case the U.S. administration also undermined their efforts with actions that made it easy for Iranian government to vilify the United States.

Ledeen points out that the Carter administration, after the fall of Shah, attempted to establish good relations with the revolutionary regime.  But he ignores the fact that it was Carter’s decision to overlook Shah’s human rights record and then after the revolution to allow the Shah to enter the United States that led to beginning of the rancorous relationship between the two countries.  Considering that the last government that tried to establish democracy in Iran was removed by the Shah with the help of the C.I.A operatives, it makes sense that the Iranian government would be uneasy with any American contact with the Shah (Stephen Kinzer has an excellent book on this subject).  Yet Carter ignored these concerns and laid seeds for a relationship that has been marked with distrust.

Ledeen then uses the Iran-Contra scandal as an example to show that the Reagan administration also made efforts to negotiate with Iran.  He points out that the United States tried to placate the Iranians by selling weapons and providing military intelligence about Iraqi forces.  But once again he fails to tell the whole story.  The United States sold weapons to Iraq during that time period too and conveniently looked the other way when Iraq used chemical weapons against Iran.  No one condemned Iraq’s belligerent actions at that time.  Peter Galbraith points out the American support for the Iraq in The true Iraq appeasers:

The Reagan administration offered Hussein financial credits that eventually made Iraq the third-largest recipient of US assistance. It normalized diplomatic relations and, most significantly, began providing Iraq with battlefield intelligence. Iraq used this information to target Iranian troops with chemical weapons. And when Iraq turned its chemical weapons on the Kurds in 1988, killing 5,000 in the town of Halabja, the Reagan administration sought to obscure responsibility by falsely suggesting Iran was also responsible.

The scars from the Iran-Iraq war have made an indelible impression on Iranian psyche.

Ledeen is right in saying that both Clinton and Bush administration took steps to improve Iran-U.S. relationship. Clinton administration lifted sanctions, hosted cultural events, unfroze Iranian bank accounts, and publicly apologized to Iran for helping overthrow Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh’s government in August 1953.  In 2006, the Bush administration, at the urging of British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, negotiated extensively with Ali Larijani, then-secretary of Iran’s National Security Council.  The agreement failed when Mr. Larijani and his delegation never arrived to New York to announce the suspension of Iranian nuclear enrichment in exchange for  lifting of sanctions.

But it is unfair to say that this rapprochement was one sided.  After the 2003 war against Afghanistan, US negotiators worked closely with Iranian counterparts to form a new Afghan government.  In 2003, Iran also offered a proposal trying to ease strained relations between the two rivals:

Iran put several different issues on the table including an offer, within the framework of the negotiations, to disarm Hezbollah and turn it into a mere political organization. Secondly, the offer included an end of all support for Islamic jihad and Hamas, and provisions that Iran would encourage the Palestinians to go a political route, rather than military route, in their dealings with Israel. The U.S. rejected the offer (Source: U.S.-Iran Relations).

Additionally, the Bush administration did not help improve relationship between the two countries by calling Iran “axis of evil”.

This is not to say that Iran has not made any mistakes in the US-Iran relationship.  The hostage crisis, the surreptitious nuclear program, support of Hezbollah and Hamas, and the egregious human rights abuses are all things worth condemning.  Iran has also missed many opportunities in helping improve its relationship with the United States.  This article is not meant to take any blame away from the Iranian government, but to point out that both sides are at fault.  Ledeen’s article vilified Iran unnecessarily.  To blame only Iran for the failure of a working relationship between Iran and the United States is unfair.  Both sides made mistakes, but hopefully tomorrow’s talk will usher a new era in Iran-U.S. relationship.  Though it is hard to say how effective these talks will be with the U.S lawmakers already readying tough new sanctions against Iran and the discovery of a new clandestine nuclear facility in Iran.



Sahar Zubairy

Sahar Zubairy recently graduated from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas- Austin with Masters in Global Policy Studies. She graduated from Texas A&M University with Phi Beta Kappa honors in May 2006 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics. In Summer 2008, she was the Southwest Asia/Gulf Intern at the Henry L. Stimson Center, where she researched Iran and the Persian Gulf. She was also a member of a research team that helped develop a website investigating the possible effects of closure of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf by Iran.