With the dispute over the fairness of the recent Iranian presidential resolved–if not to everyone’s satisfaction–and the Iranian government’s response to demonstrators against the outcome repressed–once again not to everyone’s satisfaction–news about Afghanistan has pushed Iran off the front pages of American concern in the Middle East. But Iran is still there, and it is still a matter of concern.
In the most recent (4th) edition of Cases in International Relations, I included a chapter on Iran entitled “Pivotal States: Confronting and Accommodating Iran.” Its basic thesis is that there are regional powers in the world whose presence and influence cannot be ignored, and in the Middle East, that state is Iran. The problem occurs when regional pivotal states and world powers like the United States come into conflict, as the Iranian-American relationship regularly does. What is the United States, and for that matter Iran, to do?
The relationship is not without ironies, some of which surround Iran. Iran is, after all, the largest state in the Middle East, with an area slightly larger than Alaska and about three times the size of Arizona. At around 65 million, its population dwarfs that of its Arabian Gulf neighbors and is the third largest among Muslim countries (behind Indonesia and Egypt). Further, it is the second oldest country in the world, after China. It also has the area’s second largest known oil reserves (after Saudi Arabia) and occupies a strategic location, bordering on Iraq to its west and Afghanistan to its east.
Iran is also a mess. The Ahmadinejad regime has run what could (and probably should) be the region’s most vibrant economy into the ground, amassing substantial foreign debt, budgetary deficits, double digit inflation, and a high unemployment rate that particularly afflicts the urban middle class and the country’s youth. Things have gotten so bad that although the country is a major oil exporter, it must import gasoline, since its refinery capacity is inadequate to convert enough petroleum into fuel for its own domestic use. In these circumstances, it is suprising neither that there would have been plenty of opposition to Ahmedinejad in the election or that opposition should have been concentrated in the urban areas. Iran, in other words, is both a formidable concern and a basket case of sorts.
The United States-Iranian relationship is similarly a case of ironies and contradictions. At the most basic level, there is little real basis of antagonism between the peoples themselves, and indeed, during the period before the Iranian Revolution of 1979, people-to-people relations were quite good. There is little evidence that Americans dislike Iranians or vice versa.
The same cannot be said about the relationship between the two countries’ peoples and the other’s government: Iranians dislike the American government and Americans feel the same way about the Iranian government. There are some good reasons for both sentiments.
Many Iranians dislike the US government because of its history of meddling in Iranian politics, especially in support of Shah Reza Pahlevi. Iranians remember well the role of the CIA in overthrowing the democratically elected Mossadeqh regime and in the CIA’s support for and training of the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK. Moreover, the American government was a key cog in the Shah’s White Revolution, an attempt to westernize the country. If one wants to rally public support behind a political figure or position in Iran, associating the opposition with the Americans is not a bad ploy to take: a kind of Lee Atwater/Karl Rovian approach to politics. On the other side, recollections of the Iran Hostage Crisis inflame Americans against the current theocracy in Tehran, although few Americans remember that the triggering event of the takeover of the US embassy in Tehran was the refusal of the US government to turn over the Shah to the revolutionary regime after the Shah was allowed into this country for cancer treatments.
These animosities have a symbolic expression that adds to the heat if not light of the relationship. In Iran, after all, the United States is the “Great Satan,” and to match that soaring rhetoric, Iran is one of the unholy triad in the “Axis of Evil.” Nothing like high road politics!
These animosities extend to current issues. Among the reasons for Iranian dislike for the United States is America’s unrequited support for Israel, including tacit support for Israel’s militantly anti-Iranian policies. On the other side, the United States joins Israel in its denunciation for Iranian support for anti-Israeli terrorist movements like Hizbollah, support for militant groups in places like Lebanon, and in Ahmedinejad’s fiery anti-Israeli rhetoric. We have come a long way from the days when the largest foreign student group on many American campuses was Iranian and the United States and Iran were close military allies.
The United States and Iran currently face off against one another on two important matters. The first, and most public, is the question of Iranian nuclear program and the possibility the Iranians will attempt to build nuclear weapons. Like so much of the American-Iranian dialog since 1979, the discussion over this prospect is overheated. Iranian possession of nuclear weapons is “absolutely unacceptable” to the United States because of the danger it poses to the United States and the “existential threat” such possession would pose to Israel. Largely missing is exactly what threat a few Iranian nukes pose to the United States or why even the supposedly crazy Iranian regime would risk the utter destruction of the world’s second oldest civilization for the satisfaction of destroying a couple American cities. For that matter, an Iranian nuclear capability only balances the existential threat to Iran and the rest of the Islamic Middle East that Israel has posed for the last 40 years or so. Israeli not-so-veiled threats against the Iranian program do not add to the calmness and prudence of the debate.
The other question is Iran’s role in its own region, and more specifically, what it is prepared to do to assist in settling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition to a long border with both countries, Iran has significant interests in both states that are not served well by ongoing instability and war. Early on in Iraq, the Iranians did provide assistance to American efforts, and it is not impossible to imagine that happening again, if the United States and Iran can cease giving one another the “one finger salute” and convince/coerce Israel to lower its middle digit as well. Such a pragmatic approach would never have appealed to the ideological ninnies of the Bush years, but hopefully there are at least some adults in charge now whose intellectual range extends beyond Vince Flynn and Brad Thor novels.
It is sometimes said that war is too important to be left to the generals, to which it might be added that diplomacy is too important to be left to the ideologues. Iran is an important, pivotal regional power in the Persian Gulf area. It should start acting with the responsibility that flows from its stature; similarly, the United States needs to recognize what Iran is and quite treating it like an asylum where you cannot tell the keeprs from the kept. Only when both sides rise above the current level of dialog will we start dealing with Iran.
Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations and national security topics. This essay was originally published at the What After Iraq? blog.