US and Iran: From enemies to partners


By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

At the closure of 2011, with the US Congress declaring economic warfare against Iran through tough new sanctions targeting the country’s central bank, 2012 could easily be predicted as a decisive year for Washington and Tehran locking horns in escalating tensions.

But an important question is: can policymakers in Iran and the US chart a different path, whereby they could become partners for peace in the Middle East, instead of warring parties?

As much as this question appears cut off from reality by the sheer weight of animosities piling up at the gate of US-Iran (non) diplomacy, it is nonetheless an important gateway to a whole set of subsidiary questions demanding answers for the sake of regional and global peace and security.
For instance, what can Washington and Tehran do to retrack themselves on the path of normalizing relations? And can this happen as long as there is no “regime change” in either country?
Looking ahead, with the US already in the turmoil of the run-up to next year’s presidential elections, a long season of Iran-bashing by nearly all the key presidential contenders from both parties can be expected.

There is every expectation therefore of an American sledge-hammer effect on any nuanced approach that counsels dialogue and compromise, a dreaded word in this context, to find a viable solution to the intractable issue of Iran and its nuclear program.

Compromises are, however, essential to reach positive results and avoid a worsening crisis that is not in the US’s or Iran’s interests.

For one thing, the US must compromise on its still hoped-for “regime change” approach that one way or another has informed, and breathed life into, the various Iran policy initiatives in Washington for the past three decades.

A brief deviation by President Barack Obama in 2009, reflected in his first new year message to Iran, lasted no more than a few months, slowly but surely jettisoned in favor of the stubborn addiction of Iran-bashing. This was brewed in the midst of the post-2009 Iranian presidential election unrest when Mahmud Ahmadinejad was re-elected and which led the US to re-prioritize its “contain Iran” policy that dates back to the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

He preferred an interventionist policy that replaced the refrains of the old Richard Nixon Doctrine – that delegated Persian Gulf stability to the “twin pillars” of Saudi Arabia and Pahlavi Iran; the latter’s downfall by the Islamic Revolution in 1979 has been America’s greatest political setback in the Middle East, despite the tumults of the Arab Spring and the dawn of a more autonomous polity in Egypt, still run by a pro-US military junta.

Careful consideration must, at the same time, be given to the contrary evidence of signs of reconciliation growing as an errand seed in the rough garden of US-Iran hostility since 1979.

In signing the Algiers accord in January 1981, the US conceded the point of respecting Iran’s sovereignty and refraining from meddling in Iran’s internal affairs, a pledge that it had already violated by backing the invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein five months earlier. This was reflected in the US’s blocking of any UN Security Council action against the Iraqi aggressors, who were repelled by Iran under the charismatic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who rallied the nation.

Khomeini’s famous “America can’t do a damn thing” still adorns Tehran’s billboards, a small reminder that Iran’s revolutionary identity has remained the same and the US remains on Iran’s hate list, although not necessarily at the very top; this “honor” has most recently been assigned to Great Britain.

Regardless of how Obama and his foreign policy team may want to rationalize their actions, such as violating Iran’s air space and sending drone spy airplanes deep inside Iranian territory, it is no secret that such behavior is considered rogue from the prism of international law and, more specifically, the US’s legal pledge in the Algiers accord, which remains valid as a matter of international law.

Thus the irony of the US’s discourse on Iran, it accuses Tehran of flaunting international norms by its questionable nuclear activities and, yet at the same time the US exhibits a similar kind of behavior that is tantamount to a total disregard for the UN charter and Law of Treaties.

Obama may as a result be rightly regarded as the quintessential opportunist who adopts a selective use for international laws, disregarding them and trampling on them whenever the exigencies of self-interest dictate.

Indeed, how else can one interpret Obama’s reaction to the news of Iran bringing down a US drone, the fact that instead of issuing an apology to Iran, as he would have if this had happened in China or Russia, Obama simply demanded the return of the drone.

But, this is the same president who has ordered extensive covert operations inside Iran and who has not once condemned the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists while, at the same time, he has acted as judge and executioner from the moment the news of an alleged Iranian plot to murder a Saudi diplomat in Washington was publicly revealed, on October 11, 2011.

“There will not be a dispute about the matter,” Obama said forcefully two days later, when he dispensed altogether with the American principle of “presumed innocent until found guilty” by rushing to impose new sanctions on Iran and renewing military threats by maintaining that “all options are on the table”.

Give peace a chance
This is universally interpreted in the US media as a “hint” on the military option. But, why shouldn’t there be a similar “hint” on the peace option, and why is that option missing from the table?
This question inevitably, like a round and vicious circle, returns us to the initial question raised at the outset of this writing.

Assume for a moment that a Tehran-US peace summit is held some time in 2012 and the participants are asked to recommend specific courses of action aimed at causing sustainable peace between the two countries. What are we likely to hear from this type of exercise? After all, constant “war games” are held at US military academies and US think-tanks – one wonders why there are never any “peace games”.

Indulging in this fantasy for a moment, the US State Department is naturally expected to rehash the familiar list: Iran’s support for international terrorism, human-rights abuses, nuclear proliferation, intervention in neighbors’ affairs, enmity toward Israel, and the like, thus conditioning the normalization of relations on the resolution of these outstanding issues.

An Iranian representative, on the other hand, might be inclined to issue a counter-list consisting of the US’s role in suppressing democracy in Iran in 1953, decades of support for the oppressive monarchy that replaced a democratically-elected government, support for violent dissident groups, support for Saddam Hussein throughout the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, illegal and unjustified sanctions based on frivolous accusations of nuclear proliferation, etc.

A comparison of both lists may instantly flatten any hope of reconciliation.

But, to borrow a term from the deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, there are traces of contrary signs in the very record of mutual hostilities itemized above, ranging from US-Iran cooperation on the Taliban’s downfall in Afghanistan in 2001, select cooperation via the United Nations’ multilateralism in early 2000s and multiple security dialogue on Iraq. This implies discrete and hitherto confidential intelligence cooperation on Sunni terrorism, cooperation in Bosnia, Iran’s tacit consent to the US-led campaign against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, etc.

Altogether, rhetoric aside, the history of US-Iran interaction over the past two decades reflects a complicated web that is a far cry from the simplistic “enemy” image of Iran so keenly cultivated by pro-Israel pundits in the West nowadays. Instead, it presents a more “mixed motive” game of simultaneous cooperation and conflict, rooted in the dialectical contradiction of opposing and shared interests.

The problem with any historical contradiction is that time-honored traditions show that it must be sooner or later resolved, often toward a new synthesis, an example being today’s Europe after two inter-continental wars in the 20th century, or the dissolution of the Soviet empire at the end of Cold War in the early 1990s.

The Iran case, often categorized under “Third World conflicts”, such as with Cuba’s long estrangement from the US, is not an aberration to the norm and the progressive movement of history has now brought the US and Iran closer to the brink of a dangerous confrontation, as a result of which it is fair to describe today’s US-Iran context as “pre-war”.

One advantage of this potentially ruinous scenario is that it could spur actions to sue for peace, if the protagonists realize that the present is nested with conflict tomorrow if they do not will into action viable scenarios for peace.

In turn, that would mean drawing on lessons in international affairs, recruiting the right intermediaries, avoiding the wrong ones, making the right pitches for the diplomacy of confidence-building, and remaining consistent on the peace track despite the enormous odds.

Sadly, at the moment, not a minimum effort has been undertaken by the US government in this regard. This is exemplified by the lack of progress in setting the timetable for the next round of the “Iran Six” nuclear diplomacy with Iran that brings together key countries to deal with the Iran nuclear dossier.

Someone needs to throw out a concrete date for the talks, be it Tehran or the European Union, which means going beyond the mere statement of a readiness to talk.

This would mean taking a bold step – something desperately needed if the Iran “problem” is ever going to be resolved.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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