America's relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran have been in the deep-freeze for more than 20 years, a wholly unsatisfactory situation that has less to do with any inherent lack of mutual compatibility than it does with Washington's refusal to make changes that would help it revive a natural partnership. Some of the factors that keep this from happening are particular to Iran, but most stem from the failure of U.S. foreign policy to keep up with a changing world.
Despite being more powerful relative to other countries today than any nation or empire has ever been, the United States is behaving like a lost child, intermittently following any route that looks like the way home but then giving up and changing direction when it fails to find (or refuses to recognize) any of the expected landmarks. The result is a foreign policy that has rightly been criticized as aimless by commentators on both the left and the right.
It would be unfair to lay all of the blame for this paltry state of affairs on the Bush administration. More than a decade ago, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing end of the Cold War left American politics without one its few unifying themes. This is not to say that Democrats and Republicans always agreed on how to handle Moscow, but for almost 50 years they at least shared the belief that the East-West divide should be the focus of U.S. foreign policy. When that great struggle ended, it was to be expected that the United States would need some time to readjust to a new situation that no longed fitted into the models developed by the State Department and the Pentagon.
The logical next steps were for American diplomacy to become more flexible and multifaceted and for the U.S. military to be pared down to a level commensurate with the lesser strategic threat but made more mobile so as to be capable of putting out the regional fires that were made more, not less, likely by the demise of Soviet power. Unfortunately, not very much of this got done and even less of it got done right.
In one of the most important post-Cold War relationships, that with Russia, the Clinton administration was aggressive when discretion would have been the better part of valor and docile when circumstances called for assertiveness.
For example, with Moscow deeply concerned about the security of its western and southern borders after losing control over former Soviet republics and satellites, Washington crashed around like a bull in a china shop by insisting on expanding NATO right up to Russia's borders and throwing its weight around in Central Asia so as to dictate how the energy resources of the Caspian Sea would be brought to market.
On the other hand, when the Russian military ran amok in Chechnya under Boris Yeltsin and challenged the Allies in Kosovo under Vladimir Putin, Clinton and his advisers pulled a soto voce when they should have been making it clear that these sorts of thing would not be tolerated.
Until Sept. 11, the Bush administration had mostly been following its predecessor's lead, albeit with what was advertised as a more consistently forceful approach but in reality amounted to less dexterity. Then came the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and the wheels came off the American foreign-policy machine.
Having already disengaged from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Washington has pretty much fallen for Ariel Sharon's (and Osama bin Laden's) pitch that Palestinians battling Israeli occupation are part and parcel of the Islamic fundamentalist subculture that produced the tragedy of Sept. 11.
The White House intensified its attempts to isolate Yasser Arafat and turned an increasingly blurry eye on Israel's policy of assassinating suspected militants, further radicalizing a Palestinian population already at wit's end over how to make the Jewish state honor commitments made under the Oslo Accords. Arafat's increasing impotence, wrought partly by American hands, eroded what little was left of his ability and/or willingness to rein in suicide bombers.
Next came Bush's disturbing "axis of evil" speech, and since then it has been all down hill. The White House's insistence on demonizing Iraq, Iran and North Korea smacks of the worst sort of political opportunism combined with a disturbing inability to acknowledge its own interests.
Not satisfied with having helped Saddam Hussein starve hundreds of thousands of children to death under UN sanctions in place since Baghdad's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War, and no doubt irritated that the Iraqi dictator has outlived (politically) both his father (George Bush the Elder) and Clinton, Bush the Younger seems determined to make an even bigger mess of an already dangerous situation. It remains to be seen what the Bush administration will do to get rid of Saddam, but if the aftermath of the onslaught on Afghanistan is any indication, the lesson about the necessity of nation-building after a conflict has not been learned. Regardless of what means are employed to initiate the next stage, a worrisome pattern looks set to recur.
In North Korea, a country whose decaying regime could not hope to survive much longer if its people were exposed to the bare minimum of contacts with outsiders, the "evil" moniker has worked like a magic talisman to slam doors that had been slowly opening and to reinvigorate the state's Stalinist tendencies.
The grandest disaster of them all, however, has been the renewed zeal with which Washington has gone after Iran. The Islamic Republic has been the boogeyman of U.S. policy in the Middle East ever since the hostage crisis that grew out of the 1979 revolution, and the fact of its Shiite Muslim rulers' long and well-documented antipathy for the Sunni Muslim Taliban and its Al-Qaeda allies has not been allowed to interfere with a propaganda campaign designed to smear Tehran with the ugly crimes of Sept. 11 and keep Iran in a proverbial cage.
This is a particularly onerous failure because the latter years of the Clinton administration had actually seen halting progress in thawing U.S.-Iranian relations and because it flies in the face of Washington's manifest interest in a quiet Middle East.
Donald Rumsfeld's fonder dreams aside, the U.S. military cannot be everywhere. Therefore, as in any other part of the world, the best way to ensure long-term stability here is for the local heavyweight to be a reliable bulwark against unchecked aggression, and the only country which can realistically play the role of regional superpower in this neighborhood is Iran.
Egypt has population but is desperately poor; Saudi Arabia and Iraq have oil but lack manpower; and Israel, apart from being a regional pariah, has only the ability to strike hard and fast beyond its immediate surroundings.
Iran is non-Arab and so is viewed with considerable suspicion by many regimes in the area (especially the backward, odious ones that enjoy so much support from the United States), but everything else about it makes for a natural regional powerbroker: it has a large, growing, and youthful population; it has vast oil and gas reserves that could, absent "containment" by American sanctions, help it build and maintain a healthy economy; it is ideally situated to maintain the flow of oil through the Gulf; and it enjoys significant influence among the region's Shiites, who figure to soon start posing enormous challenges to the status quo in many Sunni-ruled countries and so to require a guiding force that can help them achieve their legitimate rights without feeling forced to use violence.
But Iran has been blocked from assuming its natural role by more than two decades of confrontation with the United States. Beginning with intelligence and material support for Saddam Hussein's Iraq in its war on the nascent Islamic Republic, America has ,worked to undermine Iranian stability on a variety of fronts. In turn, besieged as it has been by the world's most powerful country, Iran has not folded its hands on its lap. Tehran has done its best to undermine American goals in the region, often with great success. The Iranian effort has no doubt detracted from what little serenity exists in the Middle East, but it would not be very realistic to expect that it would just stand around and let America have its way.
The question remains: why is the United States so determined to isolate a country that by all rights should be its partner in fomenting stability in the Middle East?
If Washington had a uniform policy of muscling any and all rivals around the globe, the answer (U.S. foreign policy is based solely on intimidation) would be simple, and we could get on with the business of explaining why that was a poor way to approach the rest of the world. But that is emphatically not the case.
China, for instance, remains a brutal dictatorship and a serial violator of most norms of international behavior. It continues to occupy Tibet, maintains a Gestapo-like grip over Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, rounds up Falun Gong members by the hundreds to be tortured, and forces political prisoners to manufacture the exports that make senior army officers rich. It does all of this with complete impunity because the United States has not so much as restricted trade beyond the usual (flimsy) limitations on defense-related items.
Are we to presume that Iran's system of governance is somehow more repulsive than China's and/or that it poses more of a threat? Only a fool would make such an argument, and yet on its face, U.S. foreign policy seems to be based on just these assumptions. But even George W. Bush doesn't really believe that Iran is worse than China.
The conspiracy theorist would rather believe that America is merely doing Israel's bidding by keeping one of the Jewish state's more persistent critics on its heels and helping to perpetuate the notion of the Israeli underdog surrounded by big, bad Muslims. These effects are certainly convenient for the Israeli government, and it no doubt encourages them, but this line of reasoning cannot be the only reason for Washington's enmity toward Tehran.
What keeps America's cross-hairs centered on the Islamic Republic is rather a combination of things, none of which are befitting of the world's last remaining superpower.
For starters, the U.S. government has a long institutional memory, and the hostage crisis dealt the United States a humiliating blow on each of 444 days in 1979, 1980, and 1981. Another reason that Washington bullies Tehran is because it can; Iran doesn't have anything like China's military might and so can be pushed around with relative ease. Then there is the cost element: American industry has been salivating over the Chinese market for years, while Iran's much smaller population makes it easier for the costs of embargoing it to be written off.
Finally, Washington is implacably opposed to the Iranian regime precisely because it has been able to withstand all of these pressures; the United States proved itself a magnanimous victor in Germany and Japan, but it has been an awfully sore loser in places like Iran and, say, Cuba, which while hardly a Locke-ian paradise is also a far cry from the threat that China is. Like Cuba's government, Iran's has to contend with a powerful lobbying force in Washington that tries to hem it on all sides. But Iran is also the target of much Israeli propaganda (some of it based on fact, but a lot on fiction) that adds to the constant pressure for the cold shoulder to be maintained.
The United States has not done itself very many favors since the end of the Cold War. But its refusal to improve relations with Iran has to rank among its most damaging failures.
Imagine what Iran and the United States might have been able to acco,mplish by working together. For example, Tehran's help might have enabled Washington to get rid of the Taliban before it supplied the base from which Al-Qaeda murdered some 3,000 Americans. Or it might have been instrumental in helping to topple Saddam Hussein from the inside rather than making millions of innocent Iraqis pay for the dictator's madness. It might even have helped negotiate a cease-fire in southern Lebanon so that Israel's occupation forces could have left in an orderly fashion and/or much earlier than they did, saving lives on both sides. These and other lost opportunities of the past decade or so will no doubt be matched in the coming years unless Washington can see its way to putting its interests in perspective and understanding that grudges are for school yards. The White House has to have help: the pliancy of Capitol Hill since Sept. 11 indicates not unity in the face of adversity but political immaturity in the face of subjects that need very badly to be debated by an adult nation.
Marc Sirois is the managing editor of The Daily Star, an English-language newspaper in Beirut. He lives in Lebanon. Marc Sirois encourages your comments: [email protected]