Washington — The serious differences between Iran and the United States are rooted in widely divergent Iranian and American views of the relationship between great powers and smaller countries -- a difference in perspective that long antedates the fall of the Shah's regime.
Despite well-known instances of interference by great powers, including the United States itself, Americans believe that the course of events within smaller countries is generally eyes, the chief exceptions to this generalization are found when the other superpower enters the picture -- in the Soviet satellite or , more recently, in an Afghanistan occupied by Soviet troops.
Iranians view the world quite differently. They assume that great powers determine in continual fashion what goes on within smaller countries. For the past quarter century, it seems clear to them, the US has been the outside power largely managing Iranian affairs. Though his ego sometimes made him difficult to handle, the last Pahlavi Shah was the chief American instrument for controlling Iran. Both his supporters and is opponents generally agreed on this , but Iranian interpretations started to diverge in the latter part of 1978 when it became apparent that the Shah was in serious trouble.
Many Iranians began to conclude that the US government had decided to switch the instruments through which it managed Iranian affairs. One who came to believe this was the Shah himself; in an interview with the Washington Post in Cairo last May, he explained that "the West wanted this Islamic Republic, perhaps thinking that with Islam it could contain communism,"
Many Iranians -- the Shah, again, was one -- believed that the British had a hand in the change of regime. This illustrates a common feature of Iranian thinking that others often fined astonishing: the assumption that Britain still plays the kind of great-power role ascribed to it in the days when the sun never set on the British Empire.
The belief that the controlling outside powers had decided to replace the monarchy with an Islamic republic helps explain the ease and speed with which many Iranians -- notably including thos of the privileged classes -- switched allegiance. After the Shah's departure and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's return , they expected the foreign managers of the operation to turn the government over to representatives of the old liberal, secular opposition.
Though at first reassured by the conventional nature of the Bazargan government, they have since failed to see their expectations realized. New leaders of a less traditional kind have risen to the top, differences within the leadership have sharpened, and, most important, the clergy has not withdrawn but on the contrary has increased its role in secular affairs.
Yet these unexpected trends have not provoked any general abandonment of the theory put forth to explain the switch of regime. Some conjecture that the foreign powers behind it have allowed the clergy temporarily to get a bit out of hand, but they think or hope that eventually things will get back on track. Characteristically, there are those who suspect the hand of the British interfering with the American plan, for reasons that are somewhat obscure but perhaps embrace recovering British influence in a region where the United States has largely replaced the formerly dominant great power.
But the most imaginative theory holds that the foreign-engineered plan has not gone wrong at all but is simply more complex than originally realized. To maintain the strength of the force put in place of the Shah as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism, it has been necessary to have the clergy continue playing a leading role and even to produce events that would keep fervor high.
The most spectacular, of course, was the seizure of the American Embassy hostages. Some hold that the US government deliberately provoked this act by admitting the Shah to the US after having ascertained -- as documents found in American Embassy files are said to confirm -- that doing so would be likely to result in exactly what did occur.
Economic sanctions, irritating but not disastrous to Iran, can be interpreted as another means of keeping Iranian nationalism aroused -- as can even the abortive rescue attempt. How better can one explain the mounting of such an inept operation by the world's leading technological and military power?
Of course, the present leaders in Iran do not endorse the view that the change of regime that brought them to the top was a scheme designed and managed by foreign powers. They and their millions of followers hold that the Shah's regime was brought down by an indigenous revolution. But they agree with holders of the foreign-plot theory that unil the success of their revolution, Iranian internal affairs were laregly controlled by foreign powers.
Indeed, from the beginning the movement proclaimed the goal of ridding from Iran all traces of foreign imperialism, Western or Eastern. The constant repetition of this theme, to a degree that may seem uncalled-for to outsiders, becomes understandable in the light of the way Iranians -- whatever their feelings about the changes of regime -- view happenings within their country and elsewhere in the world.
Moreover, even those Iranians who claim their revolution overcame the longstanding domination of their country by foreign powers continually express fears that outsiders may succeed in reinstituting the state of affairs that was "normal" for so long. Iranian President Bani-Sadr, among others, asserts that the real goal of the hostages rescue operation was the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. While no one admits to being the agent of foreign imperialism himself , of course, in this climate it is hardly surprising that one leader often accuses another of playing that role.
Presumably to make it harder for outside powers to regain control of their country's affairs, Iranian leaders have tried to arrange international inquiries that would prove to a somewhat skeptical or indifferent world -- especially to American public opinion -- how intimately the US government was linked to the Shah's regime and its "crimes." That at least some Iranian leaders have shown willingness to exchange the hostages for this kind of public recognition of their grievances, together perhaps with some sort of apology from the American President, shows the importance they attach to establishing their case.
Objective research into the recent past might well bring to light facts that would shock many Americans. But in comparison with the abundance of factual knowledge already available, it is unlikely that further study would uncover many important new secrets. The fundamental differences between Iranian and American thinking are not caused by conflicting factual evidence but rather, as suggested earlier, by differences between the conceptual frameworks into which eash puts pretty much the same facts.
An important case in point is the operation that restored the Shah to his throne and removed Prime Minister Mossadeq in 1953, for this is the date from which Iranians start counting the period of American domination in Iran. By now , especially because the Central Intelligence Agency "field commander" of the exercise has published his own account, the fact that the CIA ran the operation is widespread public knowledge.
But Americans do not draw the same conclusions as Iranians from this knowledge. Iranians conclude that the US government installed the Shah so that he would be the agent of their policy in Iran, and that he played that role from 1953 until the end of his reign. Americans, on the other hand, view the 1953 coup as a one-time operation. In their eyes, once the Shah was restored -- and, after all, it was a restoration, for he had been recognized throughout the world as Iran's legitimate monarch since 1941 -- the Shah, not the US government, was responsible for what went on in Iran.
To the Iranian, it often seems that Americans put so much emphasis on legalistic arguments and distracting details that they fail to see the larger truth. The trees prevent them from seeing the forest. US policy toward Vietnam was an outstanding case in point. Americans, on the other hand, are exasperated by the cavalier manner in which Iranians often treat factual detail -- exaggeration of the Shah's misdeeds, for example.
Most disconcerting of all to Americans is the Iranian obsession for assuming a foreign plot behind every event in Iran or elsewhere, at least in the third world. Sometimes, as when i is contended that the American government was behind the Shah's removal and Ayatollah Khomeini's rise to power, the Iranian version seems so far-fetched as to be simply laughable.
But in fact the Iranian attitude is not irrational at all. History shows clearly that for a century and a half before the US government took an interest in Iran, other powers -- most notably Britain -- did indeed dominate Iran. It is perfectly natural for Iranians to assume that the United States, upon installing (or rather reinstalling) its own Shah just as (in Iranian eyes) the british had set up his father, took over the role of controlling power in Iran.
American protestations that the Shah was merely a close ally, that they were not responsible for his actions, strike many Iranians as disingenuous. They saw the thousands of American advisers, military and civilian, throughout the country. They observed the influx of American and other Western goods and the Americanization of many aspects of daily life. They were aware of the vast sums being spent on American military hardware. And they believed -- in large part correctly -- that the CIA created and guided Savak, the Shah's secret police.
American disclaimers of imperialism are likely to appear to Iranians as more examples of that annoying tendency of Americans to deny obvious larger truths by raising a cloud of minor details and legalistic nuances. Iranians are not alone in their outlook, moreover, as the currency of the terms "neoimperialism" and "neocolonialism" attests. Certainly American policymakers do not find these labels acceptable.
But if a great power install a leader in a smaller country, and then that leader asks for and receives massive aid and support from the same great power, is this a routine relationship between equally sovereign states? Those who contend that it is may find it harder -- even granted important differences -- to object to the current relationship between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan.
Surely the Shah did not see himself as anyone's puppet. But the late Iranian ruler eventually admitted that he was "strongly supported" by the US and Britain when he moved against Mossadeq in August of 1953, and that he "discussed" the operation in advance with his friend Kermit Roosevelt, special envoy of the CIA. And when the situation in Iran turned seriously against him during 1978, the Shah again referred for guidance to the great powers that had restored him firmly to his throne 25 years earlier.
He admitted this himself, though he became bitter about it. "My biggest mistake," he told interviewers in the spring of 1980, "was in listening to the Americans and to the British about our internal problems. . . ." According to the Shah, it was Gen. Robert Huyser, the NATO deputy commander who was dispatched to Tehran by the White House, who prevented the Iranian Army from defending the imperial regime and the Bakhtiar government, which the Shah had left in charge when he departed on Jan. 16, 1979. "And the Army gave up for this ridiculous man Bazargan, who was just an Anglo-American puppet."
Small signs and symbols often assume larger proportions in Iranian reasoning. After the switch in regime, the huge American Embassy compound in north-central Tehran remained as conspicuous as ever, its well-guarded gates opening now and then to let in or out Americans or Iranians engaged in business unfathomable to outside observers, and with those same mysterious antennas still rising from behind the high brick walls. These signs of business as usual were reassuring to those who wanted and expected the US-Iranian relationship to settle back into the same pattern as before -- minus the Shah.
By the same oken, however, the American Embassy remained an infuriating symbol to those who considered elimination of all traces of foreign imperialism, or neoimperialism, to be a major goal of their revolution. For, to Iranians of both persuasions, the American Embassy was not an institution comparable to say, the French or Brazilian Embassies in Tehran; rather, it was the headquarters in Iran for exercising actual or would-be American control over Iranian affairs.
In the difficult situation the United States faces today vis-a-vis Iran, surely American policy would be well served if it went beyond viewing Iranian actions simply as irrational and illegal and took into account how Iranians see the relationship between the two countries.
Even those Iranians -- including today's leaders -- who believe their revolution has broken the historic pattern of outside domination remain uncertain whether their success will or can be permanent. There is perhaps an underlying doubt that it is possible truly to reverse the natural order of things in the temporal world. But this residue of fatalism only encourages the revolutionaries, in good Muslim Shiite tradition, to continue the desperate struggle for right even if it may lead to martyrdom.
The reaction of many Iranians to the hostage rescue attempt -- to assume that it was only part of a larger plot to return Iran to American control -- was predictable. In fact, some might even reason that the US government provoked the capture of the hostages in order to justify a military intervention that would not only free the captives but also install a friendly government. Devoutly as the liberation of the hostages is to be desired for their own sakes and those of their families, one cannot help speculating on what Iranian reactions might have been if the rescue operation had succeeded, in whole or in part.
And one cannot help wondering how far possible Iranian reactions and their consequences were taken into account when it was decided to proceed with the operation. Had US officials considered potential Iranian retaliation against other Americans inside or outside Iran, for example, or the possibilityof a desperate "cut off your nose to spite your face" act like blocking the Strait of Hormuz?
Study of the past relationship between Iran and the US, even if it should disclose few new facts that do more than confirm the general picture already known, would nevertheless be valuable if it clarified the different Iranian and American interpretations and the historical and cultural reasons behind them.
If such study is unlikely to make Americans and Iranians think alike, it might at least enable each to understand the other's point of view sufficiently to agree to disagree. That much at least is necessary if the United States and the new Iran are to learn to live together without fear of each other. And better understanding of each other's thinking is important even if in the future there should occur other changes of regime in Iran -- with or without American involvement.
The absence of such understanding, even during the years Iran was a close ally of the United States, contributed importantly to the disastrous turnabout in the relations between the two countries, and the seeds of conflict will remain, whatever the regimes, unless deeper and broader understanding is reached.
Admittedly, the educational process is a long one and holds no prospect of early help for the hostages. Public opinion does not change quickly. Certainly all Americans hope the hostages will be released quickly. Certainly all Americans hope the hostages will be released much sooner, but even if and when they are, the need for reaching common ground of understanding will remain.
This is a need that goes well beyond American relations with Iran of those with the third world as a whole, a field whose importance for the 1980s and beyond is exceeded by no other. Difficult as the United States now finds it to relate successfully to revolutionary Iran, its ability to do so may be a test of capabilities vitally needed in coming years.