Pragmatism may trump zeal as Iran's power grows
Iran faces a July 12 deadline on the West's incentives intended to defuse nuclear standoff.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY — Iranians tearfully remember the moment when a US Navy cruiser shot down an Iranian civilian airliner over the hazy Persian Gulf, killing all 290 on board.
Eighteen years ago this week, Iranian TV flashed images of bodies and debris floating in the water and the Islamic Republic accused the US of a "barbaric massacre." It added the destruction of Iran Air Flight 655 and its "martyrs" to a long list of grievances that continue to stoke US-Iran hostility.
Now, as Iran prepares to respond to a US offer of direct talks over its nuclear program – the first such high-level public offer since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution – its officials are reexamining their past.
How is the thinking of Iran's arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the more powerful clerics led by Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, shaped by their difficult and sometimes violent experience with the US?
That history includes US support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s – and Western silence about Iraq's flagrant use of chemical weapons at the time – as well as President Bush's inclusion of Iran in his "axis of evil."
But despite the decades of mistrust, disrespect, and anger, analysts say that Iran's leaders feel they are now in a position of power like never before, so revolutionary zeal is giving way to a new pragmatism that could break the taboo over talks.
"You can't deal with the US from a position of weakness. The only way the US will come around to treat you with respect is from a position of power," says Farideh Farhi, an Iran specialist at the University of Hawaii, currently in Tehran.
The US has "historically proven its intent to weaken" Iran, says Ms. Farhi. Iran's leadership shares this view, as do many ordinary Iranians, who otherwise often hold Americans themselves in high regard. "Even among the Iranian population, you can sense a tremendous distrust of US intentions."
Wednesday, Iran postponed talks with the European Union on a bundle of incentives put forward by Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany, and the US to ease tensions over its nuclear program. Talks were rescheduled for Thursday to discuss the offer before a July 12 deadline imposed on Iran to respond to the package.
Iran's current sense of strength comes from a coincidence of factors. Mr. Ahmadinejad's victory a year ago placed every lever of power into conservative hands; last April, during the back-and-forth with Europe and the US over Iran's disputed nuclear program, Tehran achieved low-level uranium enrichment.
Iran is buoyed also by a glut of cash from high global oil prices, and has watched as the US military machine – once seen as a tool of "regime change" that would be aimed at Iran – is bogged down fighting an insurgency in Iraq.
"Thanks to the US government, two of Iran's main threats – Saddam Hussein, and the Taliban and Al Qaeda – have been removed from power," says Abbas Maleki, Iran's former deputy foreign minister, currently at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. "So it's a different situation."
Iran and its leadership have also changed over time, experts say. Dreams of exporting the revolution evaporated long ago. "Twenty years ago, the Iranian public sphere was [still] ideological.... At that time, talk of US-Iran relations was taboo," says Hamid Reza Jalaiepour, a US hostage-taker, former intelligence officer, and provincial governor.
"Now, the Iranian public sphere is pragmatic," says Mr. Jalaiepour, who today teaches political sociology at Tehran University. "The two sides are willing to negotiate. But both sides are bargaining for the price, for their own conditions."
There is new "common ground," because US military control of adjacent Iraq and Afghanistan means "the US is a close neighbor of Iran," says Jalaiepour. Populists like Ahmadinejad "are looking for development [and] need votes"; the US likewise "can't solve its problems through another war, or through sanctions."
There is even a mechanism in Iranian culture that can overcome "all these insults, annoyance, and sabotage" of two estranged parties, says William Beeman, an anthropologist and Iran specialist at Brown University, contacted in Tokyo. "Once reconciliation takes place, it is total, it is absolute sweetness and light from then on."
But sitting down for talks will require some humility. Washington alleges that Iran is the world's "most active state sponsor of terrorism," for supporting Hizbullah in Lebanon, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories.
And in Tehran, true believers of the revolution can't count the number of American flags they have burned over the years, or effigies of Bush they have torched.
"History is important, but for a new relationship we should forget everything in the past, because those bad events do not help solve the problem," says Amir Mohebian, political editor of the conservative Resalat newspaper in Tehran. "It has been a cold war between the two countries, and it could be a hot war any moment, so each [side] should try to bury the history."
"I think it is a good opportunity for the US, because the generation of the Iranian revolution and the Iran-Iraq war are showing that they [can] forget all these problems of the past," says Mr. Maleki, whose brother was killed at the Iran-Iraq front. "All of us – we are ready to forget. We have moved on."
The US experience with Iran fixates on the hostage crisis, when radical students seized the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979, and held and humiliated 52 US diplomats for 444 days. US officials also saw an Iranian hand in bomb attacks against US Marines and US Embassy targets in Lebanon, and even the kidnapping of Americans there in the 1980s. They add the Khobar Towers bomb in Saudi Arabia in 1996, and charge that today Iran is meddling in Iraq.
Iranian baggage with the US stretches back to a CIA-engineered coup in 1953, that restored Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi to the Peacock Throne. And to that morning in 1988, when the USS Vincennes mistook the airliner for an attacking Iranian jet. In a result that still galls Iranians, the US never apologized for the incident; the ship's air-warfare chief won the Navy's Commendation Medal for "heroic achievement," and all crew received combat-action ribbons.
"It still resonates [in Iran], because it reaffirms the narrative that is already there: that Americans are hypocrites who talk about justice, but when it comes to wars and other people's interests, they always work to undermine it," says the University of Hawaii's Farhi.
A key case was Iranian help to the US on Afghanistan, after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Both Iranian and American officials hoped it would be a seed for US-Iran détente. But instead, within weeks Bush had included Iran – under reform-leaning President Mohammad Khatami – in his "axis of evil."
"Axis of evil was a fiasco for the Khatami government," says Farhi. "That was used by the hard-liners, who said: 'If you give in, if you help from a position of weakness, then you get negative results.' "
Similarly, US officials capped a series of modest goodwill gestures in the late 1990s with a March 2000 speech by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She apologized for the 1953 coup, lifted import restrictions on foodstuffs and carpets, and called for dialogue.
Within days, Khamenei dismissed the apology as too late and irrelevant, because the US "might be committing similar crimes now," according to Kenneth Pollack, then head of Gulf affairs at the US National Security Council. "The hard-liners were just not interested in a rapprochement," Mr. Pollack writes in his book, "The Persian Puzzle."
The same uncompromising approach may apply to American neo-conservatives today. Both US and Israeli voices have excoriated the Bush administration for even considering talks with Iran.
"In the US, demonizing Iran is such an amazingly potent asset for US politicians, that you just don't have anyone cheering for this kind of improvement," says Beeman, author of "The 'Great Satan' vs. the 'Mad Mullahs.'"
Analysts say Iranians – and especially war veterans like Ahmadinejad – still smart from the support by the US and Europe of Hussein's Iraq. The result is a degree of stubborn conviction, that makes Iran's leadership less susceptible to penalties like economic sanctions.
"For a certain segment of people running the country – like Ahmadinejad – they have a can-do mentality [that] gives confidence,'" says Farhi. "They got through the [Iran-Iraq] war. They willed the defense of Iran."
But radicals in Iran have become "officials and statesmen," and the "state machine ... evolves radicals to a pragmatic way," says Jalaiepour. "Maybe the main obstacle today are hard-liners in the US – they are very dangerous – who don't like to solve the US-Iran problem through negotiation."
"This regime has invested heavily in anti-Americanism [and] they can't easily retreat from that position," says Abbas Amanat, professor of Middle East history at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
"The fact there was a hostage crisis, or the Iran-contra scandal, or even support for Iraq in the war – I don't think these are substantial barriers" to reconciliation, says Mr. Amanat. "What is a barrier is the rhetoric, and memories, of course."