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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.