Relations between the United States and Iran have not always been star-crossed, but this they are since Islamist fanatics seized power in Iran in 1979. Now, things may, if possible, be taking a turn for the worse.
The national anguish of the hostage crisis still haunts the relationship. It drove Washington to heedless support of Saddam Hussein in Iraq's eight-year war against Iran; and then to continue supplying this monster until the moment he invaded Kuwait. The Reagan administration's search for a nonexistent moderate Iranian opposition led it off the deep end into the Iran-contra scandal. Today, forces in Washington are promoting a $19 million covert operation to bring down the government in Tehran - unmindful that this was how it all began.
The United States had no Iran policy until the middle of World War II. Before that, the politics of oil dominated the Persian Gulf, with Iran, like Iraq, firmly in Britain's pocket while the US looked for oil in Saudi Arabia (which sought American backing in staving off British influence). When the German invaders had the Soviet Union on the ropes, the United States opened a supply line to the Soviet Army from the south, through Iran, and acquiesced in Soviet occupation of the northern provinces to secure it.
When the war was over, Stalin decided to stay. He broke off Iranian Azerbaijan as an "autonomous" puppet state. He also created a Kurdish People's Republic. He had already told Adolf Hitler, in the days of their alliance, of his ultimate intention to push south to the warm water of the Gulf when British power in the area withered away.
The United States saved Iran. The UN Security Council ordered the Kremlin to withdraw. President Truman's robust persuasion ensured compliance. Iran remained whole but it was politically split under a weak monarch.
In 1953, a nationalist leader, Mohammed Mossadegh, sent the young shah Reza Pahlavi into exile. Earlier, he had nationalized the great Anglo-Iranian oil company (as Egypt's Nasser later nationalized the Suez Canal). Britain was too weak to retaliate but the US, in the fullness of its power and deep into the cold war, intervened with a CIA operation that overthrew Mossadegh and restored the shah. The exercise was celebrated as a textbook example of covert intervention. A quarter of a century later it was recognized as the road to ruin.
Washington established the closest ties with the shah, the Nixon administration elevating him to the role of "regional influential" who could be relied on to keep order in the Gulf. Somehow, it escaped notice that the shah, hailed as the great modernizer and reformer, in fact plastered a gilded, Western-oriented elite on a large country that remained predominantly rural, poor, illiterate, and Islamic. Corruption and waste further alienated the people. The shah, together with his system, was thrown out by a coalition of clergy, middle class, merchants, and students. Ayatollah Khomeini soon dominated and terrorized them all. The US became the Great Satan.
Washington and others are appalled at what Khomeini and his successors have done. Their human rights record is abominable. Violence and terror are a nasty regime's stock in trade. Like Iraq, it murders opponents who have fled abroad. It bullies the Arab states of the Gulf with saber-rattling maneuvers and subsidizes Islamist guerrillas in Lebanon and in Bosnia. Egypt and Algeria accuse it of having a hand in their troubles with Islamist radicals.
Iran is accumulating weapons, especially medium and long-range missile launchers. It has bought two Russian submarines and may get a third. Russia is completing two large nuclear reactors that German companies had begun for the shah. The US, arguing that a major oil producer does not need nuclear power, says Iran plans to make nuclear weapons.
President Clinton, declaring a national emergency, has imposed a complete embargo on trade and financial dealings with Iran. That country's economy is in terrible shape, but not from the embargo - which is even a political asset, a scapegoat to transfer blame from the mullah's incompetence to the Great Satan. Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro use the same trick. They are also still around.
Current US policy is double containment of Iran and Iraq. It is, however, only a paper symmetry. Iraq is indeed totally isolated, its oil exports halted and its economy slowly grinding to a stop under an effective universal embargo imposed by the UN Security Council.
Iran is a different story. It is free to trade anything with anyone. It has no trouble in selling elsewhere the $4 billion worth of oil that American companies had been buying each year. It has money to import what it chooses: machinery, technology, weapons, and services. American warnings and urgings to allies and friends to hold back have fallen on deaf ears. Iran has seen no reason to change its tone or its line of expanding influence.
Comparing America's action toward Iran with its performance in Bosnia makes a point that should not be lost. Leadership is not snapping fingers but enlisting allies in projects they understand and accept.