“What do the American people think of Ayatollah Khomeini?” an Iranian TV reporter asked me on my first visit to Tehran in 1999. For a moment I was stumped. If I answered truthfully, I would have to say that the vast majority of Americans had never heard of Khomeini. But Iranian hardliners might easily exploit this observation. And so I simply suggested that most Americans didn’t follow international politics—this was the task of a foreign policy elite whose opinions on Iran were as divided as ever.
Such divisions are even more pronounced in Iran, where struggles over foreign policy are interwoven with domestic battles over the very identity of the Islamic Republic. Yet despite their differences, all of Iran’s elite factions share a keen (if sometimes neurotic) sensibility about the relevance of both distant and proximate history that their counterparts in the U.S. can’t match. Indeed, my Iranian interviewer’s question accentuated this point, in that it suggested how much he was projecting his own enduring obsession with Khomeini (and the 1980s Khomeini era) onto Americans.
True, many Americans still recall the humiliations of the 1979-80 Tehran Hostage Crisis. Nor can we forget the 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, or the taking of American hostages in Lebanon during the same period. But such painful memories hardly compare to the central place that the United States plays in the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary ideology. Former President Khatami learned this lesson the hard way: to advocate a more normal relationship with the U.S. means setting side (or considerably reworking!) a fundamental part of Ayatollah Khomeini’s complex legacy.
And that is why in 2007 Iranian hardliners launched a campaign against former President Rafsanjani. The titular leader of the “Pragmatic Conservatives,” Rafsanjani tried to bolster support for an opening to the U.S. by claiming that Khomeini himself had proposed giving up the ritual chant “Death to America” during Friday Prayers. Although Supreme Leader Khamane’i subsequently stated he might support “having relations with America,” if it were “useful for the [Iranian] nation,” Iranian advocates of reconciliation still face formidable obstacles and even dangers.
These barriers were on everyone’s mind during a series of Iranian-American “track two” meetings that I attended in 2003-04. While both sides highlighted the divisions in their foreign policy establishments, we appreciated that our Iranian interlocutors had to tread especially carefully, lest they be accused of “selling out” Iranian interests.
Despite the odds, the talks not only continued, but also helped to spawn a fair-minded plan to resolve the standoff over Iran’s efforts to create an independent nuclear fuel capacity. The problem is that there still is no political will for taking the risk of backing this or other similar proposals. Indeed, events in Iraq have only encouraged President Ahmadinejad and his allies to persist with their bombastic rhetoric, thus undermining advocates of rapprochement in Washington and Tehran.
What can (or should) be done? One idea that emerged out of our track two talks was for Washington and Tehran to issue a statement akin to the “Shanghai Communiqué” that helped break the ice between the U.S. and China in 1972. Of course, it took those countries another 7 years to sign on the bottom line. But by setting out their basic differences and areas of potential agreement, the communiqué gave each side the “symbolic incentive” for starting down the long road of reconciliation.
Is there a President Nixon or a Premier Zhou Enlai waiting in the wings to make a similarly audacious move? Perhaps. The issue is not merely one of leadership but of context: after all, the U.S. and Iran have no common rival similar to the Soviet bear that brought Washington and Beijing to the table in 1972. Yet bold leadership could certainly help. Milton Berle once said that “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” In Iran – and elsewhere – many are now wondering if the arrival in Tehran of a young, charismatic black American President would inspire both sides to discover (or build) that door.
What Iranians want most, they say, is “respect.” Perhaps the Senator from Illinois could speak to this most intangible but important need. However, many Americans may require something rather different: a tough negotiator (perhaps a former military man?) who can convince our own hardliners that rapprochement with the Islamic Republic could well serve U.S. security interests.
I am not in a position here to indicate my own preference. But I am sure of one thing: throughout the Middle East, the most radical forces are praying that reconciliation will never happen. And that is one good reason why any new administration should explore every reasonable opportunity to build a different relationship with Iran.
By Daniel Brumberg |
May 8, 2008; 12:21 PM ET
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