Thinking Boldly about Iran

“What do the American people think of Ayatollah Khomeini?” an Iranian TV reporter asked me on my first visit to … Continued

“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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  • Anonymous

    Mr. Brumberg,Thank you for a nice and thought provoking post. It just got me thinking that could one radical middle-east force praying that reconciliation will never happen be Saudi Arabia?According to David Ignatius’ own article today in the Post, Saudi officials are praying on the record that Iran gives US a reason for it to launch attacks.This was hardly a surprise for anyone who has any knowledge of middle east, but one has to wonder why Saudi Arabia is so threatened by an emerging and powerful Iran, to the point where they state on the record that they pray for another non-hostile country’s demise.

  • lizz

    The 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut = send an armed, uniformed military force into a war zone to bolster one side of the conflict, be surprised when it is attacked, whine about “terrorism” and then take out your revenge on Lebanese civilians by lobbing shells at Beirut from your naval vessels.And Iran is to blame for that one, is it?Maybe a bit more historical memory isn’t a bad thing. At least that way you can prevent media commentators from re-writing history to suit the government line.

  • lizz

    You ignore the role of Israel as the spoiler in improved US-Iran relations, as well as the repeated Iranian efforts to reach out which were simply spurned.The 1983 bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut = send an armed, uniformed military force into a war zone to bolster one side of the conflict, be surprised when it is attacked, whine about “terrorism” and then take out your revenge on Lebanese civilians by lobbing shells at Beirut from your naval vessels.And Iran is to blame for that one, is it?Maybe a bit more historical memory isn’t a bad thing. At least that way you can prevent media commentators from re-writing history to suit the government line.

  • Cyrus

    We all know what the solution is, the problem is that it is not politically viable domestically. For example, what Congressman will challenge the “Iran terrorist” paradigm and be willing to suffer the consequences of being portrayed as “soft on terror”?

  • Mohamed MALLECK,Swift Current, Canada

    I went to Tehran on 18 August 1978 and stayed on through 20 August 1979, living in the flesh the Glorious Revolution of that year which had as its high point the fabled flight of Khomeini on an Air France plane from his exile in Neuphle-Le- Chateau just outside Paris. The Revolution was won against horrendous intimidation of civilians (as exemplified by thousands of military tanks patrolling the streets and MIGs flying low in the skies of Tehran and major cities) through chants of Allahu-Akbar rising to the heavens from millions of rooftops in a night-sky darkened by state-ordered power cuts designed to paralyse the oppressed people indoors.One week before my arrival in Tehran, there had been the ‘Jaleh Square’ massacre. The next week, the mothers and sisters of the blessed martyrs of Jaleh Square also marched towards a heavily-armed military formation even more determined to stop them than had been the preceeding week’s anti-riot forces. This times, the protestors were carrying flowers to stick into the barrales of the guns that had mercilessly fired at and killed their brothers, their husbands, their fathers, their cousins the previous week. It was a sureal spectacle. Professor Brumberg writes: ‘What Iranians want most, they say, is “respect.”’Indeed! If, like me, you had experienced what I have experienced, you would be in a position to take the full measure of that most basic aspiration for the people of a nation that bears the legacy of a Great ancient civilization that, in its day, rivalled favourably those of Greece and Rome and Egypt and India and the Khmer, and even the Chinese.The first whispers of the Revolution fittingly started with recitations, in intellectual salons, of the poetry of Ferdows and Hafiz and Omar Khayyam.That is ‘terrorist’ Iran for you!But, yes, a former Great civilization that is finding its way back to the Glory of its former days can work constructively with another Sole Superpower that is going through a rough patch and might well have to share the Summit, but is nowhere near the catharsis that Cassandras announce. Thanks, Professor Brumberg, for an intelligent piece that allowed me to share my own humble thoughts.

  • Shiveh

    Mohamed Malleck,In contrast to your opinion of the revolution, most Iranians remember those days with an overwhelming feeling of sorrow and despair. But that is just my opinion.There are some errors and exaggerations in your description of the event. Iranian Air Force was equipped with American fighter planes, namely F-5 and a squadron of F-16s. Not even one MIG fighter could be found in Iran. Total number of Iranian tanks at the time was 4000 of which the majority was stationed along the Iraqi border. There were a few hundred tanks positioned on Tehran streets (not 1000s)and they had orders not to fire. Total population of Iran at the time was about 36 million with 3-4 million living in Tehran. Your mention of millions of rooftops is again a gross exaggeration. Jaleh incident started by some among the demonstrators shooting at police and it was an aberration. All through the demonstrations and up to the end, Shah’s army had orders not to shoot. It was only after Air Force cadets started shooting at the Guardsmen on the last days of the revolution that many people died. If it wasn’t for that order probably revolution would have died down. After Jaleh incident for over a week streets were calm. Demonstrators continued only after they realized there will be no retaliation. Your reference to demonstrators putting flowers in soldier’s riffles is accurate and it was possible because soldiers had orders to just be present. In contrast, the people that your so called glorious revolution brought to power have killed and still are indiscriminately killing anybody who dares to seriously challenge them.As you mentioned the opposition to the Shah’s dictatorship started by middle class intellectuals at poetry reciting nights. How it changed to religious extremism is the telling story of the revolution and the main reason for overwhelming feeling of sorrow and despair by Iranians.

  • A Maccarry

    ShivahYou also made coupne of errors. Iran did not have F16s, it had ordered them which subsequently went to Israel, but had not received them. You are probably thinking of F5s, F14s, and F4s. Iran had 100+, 79, and 225+ respectively. Also, Iran did not have 4000 tanks. It had about 1000 Chieftans (or Shir1 and Shir2) and most were stationed near Isfahan and Shiraz (mostly Shiraz). When Iraq invaded Iran, there were not that many tanks in the GFB, and logically so if you think about it.

  • Mohamed MALLECK,Swift Current, Canada

    SHIVEH,Thanks for corroborating many of my statements. The ones where we differ are, of course a matter of my opinion against, as you put it ‘my own opinion’.What you see as an inaccuracy in my figure of “millions of households’ rooftops” is not out of line with the figure of 3-4 million that you quote for the population of Tehran at the time; and, also, what I had in mind was not the chants of Allahu Akbar rising to the heavens from the rooftops of households in Tehran alone, although I can understand somebody inferring that from my account of what I witnessed. What I witnessed was in Tehran, but similar demonstrations happened in Shiraz, Qom, Abadan, Ardebil, etc.About the makes of military planes, I agree: I got that wrong because I am no expert; and yes, there may not have been 1000’s of tanks in the streets of Tehran alone but the number was in the higher hundreds, and no, most tanks were NOT deployed on the Iran/Iraq border.It is also not true that the troops had received orders not to fire: on the contrary, there were a quick succession of Prime Ministers — Bakhtiar, etc. — because the use of brutal force was failing, and successive Prime Ministers could not agree on what calibration of force and mix of might and appeasement measures would restore calm. The claim ” It was only after Air Force cadets started shooting at the Guardsmen on the last days of the revolution that many people died. If it wasn’t for that order probably revolution would have died down” is wishful thinking wrapped up in a western-inspired spin to mask the total loss of control by the Shah and his clique to CIA-backed plans for suppression of political dissent. I remember very well how all the ordinary guests in the Hilton Tehran were summarily evacuated when the CIA decided to make the hotel the hub for its counter-insurgency planning operations.Final point: I don’t dispute that post-Revolution Iranain governance needs to be far more humane and tolerant of liberties and dissent. Nonetheless, in answer to your reference to To cognoscenti, today’s Iran deserves respect, while recognising that much needs to be done to improve governance.

  • ZHUBIN

    I AM AN IRANIAN LIVING IN LA, I AM NO FAN OF IRAN’S MULLACRACY BUT I DO BELIEVE THAT IT’S BENEFICIAL FOR BOTH IRAN AND AMERICA TO RESUME

  • Shiveh

    A MCCARRY,Thank you for the corrections. MOHAMED MALLECKAnd thank you for the post.Couple of points: Bakhtiar, the last prime minister under the Shah ordered aerial bombardment of a Tehran garrison that had fallen to the revolutionaries but his order was not obeyed. Ovasi was in charge when Jaleh incident happened, he was subsequently fired. Sharif Emami tried to negotiate with Ayatollahs; Azhari was ineffective. Other than for the last two days, it was not a bloody revolution because Shah did not believe his rein is coming to an end and did not want blood on his hands.Hundreds of prisoners were tortured by Savak, tens were shot. In comparison, by Khomeini’s order tens of thousands of prisoners were tortured and executed. This number includes over 60.000 of Mojahedin Khalgh. It is because of the mullah’s atrocities that Shah’s regime looks acceptable to many Iranians.

  • Mohamed MALLECK,Swift Current, Canada

    SHIVEH,Thanks for the accurate information about the last four Prime Ministers.But the rest is spin and you know it.I am also very glad not to have hinted, from the start, at Mujaahideen Khalq, sure as I was that it was going, inevitably, to come from you.Even those who still pronounce Iran as Ayi-Renn (or I Ran) know that MeK is a dangerous cult.I am not insinuating that you are a memeber of MeK or that you sympathise with them. I have a lot of respect for all Iranians. I am a non-Iranian, non-Arab Sunni Muslim.But, facts remain facts; and nothing durable can be constructed on anything that is not hard fact.Best regards.

  • Javad

    It is difficult to write a comment on a pragmatic article. I like it more when someone calls for total obliteration of the Iranian nation or “bomb-bombing” of Iran. Then you can cheer or easily condemn.

  • Ali

    Good article but very one sided look at things that have transpired in the past 40 years.

  • Mark Golding

    David, you are in a position to indicate your own preference. Your greatest gift is applying history to appeasement and I thank you sir; please encourage Obama to take the passage to Iran and ‘present the symbolic incentive’ a master key that will unlock a longer road to world peace and give us the focus needed to moderate the exponential and lethal rise in our planets temperature.

  • Reza

    An article with good intentions and useful for an average / below average reader. the last paragraph mentions “MOST RADICAL FORCES IN MIDDLEAST” but I would replace the word “Forces” to a single entity “Force”. The reason is we all fully well know how Israel has been actively persuading US to oppose any engagement with Iran. Iran is not the problem as proved by them in assisting US in Afganistan, even in Iraq.

  • Michael

    Rapproachment between the US and Iran will be the final chance the US has to maintaining it’s status as a power broker in the Middle East. There is no way the US can dictate future events in the ME unless it compromises with Iran. If US hubris continues imposing its myopic dictates on Iran all that will happen will be that they push Iran to sign long lasting agreements with the Chinese, who understand that if they are to become and remain a viable superpower they will need to secure their future hydrocarbon supplies. Remember, contrary to popular belief, both world wars were fought over Oil and Anglo-American supremacy is contingent upon control of the world’s oil supplies. Understanding this it becomes easier to understand why Iran’s Nuclear amitions are challenging Anglo-American hegemony in the ME and for that matter around the world. What you have to ask yourselves is why is there no concern over Pakistan, which is radically Islamic and a major supplier of Islamic militants around the world, when it comes Nuclear proliferation and a Nuclear bomb. The fact is that Pakistan has no control over the worlds oil reserves, however Iran possesses substantial oil and gas reserves and also has the potential to control and dictate the future supply of ME oil. Without Iran as a US alley you can rest assured that the Eastern powers will knaw away at whatever influence Anglo-America has remaining in that part of the world. Currently the US is in a political zugzwang with the Mullahs in Iran, even though the Mullahs have little support from their citizens, however so long as America looks at Iran with an overweaning attitude and continues down its myopic path of sanctions rather than face to face negotiations and reconciliation, the Mullahs will keep Iran in the anachronistic status quo and continue to foster anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world. Essentially what we are doing is handing over our future to the Eastern powers, such as China and Russia.