Iran: The U.S. Should Not Miss Its Opportunity -- Again

03/13/2015 03:29 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2015

Americans should lend full support to President Obama and his administration in the P5+1 talks with Iran in an effort to reach an agreement over Iran's nuclear program. We should all hope the recent letter-writing stunt by some Republican members of Congress will leave no significant marks on the negotiations, although looking into our behavior towards Iran in the past, I am somewhat fearful.

In the region, it is clear that those who strongly oppose the possibility of reaching an agreement are less concerned by Iran's nuclear program and more about their influence, position, and dominance in the region if such an agreement is reached. It is good to remember Iran's nuclear program actually began in the 1950s under the Shah's rule, with the blessings and support of the U.S. and Western powers. The cliché of the Shah regime's "desirability" due to its relatively pro-Western policy versus the "Islamic Republic regime" is still unfortunately predominant in U.S. public opinion, as it has been the last 35 years. With emotions, tensions and stakes so high, this article can only touch upon a few events we should stop neglecting and stop forgetting.

Knowing Iranian History and Facts

Much of what follows is detailed in Homa Katouzian's book Iran. The country's long history is so well described by Katouzian that I would recommend it to anyone who wants to get acquainted with Iran.

In the recent past - still the determining factor in the popular perception of Iran - the majority of Iranians resented the Shah's autocratic rule, especially his last ten years, culminating in the populist Revolution in 1979. The monarch's desire to "be part of the Western world" (people were to wear suit and ties, reforms were a reflection of the West, and so on) in the end backfired on him. The majority of Iranians wanted their country to respect their identity, their values, and wanted their religion not to be marginalized. Ninety-eight percent of Iranians who went to the polls voted in favor of the new Islamic Republic's Constitution (modeled on the 1958 constitution of the French Fifth Republic, with a change in foreign policy from "pro-American and pro-Western" to "neither east nor west"). The revolution in Iran was supported by the vast majority of Iranians, possibly for different reasons, but with a desire for a more social economic state and a state that would incorporate Islamic law values into their daily lives.

Iranians felt foreign powers dominated their country. In 1953, Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh nationalized the country's oil industry. Royalist forces supported and funded by the CIA and MI6 then toppled his parliamentary government in a swift coup d'état. Opposition to the ruling classes and to Westerners escalated further after the 1976-1977 economic collapse of the Shah's regime, which exacerbated the gap between the rich and the poor. Economic distress, combined with massive corruption, prepared the ground for revolution in Iran. The Shah was accused by Khomeini of wasting Iran's oil revenues, thereby increasing the unfair distribution of wealth, bringing leftist organizations and autonomy-seeking political organizations to actively take part in the Revolution. The wave of strikes before 1979 were the revolt of the working class initially focused on economic demands, such as higher wages. Later on, demands became overtly political, calling for governmental change and abolition of the monarchy, with its close ties to the West.

Coming To Terms With The Islamic Republic Of Iran

When Saddam Hussein attacked Iran with chemical weapons, killing 100,000 Iranians, Ayatollah Khomeini banned their development as "un-Islamic." (Iran has signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, Biological Weapons Convention, and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.) Ayatollah Ali Khamenei re-affirmed Iran's position, issuing a fatwa against development, production and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The West meddled in the Shah's "Westernized" Iran; the West rejected the Iranian Revolution; the West, along with Saudi Arabia, provided overwhelming financial and military support and encouragement to Saddam's Iraq to attack Iran; the West then turned a blind eye on Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons against Iran. All these actions and attitudes have left deep scars and mistrust in Iranian society.

In the revolutionary frenzy to liberate Iran of "foreign domination," the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 by a group of Iranian students belonging to the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam's line and the detention of 52 American diplomats for 444 days was a most tragic event that immediately deepened the gulf between the U.S. and Iran. The U.S. filed legal action, resulting in economic sanctions against Iran and the distance has grown since then.

Time and Time Again, We Could Have Done Better

In the 1980s and 1990s, Iran did reach out to the U.S. in an attempt to initiate rapprochement based on mutual respect and U.S. acceptance of the Islamic Republic. Iran engaged in an "arms for hostages" swap between Washington and Tehran, which ultimately failed, but with Tehran's readiness to continue the dialogue when the U.S. backed down. In U.S. President George H. W. Bush's inaugural address, referring to the hostage crisis in Lebanon, he said: "Assistance can be shown here, and will be long remembered. Good will begets good will." Iran got the message and responded with cooperation on releasing the American hostages held in Lebanon in which Iran spent a considerable amount of money, influence, and effort to free Americans from the Shia militias in Lebanon, expecting this would open channels of dialogue with the U.S. UN mediator Giandomenico Picco then went to Tehran only to tell President Rafsanjani that the U.S. had changed their minds, and that sadly good will did not beget good will. Rafsanjani later tried to reach out to the U.S. through an oil and gas project that would help develop non-Russian export routes, only for then-President Clinton to exclude Iran from regional discussions on the matter.

During the war in Bosnia, Iran helped the Clinton Administration's effort in the Balkans by quietly sending arms through Croatia to Bosnian Muslims who could not procure weapons due to an embargo, and who were up against the heavily-armed Serb forces that "inherited" the mighty arsenal of the Yugoslav army. This was a big help to the U.S.'s successful effort in stopping the war in Bosnia. The UN's embargo was not officially breached, out of fear of Russian and Serbian reprisal against U.S. interests. Again, Iran did not get any credit, but was accused of using the opportunity to export its revolution. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia - which provided valuable humanitarian aid and opened the country for Bosnian businesses, helping the devastated Bosnian economy - imported Wahhabism and has built the biggest mosque (King Fahd mosque) in Sarajevo. Bosnian Mevlid Jasarevic, who fired shots at the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo in 2012, belonged to the Wahhabi fundamentalist school that was imported to Bosnia.

Various further efforts were made after 9/11, where Iran helped in the anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan and later on in Iraq with a similar outcome. (These were described in-depth in the excellent book Going to Tehran by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, former CIA, State Department and National Security Council officials).

The U.S. has paid a heavy price for wars in the Middle East. At the end, is the Middle East any better off? No, it isn't. And a major unintended consequence is the rise of ISIS, which no one has any idea how to deal with yet. It may be the right time to stop this arrogant behavior, and to find common ground with Iran to help start turning the Middle East into a more stable region, one day at a time.