Shireen T. Hunter Headshot

Before Deciding on the Future, the U.S. Should Review Its Past Approach to Iran

Posted: Updated:
Print
AP
AP

The conciliatory and moderate discourse of Iran's new president, Hassan Rouhani, has once more created expectations that some kind of breakthrough in U.S.-Iranian relations may be possible. This was underscored symbolically, though not yet substantively, by the phone call between the Iranian and U.S. presidents.

Two new elements in the latest episode in the U.S.-Iranian saga of rising expectations of détente, followed by the disappointment of failure, give reason to believe that this latest episode might be different from the earlier ones. One is the fact that President Rouhani has the permission of the Supreme Leader to give diplomacy a fighting chance, and, second the U.S. response to Iran's new overture has been the most positive to date.

However, opponents of a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement in the U.S., in parts of the Middle East, and in Iran itself have by no means given up their efforts to scuttle this latest episode in the long-running tale of raised hopes and dashed expectations. Already, letters and articles have been written urging President Barack Obama to continue pressure on Iran, and warnings have been issued about the Iranians' congenital duplicity. Others have warned that dealing with Iran will upset some U.S. regional allies.

Clearly, the United States must tread carefully in its dealings with Iran or, for that matter, with any other power. But in doing so, it would be extremely useful if the U.S. made an objective review of its past approaches towards Iran and the signals of moderation emanating from that country, as well as assessing the costs and benefits that past U.S. policies towards Iran have had for a whole range of U.S. interests in the Middle East and South Asia. As part of this review and assessment, the U.S. should ask itself whether it had been well-advised by its regional allies in snubbing Iran.

The first sign of Iranian moderation came as early as 1988, after the end of the Iran-Iraq war. At the time, partly on the advice of its regional allies, America decided to ignore this sign of moderation. Instead, it decided that Iraq should be its preferred ally in the region and indulged Iraq almost up to the time it invaded Kuwait in 1991.The result was a bloody war, Operation Desert Storm.

Then in the 1990s, despite the Rafsanjani administration's decision to stay neutral in the Persian Gulf War, in opposition to considerable clamor on the part of the country's hardliners to side with Iraq, and despite Iran's help in securing the release of American hostages held in Lebanon, the U.S. adopted a policy of containing and isolating of Iran. One aspect of this policy was the U.S. decision to support the Taliban in Afghanistan because they were anti-Iran and anti-Shia. The result was the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by the Taliban ally, Al Qaeda, and the tragic events of 9/11. Meanwhile, when again Iran reached out to the U.S. in 1994 by inviting the oil firm, Conoco, to invest in Iran, the U.S. blocked it and then the U.S. Congress imposed the first set of sanctions on Iran in 1996.

During his administration, President Khatami twice reached out to the U.S. First in 2001-2, Iran greatly helped in the post-Taliban transition in Afghanistan. The response was President George Bush's Axis of Evil speech. Again, in 2003 Iran offered a broad-ranging deal on all outstanding issues between itself and the U.S., known as the Grand Bargain. Apparently, the letter containing the deal did not even reach the desk of top officials.

Throughout this period, U.S. regional allies opposed reconciliation with Iran for their own parochial interests and often miscalculated even as to the impact of U.S.-Iranian reconciliation for their own interests.

Meanwhile, America's snubbing of Iran's overtures negatively affected U.S.' interests in many areas. To begin with, by ignoring Iranian offers of help in Afghanistan, the U.S. made itself a virtual prisoner of Pakistan, because it became totally dependent on access routes from Pakistan or the far more difficult Central Asian route. Despite massive aid from the U.S., Pakistan continued to pursue its own strategic goals in Afghanistan, through supporting the Taliban while pretending to fight them. Meanwhile, the Saudis and the UAE continued their support for the Taliban and other Salafi groups. The result was that, despite spending huge amounts of money and sustaining human losses, the U.S. did not achieve its goals in Afghanistan.

In Iraq, too, the policies of U.S. regional allies, notably Saudi Arabia, which has supported radical Sunni groups in that country and even Turkey, have greatly contributed to the worsening of that country's problems, thus undoing many of the U.S. efforts. U.S. opposition to Iranian involvement in plans for oil and gas pipelines in Central Asia and the Caucasus and links with Europe has also been unwise and has only benefitted Russia, which has used its gas card to pressure European countries, especially Ukraine and other East European countries, as well as China.

Even regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, U.S. snubbing of Iran has not served the goal of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. It could be argued that, had the U.S. responded positively to Iran's overtures, Iran's position even in this regard would have been greatly changed and we would not have witnessed the poisonous atmosphere of the Ahmadinejad era.

Last but not least, excessive U.S. preoccupation with Iran and its ideology has led Washington to ignore the far more dangerous creed of Wahhabism and Salafism, which has now engulfed not only the Middle East and South Asia but also Africa, has and seeped into the Muslim immigrants in Europe and America, and has stoked the fires of sectarianism.

A thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations would not solve all of America's problems in the Middle East and South Asia. Nor it would it on its own settle regional disputes. But it would go a long way to helping ease both sets of issues. At the very least, it would give the U.S. a better bargaining position vis a vis such countries as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and, yes, even Russia. Also, by sending the signal that the U.S. will not support any wild scheme simply because it is anti-Iranian, it would provide greater incentive for countries such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey to reach compromises on regional issues instead of pursuing unrealistic ambitions, such as Turkey's desire to resurrect the Ottoman Empire.

One last point for U.S. decision makers to keep in mind is that, despite the Iranian government's Islamist pretensions, the bulk of Iranian society has entered the post-Islamist era. Iran has had its Islamist revolution and turmoil, and Iranians no longer have illusions about the promise of Islamism; but some other Middle East countries, such as Egypt, Jordan, the North Africans states and even Turkey, are still tempted by its allure. If the U.S. should look for future allies, it would find the Iranians more congenial than the Salafists and other Islamists.