As Iranians celebrate the 30th anniversary of the return of Ayatollah Khomeini and the start of the Islamic Revolution and the new Obama administration initiates a review of US-Iranian policy, it is timely to sit back and consider how we got here and how we bring change.
For Americans, the 1979 Revolution is the seminal event in US -- Iran relations. The 444-day hostage crisis, burned into the American psychic by nightly television coverage seems to have frozen the US perception of Iran and its revolution. Iran is still seen as a revolutionary, theocratic authoritarian state, a not entirely accurate view. But their potential nuclear weapons program and Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah are serious issues between the two countries.
For Iranians, the grievances go back not thirty years but at least fifty-five to the 1953 CIA directed coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh. The grievances against the United States range from CIA training of the Shah's brutal secret police, SAVAK to the downing of a Iranian Airbus aircraft in 1988 by the US Navy cruiser Vincennes, killing 290. And continuing and stiffening economic sanctions have imposed hardships on the population.
How to overcome such long-standing suspicion and hostility? Very slowly and carefully.
As the Obama administration begins its review of US-Iran policy, it would be prudent to remember the adage of a chess Grand Master: tactics are what you do when there is something to do and strategy is what you do when there is nothing to do. When it comes to U.S. policy toward Iran, this may be the time for a few tactical moves and only strategic thought.
On the strategic side, the administration must not focus on a single issue such as the Iranian nuclear program. The Iraq situation, Israel-Syria talks, Gaza and the West Bank and Lebanon all affect and are affected by the US-Iran imbroglio. The Middle East is one of the most interwoven political webs on the globe. Everything is connected to everything else. In six months, the region's politics could be very different than they are now. Iraq will hold perhaps half a dozen elections, beginning with provincial elections held this past weekend and a possible referendum on the U.S.-Iraq security agreement. There will be elections in Israel and perhaps the West Bank. The critical Iranian Presidential election will take place in June. This political flux will require constant adjustments as U.S. strategy is devised. The relationship between the United States and Iran may turn out to be the most critical axis around which our Middle Eastern policy spins.
While a comprehensive strategy is being developed, there are also tactical moves that could help soften the ossified attitudes that characterize the relationship. President Obama's interview with Al-Arabyia television set a proper tone. Tactical actions should include opening an interest section in Tehran as well as promoting business, cultural and student exchanges. We simply need a broader and deeper understanding of Iranian society, politics and decision-making. In the meantime, both sides should choose their words carefully so as not to make matters worse. The United States should avoid talking about "carrots and sticks" as if we are dealing with a donkey and not a proud country. "Quid pro quo" is a better phrase in a language not quite as old as Persian.
The suggestion by Dennis Ross, a potential Iran special envoy, that a back channel be opened between Tehran and Washington should be attempted. The message, whether via an intermediary or back channel, should be that the United States seeks to find a mutually beneficial relationship with Iran, not to overthrow the regime. While intelligence operations to gather insight and information should be continued, all intelligence operations to destabilize the Iranian government, should they exist, should be terminated.
The United States cannot afford to get its Iranian strategy wrong. We should take the time needed to get it right and should make modest tactical moves to lay the foundation of a strategy for a more productive relationship, or at least a less dangerous one.