When President Obama told al-Arabiya, "if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us," the most widely reported Iranian response was President Ahmedinijad's suggestion that if the U.S. truly wants good relations with Iran, it should begin by apologizing for U.S. "crimes" against Iran, including U.S. support for the coup that overthrew Iranian democracy in 1953.
Not surprisingly, there hasn't exactly been a groundswell of popular support in the United States for President Ahmadinejad's suggestion. Just 11% of U.S. voters think America should apologize for "crimes" against Iran, according to a poll from Rasmussen.
Of course, if you know anything about the United States, you wouldn't leap to the conclusion that Americans, as a country, are a bunch of jerks who can't admit when they've done anything wrong. Occam's Razor suggests a simpler explanation: most Americans have little knowledge about the history of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. As far as they know, the U.S. hasn't done anything wrong. So why should we apologize?
Unfortunately for us, outside our borders U.S. foreign policy isn't judged according to what we know, but according to what our government does and has done. And it is well known in Iran and throughout the Middle East that the U.S. (at the urging of and with the assistance of the UK) organized a coup against the democratically-elected Iranian government of Mohammed Mossaedgh in 1953, in retaliation for Mossaedgh's stubborn insistence that Iran's oil belonged to Iranians. And for the next twenty-five years, the U.S. kept in power a dictatorship in Iran, actions justified in no small measure by the alleged need to protect "our oil" that God had misplaced "under their sand."
[To brush up on your history, read Stephen Kinzer's excellent account, a tour de force of accessible writing, or watch the 6 minute version here.]
If you know this history, the proposal that the U.S. apologize for overthrowing Iranian democracy seems a lot more reasonable. Imagine that the shoe were on the other foot. Suppose that in 1953, when someone who is now 65 was 10 years old, Iran, together with the British (something we have in common with Iran is the experience of Britain as a colonial power), organized a coup that overthrew the democratic government of the United States and replaced it with a dictatorship that lasted until 1979, when someone who is 39 today was ten years old. And now comes Iran talking about improved relations. Do you think that no-one in the United States would suggest that Iran acknowledge its role in the coup as a step to improving relations?
But if it is reasonable for Iranians to propose that the U.S. apologize for its role in overthrowing Iranian democracy and installing a dictatorship, would it be feasible for the U.S. to do so? I maintain that it would not only be feasible, but useful.
While 1953 is recent enough that there are people alive who remember it, it is long enough ago that those directly responsible for the coup are long gone. In this way it differs from admitting, for example, that Bush Administration officials authorized torture in violation of U.S. and international law - that admission could have immediate legal consequences for the responsible officials.
In contrast, acknowledging the U.S. role in the 1953 coup would not put anyone at risk of prosecution, and would not harm us in any way.
On the contrary, it could be a game-changer in U.S. relations with the Muslim world - indicating that there really is a new guy at the helm.
Is there a precedent? There sure is: a close one. In 1999, President Bill Clinton gave a "near-apology" for the U.S. role in Guatemala's civil war.
Guatemala City, March 10 - President Clinton expressed regret today for the U.S. role in Guatemala's 36-year civil war, saying that Washington "was wrong" to have supported Guatemalan security forces in a brutal counterinsurgency campaign that slaughtered thousands of civilians.
Clinton's statements marked the first substantive comment from the administration since an independent commission concluded last month that U.S.-backed security forces committed the vast majority of human rights abuses during the war, including torture, kidnapping and the murder of thousands of rural Mayans.
"It is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report was wrong," Clinton said, reading carefully from handwritten notes. "And the United States must not repeat that mistake. We must, and we will, instead continue to support the peace and reconciliation process in Guatemala."
Clinton's aides said the president had thought for some time about how to word his near-apology. The Guatemalan military received training and other help from the U.S. military in an era when the United States supported several Latin American rightist governments fighting leftist insurgents.
The "original sin" of the U.S. role in Guatemala's civil war was the U.S.-organized overthrow of the democratic government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 - the year after it overthrew democracy in Iran.
If President Clinton could "near-apologize" for the U.S. role in Guatemala, is it beyond the realm of imagination that President Obama could "near-apologize" for the U.S. overthrow of democracy and support of dictatorship in Iran?
If President Obama did so, mightn't it be a "game-changer" in U.S. relations with Iran? What would it cost us to merely state the truth? And doesn't the righteous man admit fault when he has the opportunity to do so?
Many Americans would be justifiably proud of President Obama if he would apologize to Iran for the 1953 overthrow of Iranian democracy on behalf of the United States. Patch Adams told me this morning: "when you write about this, please say that I support it."