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Moving towards a New Dialogue?

by Bruce Byers

Mutual fears and misunderstandings built up over decades make it highly difficult for Iranians and Americans to enter into productive negotiations. Moreover, Iran’s revolutionary leaders need the “Great Satan” as an enemy in order to maintain internal control. Nonetheless, this essay argues, there is now an opportunity for both countries to advance their interests through diplomacy. Can they seize it? – Ed.

Now that there is increasing discussion about a possible meeting at the highest levels of the U.S. and Iranian governments, it is worth asking how this would advance U.S. foreign policy objectives for greater stability in the Middle East and minimize nuclear weapons proliferation. At the same time, it is worth asking what such a meeting might accomplish. How would it benefit Iran and its revolutionary leadership? What do both countries stand to gain through renewed dialogue?

Iran and the United States suffer under tremendous burdens of different civilizations, historical experiences, and cultural values. For the past 30 years many members of each country’s political elites have been determined to rush at the other in increasingly fruitless accusations, recriminations, and hatred. Much of what has passed for policy is the back side of the coin of fear. Washington is afraid of what Tehran might do with its missiles and nuclear research program. Tehran is afraid of what Washington (and Israel) might do to its economic and military infrastructure. Washington is engaged in building greater regional security by its presence in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Afghanistan, while Tehran is wary of the U.S. military presence, which it views as a threat and a de facto containment policy against Iran.

At the same time people in both countries face growing existential challenges to their social, economic, and political well being that their political leaders seem ill equipped to address. National economies are contracting, jobs are evaporating, capital and credit are nearly frozen, and anxieties are running high throughout the world. This is a time of opportunity for diplomacy but also a dangerous time because of increasing defensiveness among all of the state actors in this regional drama and the unpredictability of terrorist organizations.

Gestures toward Talks
Now, the first public gestures have been made that could lead to direct U.S.-Iran talks. This is the time to focus on differences in cultural values and perceptions as well as on agenda items for a new dialogue. In response to a question at his February 9 press conference President Obama expressed his respect for the Iranian people and their culture. He also pointed out key issues that divide our two countries and cautiously stated that he will look for opportunities to engage Iranian leaders.

More recently, on the thirtieth anniversary of the Iranian revolution, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated that, “the Iranian nation is ready to hold talks, but talks in a fair atmosphere with mutual respect.”

Taking an optimistic view, a high-level dialogue could result in confidence-building steps toward resolving security concerns in Tehran and Washington. Such steps could lead to lifting economic sanctions against Iran and greater transparency in Iran’s nuclear research program within an international framework monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency. This would address some U.S. security concerns while also creating greater space for Iran’s leaders to feel less threatened by the significant U.S. military presence in neighboring countries. If this stage of dialogue were reached, questions about the Israel-Palestine conflict could be more easily addressed. The possibility for increasing regional stability might prosper.

In a more pessimistic view of current regional realities, Iran’s revolutionary leaders have put themselves in a box of their own making since seizing U.S. diplomats in Tehran in November 1979 and declaring the United States an enemy of Iran. They remain adamant about the event that precipitated the 30-year enmity towards the United States: President Carter’s decision to allow the Shah to enter the United States for medical treatment on “humanitarian grounds.” They have also clung to a litany of American abuses to Iran’s sovereignty, beginning in World War II and extending to the toppling of Prime Minister Mossadegh and to the U.S.-backed reinstallation of the Shah as the head of state in Iran. More recently this litany has included accusations that the U.S. government is active in supporting a “soft revolution” against the 1979 revolution. They see this as a quiet, subterranean U.S. strategy for regime change.

Struggle of Wills
For three decades Washington has wanted Tehran to apologize for its seizure of our diplomats and for humiliating our president and the United States. During this time Tehran has pursued policies directed against the United States, Israel, and other U.S. allies in the Middle East. The Iranian revolutionaries see in Washington’s policies and pronouncements an unwavering U.S. effort to impose its will once more on their country, and they have worked to thwart any signs of such imposition. The stand-off over Iran’s nuclear research program is the most prominent manifestation in the Iranian-U.S. struggle of wills.

Where is there a basis for constructive dialogue? Currently, there appears to be almost none, although both countries would have much to gain from a new dialogue. Both sides are stuck at the level of cautious statements or polemics rather than substantive efforts to understand the other culturally and politically. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseyni Khamenei and his advisors likely have little understanding of or appreciation for American culture and America’s open and seemingly chaotic political system of checks and balances. They focus on Washington’s powerful influence on global economic policies and its projection of military force around Iran and see both as direct threats to Iran’s sovereignty.

Washington foreign policy advisors may understand Iran’s geo-strategic interests and machinations but probably have little understanding of deep-seated cultural traditions and social and political concerns. The historic importance and traditional role of religion in Iranian culture has long been a blind spot among U.S. policy makers, dating at least from the time I worked at the U.S. embassy in Tehran in the 1970s. And yet historian Samuel Huntington’s observation that cultural values and religion play important roles in shaping national identity and political behavior holds true for both countries. The 30-year stand-off would be ludicrous if millions of lives did not depend upon the ideas and decisions of a very small number of people in Tehran and Washington. The question is whether each side is willing to read the other side at a deeper socio-cultural level and find new ground for dialogue.

Building a Basis for Talks
If a basis for new dialogue can be found, then each side would do well to examine the other’s views of fair play and its traditions of problem solving and dispute resolution prior to any meeting of heads of state. Further, each side might review the other’s recent diplomatic history to better grasp differences in negotiating strategies and the use of formal and informal diplomatic gestures and language. These preliminary steps would help to ameliorate any tendencies toward unproductive, confrontational exchanges. They would expand the basis for talks and allow more subtle communication between the principals and their advisors to take place in a friendlier environment.

In the hearts and minds of its supporters the Iranian revolution exists because of the United States and its policies and actions. They may not admit this but they must sustain an adversarial relationship in the face of profound social and political changes ongoing in Iran. They may lose in the long run as increasing numbers of Iranians seek greater personal freedom, more educational and career opportunities, better access to international business and trade, and greater contact with Americans and others in the West. In the short run, the revolutionaries will continue to blame the United States for every ill that befalls their country because it is their way of retaining control over people, ideas, and resources within Iran.

Iran has a great wealth of talented, educated people who are at ease in professional circles around the world. This frightens many of the ideologues and leaders of the revolution. They threaten Iranians whom they suspect of close contacts with Americans or whom they do not like for whatever reasons, and throw many of them in prison or place them under house arrest and accuse them of espionage or worse. Yet the defenders of the revolution cannot stop the spread of ideas and the aspirations of the people. They know that Iran has a growing population of mostly younger, unemployed, and to varying degrees, educated people who seek greater opportunities and more freedom. Political, social, and cultural repression serves the revolution’s leaders as their chief mechanism for controlling social unrest and countering the influence of intellectual elites and individual dissidents, but it is a blunt tool that fosters resistance and international condemnation.

Blaming America to Maintain Power
The overt policy of blaming the “Great Satan” for internal problems is part of the adversarial relationship that Iran’s revolutionary leaders perpetuate to maintain their grip on power. They appeal to Iranians’ patriotic feelings and national identity by attacking the United States through mass demonstrations and state-controlled media, but such attacks do not create jobs or put food on people’s tables. Instead, they serve the revolutionary leadership as a well worn tool to divert popular attention from failed domestic policies, increasing unemployment, declining productivity, and rising prices. The revolutionaries are in a race to maintain control over the people and ideas that they view as undermining the revolution, but they cannot outrace the swelling generations of younger Iranians who aspire to a different life. And ultimately they cannot control all aspects of personal and national identity despite their propaganda and control of information.

The potential of the Iranian people to create and sustain a more open, prosperous and democratic society has existed for generations but has been frustrated by autocratic rule during the reign of the Shah and, since 1979, the ideologically rigid strictures of Iran’s revolutionary leaders. These strictures hinder the exploration and implementation of countless ideas among different groups and individuals throughout Iranian society because ideas must first be run through the eye of an ideological needle. The strictures also give rise to imaginative ways of avoidance, inventiveness, and subversion.

Faced with a stagnant economy and rising prices, the government tries to mollify people through subsidies that resemble a giant Ponzi scheme. Iran’s economic woes do not rest solely on U.S. sanctions as Tehran has long claimed, but the revolutionary leadership uses the sanctions to attack U.S. policies and win sympathy among various strata of Iranian society. Meanwhile they wrestle with social and economic dysfunctions, many of which already existed before the revolution. International fluctuations in the price of oil and natural gas are also beyond their control, as they were beyond the Shah’s control.

Feeling Threatened
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseyni Khamenei embodies all of the antipathy against the United States that the 1979 revolution incorporated and that its supporters continue to promulgate to this day. He has lived long enough to have experienced the long hand of U.S. foreign policy in Iranian affairs over the past six decades. When he was elected to the presidency of Iran in 1981, Ayatollah Khamenei vowed to eliminate American influences in his country. Today, he stands astride a legacy of revolution and oppression that has frustrated Iran’s potential for greater international cooperation. For three decades Khamenei and other senior revolutionary leaders have tried to destroy every vestige of the Shah, and yet they have also felt threatened by his ghost and by regional and global developments for which they must take some responsibility.

Today, Tehran operates in regional affairs from a position of relative weakness and has developed close relations with various anti-U.S. and anti-Israel catspaws who extend Iranian power to other parts of West and Southwest Asia. Iran’s leaders probably perceive their actions as countermeasures against Israel and the presence of U.S. military forces in the region and as manifestations of Iran’s national identity and regional power.

It is no surprise that Iran’s leaders view American military forces in the region as a destabilizing factor in Iran’s national security. They cite a long history of U.S. political and military actions in and against Iran dating from World War II and use this as their justification for protecting the revolution against all sources of subversion, real and imagined. Yet at the same time they must face historical and cultural differences that have tended to isolate Iran from its Arab neighbors to the west and from its Afghan neighbors to the east. It is easier for them to place the blame for any international friction on the U.S. presence in the region and to offer support to individual groups willing to fight the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan. They do not recognize any U.S. security interests in their part of the world and are not inclined to modify their own policies in light of criticism from the international community. They have willingly taken up a reactive stance in regional political developments that has not served them well, and they have discounted any stabilizing effect that U.S. and other military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan may have had since 2001.

Good Will and Fear
In contrast there is much good will for Iran in many nations, but there is also fear of what Iran’s leaders might do to project Iranian power regionally and globally. Summit level talks between Washington and Tehran could create a more open environment for further discussions between Iran and other nations and also lessen tensions that have been building throughout the Middle East. This would be, perhaps, the best outcome of an initial meeting between heads of state. At the same time it is unlikely that the revolutionary leadership in Tehran will change its attitude towards the United States for reasons discussed above. Nevertheless, if Washington were to prepare carefully for a summit and acknowledge specific historic events in which the United States played a role in Iranian affairs, the outcome might exceed what probably would be low expectations in both capitals for any improvement in understanding and cooperation.

The United States has a long history of negotiating with its adversaries, especially with the Soviet Union over many years. It is currently in talks with North Korea’s leaders. It has successfully reached agreements with Libya’s government that have led to Tripoli’s abandonment of a nuclear arms program and the reestablishment of bilateral relations. A successful summit meeting between Washington and Tehran could send a powerful signal throughout the Middle East and the world that each country is once more interested in advancing greater cooperation and understanding with the other. Such a successful summit could burst the box into which both countries have stuffed their fears, disagreements and resentments for so long. Even a small crack in the side of that box could produce positive change.

The views expressed here are entirely the author’s own and do not reflect any official U.S. government policy.

No publication or reproduction in any media is authorized without the author’s permission.

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