U.S.-Iran relations have been affected by a series of tragic historical incidents and a long-running geopolitical competition over power and influence in the Middle East. Iran views the U.S. presence in the region not only as a security threat, but as a deterring force against its ambitions. The United States also views Iran’s actions as destabilizing and seeks to contain its rise by employing a variety of diplomatic and economic tools. This mutual hostility and mistrust have created an atmosphere that fosters miscalculation, and could easily escalate to another conflict in the region.
Despite some deep-rooted issues, I believe that the rational choice for Iran and the United States is to adopt a cooperative course, and work on the framework of a potential detente, which can be mutually beneficial for both countries and the region. The purpose of this piece is to summarize some of the issues that need to be addressed in working out such a plan.
Three important historical episodes continue to overshadow the U.S.-Iranian relations. In 1953, the Eisenhower administration, fearful of a Communist takeover, overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government and restored the young Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to power. The Clinton administration addressed this issue, in March 2000, by accepting the U.S. role in overthrowing Prime Minister Mosssadeq. At that time, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright stressed that the U.S. policies at the time were “short-sighted.” Her remarks were part of a broader overture by the United States to normalize relations with Iran.
Then, in 1979, after the overthrow of the Shah, as the U.S. government was still struggling to adapt to a fundamentally different regime, a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took hostage 52 American diplomats for 444 days. After the incident, the Carter administration severed diplomatic relations with Iran and ordered the Iranian assets in the United States to be frozen. While Iranian officials argue that their actions at the time “saved” the revolution, the embassy takeover remains as one of the key outstanding issues in U.S.-Iran relations. Iranians should bear their fair share of responsibility for the problems that have arisen in the U.S.-Iran relations and accept the fact that their actions not only violated one of the few remaining inviolable norms in international relations, but also put Iran in severe diplomatic isolation.
The last incident that I believe still affects the U.S. Iran relationship is the downing of the Iranian passenger plane by the U.S. Navy in 1988. The incident took the lives of 290 civilians. While the U.S. government agreed to pay compensation to the families of the victims, it never apologized for its mistake. As a prerequisite for a potential detente, I believe that these last two remaining issues should be addressed and resolved. In fact, both Iranian and American officials should take their fair share of responsibility for the two countries to be able to move forward.
The experience of Sino-American relations during the Cold War can serve as a model in a potential detente with Iran. While the Nixon administration was pursuing a pathway to lessen the possibility of future conflicts and undermine the alliance between the Communist bloc, the Chinese also saw the benefits of an engagement with the United States. Facing an imminent threat from the Soviet Army, China decided to open-up to Nixon’s overtures for a rapprochement.
While Iran is not facing a similar imminent threat, is much less powerful than China, and perhaps not as strategically important, Iran and China share some interesting characteristics. Both Iran and China come from ancient civilizations and a long tradition of statehood in their regions. This common background uniquely affects their interactions with foreign powers. Furthermore, both countries strive to become the regional hegemon and both view the United States as a deterring force. Finally, both the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China have demonstrated that, when needed, they are willing to sacrifice their anti-American ideology in favor of realpolitik. In the Iranian case, for example, Ayatollah Khamenei, facing increasing international pressure, invoked a “heroic flexibility” tactic to negotiate with the United States over the nuclear issue. In the author’s opinion, Iran and China have both distanced themselves from their revolutionary nature and are increasingly making decisions based on a cost-benefit analysis; however, in the Iranian case, this analysis is strongly affected simultaneously by Persian nationalism and xenophobia. In its approach toward Iran, the United States should be mindful of the fact that Iranians under the pressure of threats act in ways that are less “rational” and more inflexible.
Iran is in a constant competition over power and influence in the Persian Gulf. This waterway serves as Iran’s lifeline and is pivotal to its security and survival. One of the major concerns of Iran is the presence of the U.S. military in this region. Iran sees this presence as a major security threat and believes that this presence is aimed at curbing its rise. A potential detente should address this issue. While it is likely that Iran would remain skeptical of the Americans’ intentions, the United States can ease Iran’s concerns by reassuring that this presence is not directed against Iran’s legitimate security concerns.
The Islamic Republic also should recognize the U.S. interests in the region, including its commitment to protect its allies. One of the major impediments in improving the U.S.-Iran relations is the issue of Israel, America’s closest ally in the region. As the self-proclaimed vanguard of the Islamic world, the Islamic Republic is unlikely to recognize Israel; however, one should keep in mind that many of America’s allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (who have strategic cooperation with the United States), have not recognized Israel either. Therefore, the issue of Israel by itself should not stop Iran and the United States from entering negotiations for a comprehensive package.
In working out such a plan, Iran should agree to tone down its rhetoric against Israel and pledge not to take any direct or indirect actions against Israel’s interests. Iran could also follow up on its previous offer to help to transform Hezbollah into a merely political organization in Lebanese politics. In return, the United States should use its influence over Israel and offer Iran a “negative security assurance.” After all, recently, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that if Iran changes its policy toward Israel, “we [Israel] will change ours [policy].” As a part of the potential package, the U.S could reciprocate Iran’s actions by putting the Mojahedin-E Khalq (MEK), an organization that Iran deems a terrorist group, back on the State Department’s terrorist groups list. These proposals require a strong political will and determination in both Tehran and Washington, as there are many factors that affect U.S.-Iran relations.
America’s allies in the region pose a serious challenge to any potential detente between Iran and the United States. The Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, fear that an opening in the U.S.-Iran relationship will increase Iran’s power and influence in the region, changing the balance of power in Iran’s favor. They fear that once Iran resolves its issues with the United States, it will increase its support for Shia minorities of the region, seriously challenging the Arab countries’ security. Saudi Arabia’s bloody campaign in Yemen to repel the Iran-backed Houthis is a testament to this argument.
There is also a concern among Arab states that the U.S. has softened its tone toward Iran and is no longer committed to their defense. They believe that once the U.S. reaches a detente with Iran, it will abandon the Arab states and turn to Iran to meet its security needs. In the author’s opinion, the United States should embrace a balancing role by defusing the tensions between Iran and the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. The United States should encourage its allies, especially Saudi Arabia, to negotiate with the Iranians to “share” their neighborhood; given the deep hostilities between Persians and Arabs, this will be a difficult, but not an impossible task.
In the absence of official diplomatic relations, Iran and the United States have engaged in so-called “Track II diplomacy” to resolve their disputes. In recent years, the Sultanate of Oman has also showed to be a reliable intermediary between the two countries. Unlike other Arab countries of the region, Oman has maintained a close relationship with Iran and also enjoys a close friendship with the United States. The secret negotiations that eventually led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) were held in Masqat, the capital of Oman, and Sultan Qaboos is widely known to be mediating between the United States and Iran. Using the past experiences as a groundwork, the “Omani Channel” could be used for initiating the process for a comprehensive peace package between Iran and the United States.
The speedy release of American sailors who had inadvertently entered Iranian waters and the prisoner swap exemplify the significance of direct talks in the post-JCPOA era. Iran and the United States should continue to engage in direct talks to address their issues and find realistic solutions to reach a sustainable peace. Both countries should accept their fair share of responsibility for the past, and be willing to move forward. Iran should recognize the U.S. commitment to protect its vital interests in the region and pledge not to take any actions against those interests. The United States, for its part, should in practice demonstrate to Iranians that it does not pursue a regime change policy and recognize Iran’s legitimate security concerns.
A detente would serve the interests of both Iran and the United States by bringing two former strategic allies back together. For the United States, the presence of Iran can be a bulwark against the threat of extremist groups (e.g. ISIS). Iran, like the United States, views these groups as a security threat and has set to eliminate their threat. A detente with Iran will further serve the interests of the United States by bringing more stability to one of the most volatile regions of the world. Iranians also would benefit from a detente by resolving one of their major security issues, the presence of foreign troops in the Persian Gulf.
As I previously stated, a potential comprehensive package would require a strong political will both in Tehran and Washington. For now, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, intransigently opposes any negotiations with the United States. In Washington, also, the position of the coming Trump administration on Iran remains unclear but signals to date are not positive. One thing is certain however: in international relations anything is possible.
Sina Azodi is a former Research Assistant at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a graduate of Elliott School of International Affairs (B.A & MA), George Washington University. He focuses on Iran’s foreign policy and U.S.-Iranian relations.