How to Repair the U.S.-Iranian Relationship
America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present, by John Ghazvinian, (Knopf: 2021), 688 pages.
The U.S.-Iranian relationship is at one of the lowest points in its history. In the last few years, there have been several incidents that brought the two countries closer to open war than ever before. The lack of diplomatic relations and normal channels of communication make it likely that there will be more near-misses in the future unless there is a fundamental change in that relationship. The Biden administration has a short time to salvage the nuclear deal, and if for some reason it fails to do that the U.S. and Iran will likely fall back into the same old pattern of distrust and hostility that have characterized the relationship for the last four decades.
The antagonism between our governments is not only dangerous and harmful to the wider region, but it is also unnecessary. Iran doesn’t and can’t threaten the security of the United States, and the U.S. has less reason than ever to be deeply enmeshed in the affairs of the Middle East. The U.S. and Iran would both benefit tremendously from reestablished diplomatic and commercial ties, and a relationship with Tehran founded on mutual respect would assist the U.S. in negotiating settlements to many of the conflicts in the region.
In order to understand how the U.S.-Iranian relationship might be repaired and turned into something more constructive, it is essential that we learn from the full history of that relationship that extends beyond the usual grievances of 1953 and 1979. Luckily, there is an outstanding new book on the history of U.S.-Iranian relations that does just that. John Ghazvinian’s America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present is an impressive scholarly work that traces the development of U.S.-Iranian relations from the earliest days of traders and missionaries up through the disaster of the “maximum pressure” policy of the last four years. It is a story of multiple wrong turns and missed opportunities, but it also reminds us that there was a time when the U.S. stood up for Iranian national rights and Iranians saw America as a potential ally. That suggests that there could be a more constructive and normal relationship in the future, provided that we learn how to avoid stumbling into the same pitfalls that have plagued the relationship for most of the last century.
The book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the changing nature of the relationship between our countries. It is extensively researched and very well-written. One of the most interesting and important contributions that the book makes is to use both American and Iranian archival sources to reconstruct events. That naturally creates a richer and more complete picture of what happened, and it also reflects the author’s desire to close the massive gap in understanding that has opened up between Americans and Iranians. Anyone who reads the book will come away with a deeper understanding of the policy decisions and political upheavals that have shaped this relationship.
Ghazvinian starts with the earliest contacts between America and Iran. He finds that even among American colonists in the 18th century, there was tremendous interest in Persian civilization and contemporary events taking place in Iran at the time. The first direct ties came in the form of trade, and then during the 19th century expanded as American missionaries began their work among the Assyrian and Armenian Christian communities in northwestern Iran. Those missionary efforts yielded relatively few converts to Presbyterianism, but they established the schools that were responsible for educating future government officials well into the 20th century. It was one of those missionaries, Howard Baskerville, who fought and died in support of constitutionalism in 1909, and he has been remembered ever since as an example of American solidarity with the Iranian people. When the U.S. objected to the Anglo-Persian Agreement in 1919, the popular response was an overwhelming display of gratitude. “Tehran, for the first and last time in its history,” Ghazvinian writes, “was the scene of a pro-American riot.” There is much more to the U.S.-Iranian relationship than the coup and the revolution, and if we are going to bury the hatchet and rebuild the relationship we will need to look at the full history of the ties between our countries.
Following the U.S.- and U.K.-backed coup against Mohammed Mossadegh, the popular, elected prime minister, in 1953, the U.S. veered from a tight embrace of the Iranian government during the middle of the Cold War to the extreme alienation we have seen for the entirety of my lifetime in the wake of the revolution and the hostage crisis. The U.S.-Iranian relationship went from an unhealthy overindulgence of a despotic ruler to the severing of all ties, and there has been no serious effort to resume normal relations since then. Washington has seemed incapable of treating Iran normally: multiple administrations of both parties celebrated the shah’s government as an invaluable ally, and since 1979 multiple administrations of both parties have imagined the Islamic republic to be an exceptionally horrible adversary. For almost seventy years, the U.S. has made the mistake of exaggerating either the virtues or flaws of the Iranian government depending on its alignment with the U.S., and those distortions have led to excessive policies that punish the Iranian people. If we are to resume a constructive relationship with Iran, it has to be based on treating Iran as a normal country with legitimate rights and grievances of its own. It cannot be founded on ultimatums or new capitulations, and that also means that we have to banish all talk of regime change forever.
Reviewing the history of the relationship also offers some important lessons about the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Despite the very close relationship with the shah, Washington was almost comically oblivious to the developments taking place in the country under his rule. There were far too many influential people in Washington cheerleading for the shah instead of making sure that the policy served U.S. interests. U.S. policy during that period became increasingly indulgent to the point of providing the shah more military equipment than his government could possibly absorb. The U.S. didn’t just ignore the shah’s domestic abuses. It became so dependent on its client for information about what was happening in the country that Washington was truly blind to the dangers that came with supporting the shah. These are recurring errors that the U.S. makes with its clients, and in the Iranian case the error had unusually devastating consequences for the relations between our countries and for the people of Iran.
Ghazvinian’s history also reminds us that the critical failures of the Carter administration in the pivotal years before and during the revolution were in backing the shah to the hilt and refusing to deal with the new political reality that existed inside Iran. While other governments began engaging the new leadership, the U.S. remained aloof, and this fueled the fear that the U.S. was seeking a way to reinstall the shah. Carter had several opportunities to avoid the complete breakdown in U.S.-Iranian relations that took place, but each time he chose to follow the bad advice of his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski to take the more hard-line position. Contrary to the popular hawkish criticism that Carter undermined the shah, the record shows that he kept trying to prop him up when U.S. interests should have dictated putting distance between our government and the failing ruler. It is interesting to consider how differently things might have turned out for the U.S.-Iranian relationship if Carter had followed through on his own rhetoric about human rights and democracy.
If the U.S. is going to have a constructive relationship with Iran, it will have to reject regime change and adhere to a principle of non-interference in Iran’s internal affairs. Much of what has gone wrong in U.S. relations with Iran stems from failing to respect Iran’s sovereignty and independence, but if the U.S. were to change how it treats Iran it would likely find that the Iranian government would be willing to reciprocate. It has been the lack of reciprocity on the U.S. side that has so often disappointed and frustrated Iranian supporters of engagement. Because the U.S. was the first to violate the nuclear deal and the only one to leave it, it is incumbent on our government to take the first step by reentering the agreement and pledging an end to the economic warfare of the last three years. But the Biden administration should also be prepared to go beyond just reviving the nuclear deal by proposing a path towards normalization that could address the remaining outstanding disputes between our governments. That would be a bold and potentially risky move, but one that is necessary if the U.S. and Iran are ever going to break out of the pattern of mutual recriminations and resentment.