The US’s offer to join Britain, France and Germany in pursuing direct talks with Iran offers the only realistic, if still slim, chance of settling the controversy over Iran’s nuclear ambitions – short of a conflict that would set fire to a Middle East already in turmoil and unleash Iranian retaliation within and beyond the region.
That does not alter the fact that there is nothing whatsoever to suggest the Islamic Republic and the republic led by George W. Bush are ready to talk, let alone negotiate on what divides them. There may simply be too much bad blood on both sides.
The US has never forgotten how its forces were driven out of Beirut by pro-Iranian truck-bombers during the Lebanese civil war, never forgiven the Tehran embassy siege after the 1979 revolution and the botched attempt to rescue its hostages. Nor has it forgotten the Americans held hostage in Beirut in the 1980s and the Iran-Contra fiasco where it was sucked into arms-length arms deals with Tehran to try to release them. It has never accepted the survival of Hizbollah, the formidable, Tehran-backed Shia Islamist movement that drove Israeli forces out of Lebanon.
Iran, for its part, neither forgives nor forgets the 1953 Anglo-American coup against the nationalist Mossadegh government, or how the west condoned Iraq’s 1980 invasion of Iraq and then armed Saddam Hussein as he rained rockets on its cities and chemical shells on its troops. All that was long before Mr Bush made the mullahs eligible for regime change in his 2002 Axis of Evil speech.
These are livid scars on the psyches of both these proud nations, a legacy that is very much alive in the visceral mutual mistrust of their rulers.
The legacy of Beirut is particularly hard for Americans to overcome. Shia forces in Lebanon sponsored by Iran – which would later coalesce into Hizbollah – inflicted arguably the worst humiliation suffered by US forces since Vietnam. The American embassy in Muslim west Beirut was destroyed by bombers in April 1983 and its annex in Christian east Beirut was blown up a year later, rubbing salt into the wound of the 52 Americans held hostage for 444 days at the embassy in Tehran. Worse still was the truck-bombing that killed 241 US marines in October 1983, triggering the withdrawal of American forces four months afterwards. Twenty years later, Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state in the first Bush administration, would describe Hizbollah as “the A Team” of international terror – more lethal than al-Qaeda – and owing a “blood debt” to Americans the US intended to collect.
Iran, too, is scarred by serial invasions and a century of foreign meddling in its politics. All Iranians, including the many who despise the ruling mullahs, have hardwired into them the memories of how Britain, Russia and the US invaded their country during the second world war to seize the trans-Iranian railroad, and how an Anglo-American plot toppled Mohammad Mossadegh for presuming to nationalise Iran’s oil industry.
Iran, moreover, is the one country in recent times that has actually experienced the terror of being attacked by weapons of mass destruction – Iraqi chemical weapons that ultimately can be sourced to western suppliers.
This is not a promising historical backdrop for talks and, unsurprisingly, the tentative contacts between the two sides have excited little hope of détente.
When Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who preached a “dialogue of civilisations” with the west rather than the ritual ranting against “the Great Satan”, was elected president in 1997, it looked for a while as though President Bill Clinton would seek a rapprochement with Iran analogous toRichard Nixon’s breakthrough with China.
Such was the scale of Mr Khatami’s landslide that the theocrats and vested commercial interests built up by the Islamic revolution were stripped of legitimacy and unsure of the loyalty of their enforcers. But the smiling and silky Iranian president was ultimately rebuffed by the US, even while he was being sabotaged by politically isolated but institutionally powerful clerics and powerbrokers grouped around Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the unelected Supreme Leader.
Notoriously, in May 2003, Iran under a weakened Khatami offered to address US concerns on nuclear weapons and terrorism, sort out their differences on Iraq, and cooperatein pursuit of a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Washington spurned the offer.
This was not just because the Bush administration and its leading hawks, vice-president Dick Cheney and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, were pumped up by ostensible victory in Iraq – Baghdad had fallen a month earlier and President Bush had just completed his “Mission Accomplished” photo-op. For, at this seeming peak of its power, Washington had still managed to hold its nose and sit down at the same table with the North Korean Stalinists. Iran’s road-map was also similar in scope to the disarmament agreement that had justseen Libya and the promiscuous terror-sponsor Muammer Gaddafi graduate from the ranks of rogue states. There is simply something more visceral about Iran.
The US has, nevertheless, put out some feelers. To encourage the 2004 uranium enrichment moratorium Iran reached with the EU3, Washington lifted its veto on Iran negotiating accession to the World Trade Organisation and its embargo on spare parts for Iran’s civil aircraft. The US and Iran even cooperated during the Afghanistan war and in the run-up to the Iraq war.
But the Bush administration soon accused Tehran of destabilising Iraq and, improbably, of colluding with al-Qaeda terror attacks in Saudi Arabia. It showed signs of using the Mujahedin-e Khalq, an Iraq-based Iranian paramilitary cult on the US terrorist list since 1997, as a pawn against Iran, amid reports that American special forces were stirring up Iran’s Arab, Azeri and Baluch minorities against its Persian, Shia majority. Nothing Iran might offer, it seemed, would be sufficient so long as it remained an Islamic republic, while what the US was doing looked more like an attitude than a policy.
Iran’s attitudes are confusing too, mixing victimhood with the innate sense of cultural superiority of an ancient civilisation. It is paranoid but breast-beatingly arrogant at the same time.
After the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Iran is almost encircled by US forces. Yet Iran is the single clearest beneficiary of the Iraq invasion, which overturned the nearly 1,000-years old dominance of Sunni Islam in the country and the region and empowered its Shia coreligionists. American forces are bogged down in Iraq. Washington, in Tehran’s eyes, blinked first by authorising Zalmay Khalilzad, US ambassador in Baghdad, to open talks with Iran on Iraqi security. If attacked, moreover, Iran has the ability to retaliate through proxies and allies in Iraq and Syria, in Lebanon and Palestine, as well as to destabilise the Gulf.
Iran has other reasons to feel confident. Oil revenues are high and demand for its energy riches has never been higher. With the election of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the mercurial and messianic successor to President Khatami, the theocrats are political masters in their own house. The US’s attempted diplomatic siege has united the nation around the nuclear issue, making the right to technology and deterrence a totem like the nationalisation of oil half a century ago.
Iran’s security concerns are now so mixed up with its sense of entitlement that any bargain with the US would have to give it status as well as security. But Washington seems only to have steeled itself to try to deal diplomatically with a problem, not to consecrate a regional power. This is going to be a difficult conversation.
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