How the U.S. and Iran Keep Failing To Find a Peace They Both Want

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A grand bargain would serve everyone, which is why both countries have tried to put aside tensions and strike a deal. So why are the U.S. and Iran perpetually stuck in confrontation?

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U.S. President Barack Obama, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami have all attempted to reach out across the hostile U.S.-Iran divide / Reuters

The 30-year-old U.S.-Iran enmity is no longer a phenomenon; it is an institution. For three decades, politicians and bureaucrats in both countries have made careers out of demonizing each other. Firebrands in Iran have won political points by adding an ideological dimension to an already rooted animosity. Shrewd politicians, in turn, have shamelessly used ideology to advance their political objec­tives. Neighboring states in the Persian Gulf and beyond have taken advantage of this estrangement, often kindling the flames of division.

Israel and some of its supporters in the United States, in particular, have feared that a thaw in U.S. relations with Iran would come at the expense of America's special friendship with the Jewish state.

But the strategic cost to the United States and Iran of this pro­longed feud has been staggering. Harming both and benefiting nei­ther, the U.S.-Iran estrangement has complicated Washington's efforts to advance the peace process between the Israelis and Palestin­ians in the 1990s, win the struggle against al-Qaeda, or defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan and the insurgency in Iraq. Still, the strategic cost of this enmity has oftentimes been dwarfed by the domestic political cost to overcome it. In Washington, the political cost for attempting to resolve tensions with Iran has simply been too great and the political space too narrow to justify starting down a fraught and uncertain path to peace with Iran. Political divisions, in turn, have paralyzed Tehran at key intervals, with vying political factions not wishing to see their competitors define the outcome of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement or get credit for reducing tensions.

"The moment was lost," David Miliband told me

The hostility has been institutionalized because either too many forces on both sides calculate that they can better advance their own narrow interests by retaining the status quo, or the predictability of enmity is preferred to the unpredictability of peace making. Thus, over the years, this antipathy has survived -- and hardened -- because the cost of maintaining the status quo has not outweighed the risk of seeking peace -- until 2008, that is.

With the election of Barack Obama, the stars aligned for a radical shift in U.S.-Iran relations. Tensions between the United States and Iran had risen dramatically during the Bush administration, putting the two countries on the verge of war. While the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq put American troops on Iran's eastern and western borders, respectively, the defeat of the Taliban and the end of Saddam Hussein's reign also removed two of Iran's key regional rivals from the strategic chessboard. Freed from the burden of its long-standing enemies, Iran was now a fast-ascending power that astutely took advantage of America's inability to win the peace in the Middle East. At the same time, Iran's advancing nuclear program added more fuel to the fire. Increasingly, Iran's rise, combined with America's painful predicament in the region, rendered a continuation of the U.S.-Iran rift too costly. Iran and the United States were grav­itating toward a confrontation that neither could afford.

Meanwhile, the American public had turned against not only president George W. Bush's invasion of Afghanistan and occupation of Iraq, but also the ideological foundation of Bush's worldview. Previously, Beltway hawks maintained that negotiations and compro­mise were not mere tools of diplomacy, but rather rewards that should be granted only to states that deserved an opportunity to talk to the United States. Inspired by this philosophy, Bush refused to engage with Iran during his entire presidency, even on issues of such importance as Iraq and Afghanistan (with the exception of episodic instances of brief diplomatic outreach for tactical purposes). More­over, the neoconservative philosophy, viewing the United States as the source of legitimacy at home and abroad, dictated that talking to the autocratic rulers in Tehran would help legitimize Iran's theo­cratic and repressive government. But while refusing engagement with Iran upheld a sense of ideological purity for the Bush White House, it did nothing to address the growing challenge that Iran posed to the United States in the region. During the Bush presidency, Iran amassed more than 8,000 centrifuges for its nuclear program while expanding its influence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon.

This reality was widely acknowledged in the United States to­ward the end of the Bush administration. In March 2006 Congress appointed a bipartisan Iraq Study Group to assess the Iraq war and to make policy recommendations. One of the group's key endorse­ments was direct U.S. dialogue with Iran over Iraq and the situation in the Middle East--a stark refutation of the Bush White House ideology. And in September 2008, only two months before the U.S. presidential elections, five former secretaries of state -- Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Warren Christopher, Henry A. Kissinger, and James A. Baker III -- called on the United States to talk to Iran.

Then-Senator Obama recognized that unprecedented political space had emerged for new foreign policy thinking. So rather than shying away from the issue of diplomacy with Iran, Obama took the unusual step of making engagement with U.S. adversaries a central part of his foreign policy platform during the 2008 presidential elec­tion--something that, under normal circumstances in Washington, would have been considered political suicide. In the televised presi­dential debates, Obama boldly declared that it was "critical" that we "talk to the Syrians and the Iranians," and that those saying that the United States "shouldn't be talking to them ignore our own history."

Finally, the persona of Barack Obama himself was an important factor. He was a most unlikely candidate--and the most difficult one for the Iranian leadership to dismiss or vilify. Born to a Kenyan Muslim father and a American Midwestern mother, Obama spent most of his childhood in Hawaii and, later, in Indonesia, after his mother was remarried to an Indonesian. Having been exposed to both the Muslim and Christian religions, having grown up in a Third World country shortly after it had won its independence from colo­nial powers, and having the middle name Hussein--the name of one of the most revered figures in Shia tradition--Obama simply did not fit the Iranian stereotype of American, "imperialist" leaders--arro­gant, ignorant, and incapable of empathizing with the grievances of Third World states against Western powers.

Clearly, Obama recognized the historic opportunity that lay be­fore him. Only twelve and a half minutes into his presidency, he sought to seize it by extending America's hand of friendship in the hope that Iran would unclench its fist.

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Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, is the author of A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy with Iran.

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