Wed, Dec 08, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Can US-Iran relations be revived?

The clerics in power in Tehran have pursued a rabidly anti-US policy. But most of Iran's people are actually pro-US, and as Kissinger said, the two countries have many compatible interests

By Karim Sadjadpour

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

During World War II, Allied soldiers occupied Iran, using the country as a way station to transport supplies from the Persian Gulf to the Soviet Union. This was Iran's first exposure to Americans.

"They arrived in our country with a certain innocence," said the respected Iranian historian Kaveh Bayat, "and without any colonial pretenses."

The Americans' supply train would regularly pass through my father's ancestral village, Arak, then a scenic oasis of green gardens and fruit orchards.

"Whenever we heard the train coming," my father once told me, "all the young boys in the village would run as fast as we could through the apple orchard to greet the passing Americans. They would smile and wave and throw us whatever gifts they happened to have -- playing cards, chewing gum, lifesaver candies ... For us they were like heroes from another world."

So much has changed since then. Iran's 1979 revolution did away with the pro-US, undemocratic regime of the Shah, bringing in its place the anti-US, undemocratic regime of the clerics. Relations between the US and Iran have been officially non-existent since a group of radical students stormed the US embassy in Tehran -- 25 years ago this week -- taking 66 Americans hostage for 444 days. Sixty years ago, Arak was a humble village known to US troops for its grapes; today Pentagon officials hone in on it as an industrial city that is integral to Iran's worrisome nuclear program.

And yet few countries have a more paradoxical relationship than the US and Iran. While the Iranian regime continues to be belligerently anti-US, the Iranian people are overtly pro-US. While the governments in Tehran and Washington appear to be strategic archrivals, in the words of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, "there are few nations in the world with which the United States has less reason to quarrel or more compatible interests than Iran."

Indeed, Iran has likely benefited more than any other country from US-led regime changes in Afghanistan and Iraq, as both the Taliban and former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein were the country's sworn enemies.

But neither side seized the opportunity to build on this common ground, and today US-Iran relations are as antagonistic as they have been in years. For the US, Iran's nuclear ambitions, opposition to Israel, and support for extremist groups have become increasingly intolerable in the context of the war on terror.

Iran's long-standing opposition to relations with the US is a bit more complex. To be sure, many of Iran's ruling elites came of age politically during the anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist agitations of the 1960s and 1970s, and still cling to that worldview. Although their revolutionary zeal may have waned over the years, they still tend to share the outlook of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, who likened the relationship between Iran and the US to that "between a sheep and a wolf."

Ideological rigidity alone, however, does not explain Iran's often-gratuitous anti-Americanism. For Iran's political and military elite, any increased liberalization that would likely result from an opening of ties with the US represents a threat to their interests. From their perspective, Iran is now a closed party -- their party -- and the less who join in, the merrier. With the US bogged down in Iraq and oil prices hitting record highs, regime hardliners see little reason to compromise these days.

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