Finding a Way Forward With Iran

By Doug Bennett

This is a response to our question of the week. You can read all of the responses here.

This fall there are glimmers of hope for better relations with Iran.  There has even been a recent telephone exchange between the Presidents of the two countries. Are these glimmers just fool’s gold, or might there be real possibilities?

In recent years, a key issue in contention between the U.S. and Iran has been the prospect of Iran’s becoming a nuclear power.  The next round of the negotiations over this issue are scheduled to begin on November 7. Those at the table will be diplomats from the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain, and Germany – the so-called P5+1. Iran now has the capability to refine uranium into weapons grade material. The U.S. has been staunchly opposed to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons; the Iranians contend that their envisioned uses of nuclear power are entirely peaceful. The United States has imposed economic sanctions against Iran and persuaded most other countries to join it in imposing these sanctions, which have pinched hard.

The United States has plenty of other grievances with Iran beyond the worry about nuclear weapons. In 1979, Iranians took control of the U.S. embassy in Teheran and held 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days. Iran supports Hezbollah, and the U.S. believes Hezbollah is responsible for many terrorist acts in the Middle East. Hezbollah is now fighting in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime.

But Iran has a fistful of grievances against the United States. In 1988, a U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser shot down an Iranian commercial flight over the Strait of Hormuz killing 290 civilians, including 66 children. A few months earlier, the United States had attacked two Iranian oil platforms, and sunk two Iranian warships, an action that stemmed from U.S. support for Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. In 2002, President George W. Bush labeled Iran as one of the three countries (with Iraq and North Korea) forming an “axis of evil.”

The largest Iranian grievance of all, however, is the 1953 coup d’etat the United States engineered to topple the elected Iranian administration of Mohammed Mossadeq, and to install Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as a dictator. Iranians who defend the 1979 hostage taking justify it as an act to prevent the United States from undermining the Iranian Revolution that deposed the Shah and brought to power the Islamic government of Ayatollah Khomeini – for them a real possibility given the 1953 coup.

This brief account just touches the surface of a stressed relationship. It will take a great deal of hard work to build a peaceful, constructive relationship between the United States and Iran.

President Obama took an important step when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly last month.  The mistrust between the two countries, he acknowledged, “has deep roots.”  “Iranians have long complained of a history of U.S. interference in their affairs, and America’s role in overthrowing an Iranian government during the Cold War.” In response, Iran, too, took a step. Six days after Obama’s speech, Iran’s recently elected President Hassan Rouhani telephoned Obama.

Those are baby steps, but building trust will take many such baby steps. Both countries need to dial back off the posture that the other is wholly to blame for the tensions and recognize that there is much they can do together. This will be especially tricky because both countries have religious fundamentalists who will push their governments to see the other as evil incarnate. Both governments need to tune out the war-inclined zealots.

The key to a more sensible U.S. policy toward Iran will be showing respect to Iran, its government and its people. Iran is a large country with a deep history and culture. It expects to be a regional power, and the U.S. is better off acknowledging this. Conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan (for example) will be more tractable if Iran is included in efforts to bring peace.

The U.S. needs to recognize that its military presence near Iran’s borders (at sea, in Turkey, in Saudi Arabia, in Afghanistan) is a standing affront. Should we trust Iran’s denial that they are developing nuclear weapons? So long as we refuse to dismantle our own nuclear arsenal and station troops in Iran’s backyard, we have no basis for urging restraint on their part. Imagine if the U.S. withdrew its troops from the region and began unilateral dismantling of its nuclear weapons.


Douglas C. Bennett is President Emeritus of Earlham College and a member of Richmond First Friends in Richmond, Indiana. He lives in Maine.


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