US-Iran relationship : Poison rhetoric and policy paralysis
L Bruce Laingen was working as a senior US Foreign Service officer in Tehran in 1979 when student protestors — caught up in the fervour of Iran’s Islamic Revolution — seized the US embassy and irrevocably changed the course of relations between the two nations. Laingen and 51 other US diplomats endured 444 days in captivity until their release on Jan. 20, 1981. On that day, as he prepared to board the Algerian airliner that would finally take him to freedom, the US charge d’affaires turned to one of his Iranian captors and said, “I look forward to the day your country and mine can have a normal diplomatic relationship.”
Next Sunday will mark 28 years exactly since the US cut off diplomatic, business, and military ties with Iran in response to the hostage crisis. At a discussion sponsored by the Centre for Global Justice and Reconciliation at Washington’s National Cathedral on Monday, panelists engaged in a sobering debate rarely seen on the US broadcast news outlets or, it seems, in the halls of Congress and the White House. And the current stakes, they agreed, could not be any higher.
The rhetoric has reached a noxious fever pitch: Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bewildering Holocaust denial mixed with President George W Bush’s warnings of an impending “World War III” should Iran acquire the means to develop nuclear weapons. Citing the “poison rhetoric and policy paralysis that have characterised conduct of both countries,” Laingen said: “We can all agree that the wall of mistrust is damn high. It will be difficult to remove.”
Against the backdrop of US failures in Iraq, Washington’s bellicosity towards Iran has intensified. The Bush administration last week imposed the most sweeping set of unilateral sanctions on Iran since 1979, and proceeded with its controversial decision to brand the Quds unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps as a “terrorist organisation” for its alleged proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the Quds Force’s alleged support of “terrorism” in Iraq.
“The label of the word terrorist is so devoid of meaning now, it’s hypocritical,” said Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times bureau chief and author of the book “All the Shah’s Men”, about the 1953 Central Intelligence Agency-backed coup d’etat to oust democratically elected PM Mohammad Mossadeq. “First we find groups around the world we don’t like, then we find ways to label them as terrorists,” he said, and referred the US’s double-standard with regard to two Kurdish separatist groups that, on either side of Iraq’s borders, attack Turkish and Iranian troops. “One [the Kurdish Workers Party] is a terrorist, the other [Party for Free Life in Kurdistan] receives support from us,” he said.
Bush’s hard line has also drawn criticism from presumed international allies, such as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who likened Washington’s recent sanctions to “mad people wielding razor blades.” Russia occupies a seat on the UN Security Council and maintains military and economic relations with Iran. Tehran remains defiant in the face of Washington’s pressure to monitor its nuclear programme, a process that Washington alleges would give the Iranians the technology to develop nuclear arms.
Analysts on Monday night said the current tensions underscore Washington’s continued inability to understand Iran, its history, culture, the aspirations of its citizens, and the effects of the US’s ill-fated policies on the overall psyche of Iranians. “There is a fundamental sympathy for democracy [in Iran] ... Iranians have a democratic consciousness that is unique in the Middle East,” said Kinzer.
“Had it not been for the fact that the democratic government came to power in the 1950s, and became obsessed with the great project of nationalising the Iranian oil reserves, there wouldn’t be a 1953,” said Kinzer. “Had we [US] not overthrown the Mossadeq government in 1953, we might have had a thriving democracy in the heart of the Middle East for these past 50 years.”
The CIA-backed coup, code-named Operation Ajaz, was carried out during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s tenure and was supported by Britain. Using widespread bribery, the CIA overthrew Mossadeq and his cabinet and re-installed Iran’s unpopular pro-US dictator, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. And had it not been for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s 1981 invasion of Iran (and US support for that invasion), the mullahs may not have been able to consolidate their political power, according to Iran specialist Trita Parsi. “Khomeini survived, not in spite of, but because of the Iraqi invasion,” said Parsi.
The evening’s moderator, Republican Congressman Wayne Gilchrest, also offered his perspective: “For the Senate or House [of Representatives] to ramp up the rhetoric on the Revolutionary Guard as being terrorists, or insurgents, or rebels, only reduces the ability of that mistrust to subside,” he said. “It’s beyond time for us to negotiate with Iranians. It’s time for old men to talk, before they send young men to die.” — IPS