Archive for the ‘rapprochement’ Category

Talk to Me

March 21, 2009
Taghi Amirani’s impressive selection of cellphones.

“Today Iran, the UK and the US — tomorrow, The World,” first appeared on Taghi Amirani’s blog on March 10.

Tehran Bureau | comment

When I visit my home country Iran, I take an old Nokia 6320i with me. It uses an Iranian SIM with my Iranian number. Reception is great in almost all corners of the country. The phone, which carries my 300 or so contacts out there, is pretty basic, has some useful features including an OK camera. Of course this Nokia listens to me speaking Persian all the time and witnesses all manner of peculiar conversational gymnastics and maneuvers, that make communication between Iranians one of the most complex and multi-layered puzzles in the world. Try to decipher at your peril. You can talk to an Iranian for an hour and not receive or impart any useful information whatsoever. Or you can utter a short sentence and speak volumes with depth, meaning, poetry and emotion all wrapped in subtle and delicate nuance. It’s frustrating but I love it! This Nokia is well versed in “Persian speak” and can soon negotiate its own way around the maze of linguistic challenges. It has had a pretty hard time on my last two visits researching the “Fatherland” documentary.

When in the US I use a Nokia 6030 with my American T-Mobile SIM and number. This phone is so basic and innocent I have just recently introduced it to the joys of text. It has all my US-based friends and work colleagues on it and its ring-tone is the jingly ring ring, like the ones your hear in B&W movies with Bogart and Bergman. The conversations this phone listens to are often over-excited and long (me), are about arranging brunches all day, every day, and take place at airports, car rental offices, railway stations, and sometimes are with PBS/Nat Geo people and cool filmmakers. These American conversations are generally “what you hear is what you get” with two exceptions: US Foreign policy* (see below), and talking to Iranians (see above). But most of my US calls normally leave me uplifted and light. It’s that American upbeat, can do, positive thing, or it’s just me projecting. Either way this phone has a pretty easy time most of the time.

When in the UK, which is where I spend most of my time, I’m on the Nokia 6300 on the Orange network, which has a great reputation for supporting British cinema and filmmakers. This phone is slim, elegant and easy to use. Its camera is actually quite good, taking pictures with a certain level of grain that gives the photos a textured painterly look. It has hundreds of contacts on it covering just about everyone I know, including late night pizza and curry delivery joints, friends from 20 years ago to the new dentist I called today for an appointment. This Nokia gets the English version of me, sometimes witty in a self-deprecating way, sometimes bitingly sarcastic, but usually restrained. The 6300 has heard it all; late night calls from friends with a broken heart needing a listening ear, me talking nervously in clumsy Woody Allen style to girls I’ve had a crush on, me ranting at the plumber for not showing up, cold calls from marketing weirdoes, me pitching ideas to BBC execs…the lot. Boy, if this Nokia could talk…

Now, we can have a whole lot of very profound and complex discussions about cultural identity, how the language we speak shapes our personality, the different masks we wear, or how we think, feel or even experience the world depends on what language we speak. But that’s another blog.

My multi-phoned split identity world changed on 2nd February 2009 at the TED Fellows opening reception when the lovely Afdhel Aziz, Nokia’s Senior Marketing Manager, Global Sponsorships and Partnerships, pulled a fantastic magic trick out of a gift bag: Ladies and gentlemen, he gave us the Nokia E71.

The surprise sound of the fellows’ jaws dropping on the deck was deafening. Apparently this device can do just about everything short of making the tea in the morning when you wake up. And as if that wasn’t enough Nokia have also unlocked it so it can work anywhere in the world.

And THERE is my chance at last. No more 3-phone Tags. Now that I can merge all my contacts from Iran, UK, US and all over, into one single phone with unlimited contact memory; now that I can talk to any of them at anytime from anywhere from one phone, anything could happen. I applied to the TED Fellowship on the premise that if the TED community is to survive and flourish it needs someone like me bridging East and West. Making peace and love between Iran and the US first, and the West in general.

Let my new Nokia E71 be the metaphor for that bridge, let it connect people by talking via me. Let it bring peace to all mankind and women who are just as kind.

My friend and TED Fellow Rom Feria (Mac Genius) has just emailed to say I need to update the firmware on my new phone. What? Is this thing out of date even before I’ve opened the box?!


*In the dark days of Bush foreign policy in relation to Iran, whenever he said “all options are on the table”, that meant we’re willing to bomb the hell out of people, if they don’t do as we say. Now the options on Obama’s table seem to include talking to everyone. Why even just this week he said he would consider talking to the Taliban. Well, bombing the hell out of two ancient civilisations in the Middle East doesn’t seem to have made them love Americans more. So talking may be an option. Afdhel, sponsorship and partnership opportunities here for Nokia?!

Taghi Amirani is a lapsed Iranian physicist, devout documentary filmmaker, and TED Fellow 2009.

U.S.-Iran: A Good Precedent

February 23, 2009

The Peace Palace at the Hague. Photo by Docski.

A channel for U.S.-Iranian diplomacy.

Tehran Bureau | comment

About 28 years ago, the United States and the fledgling Islamic Republic of Iran made promises to each other that they put down in writing: “It is now and will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran’s internal affairs,” stated the 1981 Algiers Accords, the executive agreement signed by Ronald Reagan. In return for that promise (among others) the Iranians released the 52 Americans that they held hostage for 444 inglorious days.

The ink was hardly dry before President Reagan and CIA Director William Casey started to fund operations against Iran by different exile groups — one headed by the shah’s former naval commander, then the Paris-based Front for the Liberation of Iran. While the Reagan administration was in secret negotiations with Iran, the CIA was providing a miniaturized television transmitter to Reza Pahlavi, son of the late Shah, for a clandestine broadcast into Iran.

On Sept. 5, 1986, the programming of two Iranian television stations were interrupted for 11-minutes, during which the heir to the Peacock Throne vowed his return. In its response in a radio broadcast, Tehran called the shenanigans a “puppet show” put on by “the terrorist government of Reagan.”

It was an extraordinary show. According to historian Theodore Draper’s book, A Very Thin Line, the United States was entertaining Ali Hashemi Bahramani — an officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hashemi Rafsanjani’s nephew — and so was a fellow by the name of Lt. Col. Oliver North.

Despite the fiasco known as the Iran-contra affair, successive U.S. administrations have adopted some form of its “sticks and carrots” approach in their dealings with Iran. As Iran moderated its ways over the next two decades — after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini — sanctions against it got tighter and U.S. regime-change talk nastier.

When Condoleezza Rice went to Congress requesting $75 million in “emergency funds to promote democracy in Iran,” a reporter from the BBC Persian Service questioned the sanity of such a plan. Wouldn’t this precipitate an Iranian crackdown on its fragile civil society? “Don’t you think that there will be a more sophisticated and better way to approach this issue?” he asked.

Apparently not. The U.S. State Department even posted the full transcript of the “off-the-record” background briefing on its Web site and prominently linked to it from its homepage that week in 2006. Almost on cue, Iranian officials stepped up pressure, clamped down on NGO’s, students, reformists, women rights activists, union leaders, doctors, academics, scientists, students, ethnic minorities, visiting Iranian Americans, journalists and many others, accusing them of being U.S.collaborators.

With the country surrounded by U.S. troops on three sides (in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf), and media stories about alleged U.S.-funded covert attacks against Iran by disaffected minority groups, the Iranian regime’s paranoia hardly needed to be further inflamed by U.S. “sticks.”

It may be that the United States cares so much for the “great Iranian people” it wants them to take up arms against their elected government. Certainly, the sanctions the United States has effected through the United Nations and elsewhere have affected the lives of ordinary Iranians far more than Iran’s own officials or its own Westernized elites.

So far, Barack Obama has maintained these policies, though with some calibration. As his administration makes overtures to Iran, he keeps “all options on the table,” appoints a Democratic hawk — remember Hillary Clinton’s talk of “obliterating” Iran last year? — to head the diplomatic arm of his government. There is now talk of appointing a more hostile hawk– Dennis Ross — as Iran envoy.

But there is a little hope for change (“we can believe in”) from these three tumultuous decades. The Algiers Accords that Iran and the United States adopted as a procedure for resolving disputes after the 1979 revolution has produced the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal. Since July1, 1981, representatives of Washington and Tehran have been engaged in fruitful negotiations. (A prominent international law scholar at Boalt Hall told me, “It’s the most successful example of international law in a century.”)

If the two arch-foes have enjoyed such a good track record in court — an acrimonious forum to begin with — why would diplomacy be a stumbling block?

The United States has stood by the letter of the law in the Claims Tribunal. When former hostages filed suit against Iran, the U.S. State Department stepped in to have it dismissed. And the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the Accords. The United States could show the same level of commitment in diplomatic talks — instead of the old method of “carrots and sticks.” Carrots and sticks is not diplomacy. Imagine the arrogance it carries when the idiom is explained in translation.

President Obama has said he was willing to meet with the leaders of Iran. Why not? Take all options off the table. Sit down to tea. Forget Clinton and Ross. Forget Ahmadinejad, or even a potential reformist president. Obama meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would be a profoundly new and genuine form of diplomacy.

And waiting is the Claims Tribunal, an open and transparent mode of cooperation between the two countries. (It even has its own Web site.) If diplomatic negotiations were newly opened, the Tribunal could be used to develop diplomatic processes.

It is quite possible that the United States could someday acknowledge Iran as an ally. Dropping “carrots and sticks” and adopting open and highest level diplomatic dialogue could accomplish this hope and great change for the Middle East region and the world.

And the Claims Tribunal is a potential starting point. It is a framework for agreement already in place.

Copyright © 2009 Golnoush Niknejad – distributed by Agence Global.

U.S. Deeds vs. Iran’s Clenched Fist (Part I)

February 10, 2009

Los Angeles
Tehran Bureau | a⋅nal⋅y⋅sis

Presidential candidate Barack Obama promised during his campaign that his administration will take a new approach to the crises in the Middle East and, in particular, to the long-standing confrontation with Iran. He promised that his administration would negotiate with Iran without any preconditions. Most recently, President Obama told al-Arabiya television that,

If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended U.S. hand.

Similar to all of its predecessors, however, the Obama administration is not explaining to the American public why Iran’s fist is clenched in the first place. If the reason for this is understood and put in proper context, it would represent a quantum leap towards resolving most, if not all, of the important issues between Iran and the United States, which would then contribute greatly to stability and peace in the Middle East. The reason is Iran’s historical sense of insecurity, and the U.S. policy toward Iran since 1979.

Even a glance at history tells us why Iranians have a long-lasting sense of national insecurity. Iran is in one of the most strategic areas of world. This was as true 2000 years ago as it is today. Because of its location, as well as natural resources, throughout its history Iran has been invaded and occupied many times by foreign powers, from Alexander the Great and his army, to the Arabs, Moguls, Turks, Russians, and the British empire. Over the last 200 years alone, Russia, Britain, and the U.S. have tried to control Iran.

Two Russo-Persia wars that resulted in the Treaty of Gulistan in 1813 and the Treaty of Turkmanchay in 1828 enabled Russia to separate and occupy a large part of Iran in the Caucasus region (the present Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia), and the British empire ended Iran’s political influence on Afghanistan through the Treaty of Peshawar in 1855. In the late 1800s and early 1900s Russia and Britain divided Iran into their spheres of influence. Russia supported the forces that were opposed to Iran’s Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1908, and opposed industrialization of Iran and, in particular, construction of railways. Britain played the key role in the 1921 coup that brought Reza Shah to power in Iran, and established his dictatorship. British and Russian forces invaded and occupied Iran during World War II. The CIA-sponsored coup of 1953 overthrew Iran’s democratically-elected government of Dr. Mohammad Mosaddegh, and started the era of the U.S. influence in Iran. In addition to its great political influence, the U.S. helped establish and train the SAVAK, the shah’s dreaded security services. These events ultimately led to the Revolution of 1979.

The hostage crisis of November 1979-January 1981, during which 53 American diplomats and embassy staff were taken hostage by the Iranian students, should be viewed in light of Iran’s bitter experience of the 1953 CIA coup. As one of the student hostage takers told Bruce Laingen, chief U.S. diplomat in Tehran at that time,

You have no rights to complain, because you took our whole nation hostage in 1953.

The history of Iran-U.S. since the resolution of the hostage crisis in 1981 shows that, the U.S. goal has always been to hamper Iran’s economic development, and prevent its integration with the rest of the Middle East. This has meant only one thing to the Iranian leaders: the U.S. has never recognized the legitimacy of the 1979 revolution, and has always been after overthrowing their government. This perception, backed by Iran’s historical sense of insecurity, is not difficult to understand.

The U.S. directly encouraged Saddam Hussein and Iraq to invade Iran in September 1980, hoping that the invasion would topple Iran’s revolutionary government. When the war started, the United States refused to supply Iran with the spare parts for the weapons that it had sold to the shah of Iran, even though Iran had already paid for them (the funds paid to the U.S., lawfully Iran’s, are still frozen after 29 years). After the war began, the U.S. prevented the United Nations Security Council for several days to convene an emergency meeting, and after the UNSC finally met, the U.S. prevented it from declaring Iraq the aggressor, or even calling for a ceasefire. Only after Iranian forces pushed back Saddam’s army out of most of Iran in the spring of 1982, did the UNSC call for a ceasefire. In violation of the Algiers Agreement of January 1981 that ended the hostage crisis, President Ronald Reagan imposed economic sanctions on Iran in 1983.

The U.S. stopped its pretense to neutrality in December 1983 when President Reagan sent Donald Rumsfeld to Baghdad to meet with Saddam and to tell him that the U.S. would be supporting him. It kept silent while Iraq was attacking Iran’s troops with chemical weapons. While Iraq was attacking Iran’s oil installations in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. and other members of the NATO sent their naval forces to the Persian Gulf to protect oil tankers of the Arab nations of that region that had provided Iraq with $50 billion in aid to keep fighting with Iran. The U.S. destroyed a significant part of Iran’s navy in the Persian Gulf, as well as several of Iran’s offshore oil platforms.

The U.S. intervention in the war culminated with the shot down of Iran Air’s Airbus A300B2 on Sunday July 3, 1988, by the USS Vincennes. The civilian aircraft, which was flying from Iran’s port of Bandar Abbas to Dubai, was carrying 290 passengers and crew, including 66 children, and was flying within Iran’s airspace, while Vincennes was inside Iranian territorial waters in the Straits of Hormuz. All the 290 people were killed.

The war finally ended in July 1988, with 1 million Iranian casualties (at least 273000 of whom died), and $1 trillion damage to Iran’s economy and infrastructure. At the same time, Iran’s extreme right used the war to suppress most of the progressive and democratic forces, hence stopping Iran’s march toward democracy.

Even when it came to compensating the victims’ families and relatives and showing remorse, the Clinton administration exhibited utter contempt for any sense of justice or moral responsibility. Although the U.S. agreed in 1996 to pay $61.8 million in compensation for the Iranians who it killed, it never accepted the responsibility for the accident, nor did it apologize for it. In addition, the compensation paid to the Iranians should be compared to what the U.S. forced Libya to pay for the victims of the Pan Am Flight 103, which was supposedly destroyed by Libya’s intelligence agents on Wednesday December 21, 1988, over Lockerbie, south Scotland: Libya paid $10 million for each victim.

But, the hostility of the U.S. towards Iran did not end with the end of Iran-Iraq war. Every U.S. move towards Iran — small or large — has been meant to either strangulate Iran’s economy, or prevent Iran from making political gains in the region. Consider, for example, the U.S. refusal, in violation of its international obligations, to supply Iran with the spare parts for the civilian aircrafts that it sold to Iran. The U.S. has also prevented the European Union from selling civilian aircrafts to Iran. As a result, Iran’s civilian fleet consists mostly of old and obsolete Russian aircrafts, many of which have crashed and resulted in large casualties.

While preaching that Iran does not need nuclear energy because it has vast oil and natural gas reserves, the U.S. has made every effort to prevent foreign companies from investing in Iran’s oil and gas industry and, in particular, helping Iran to develop its untapped natural gas reservoirs. The U.S. also prevented the transportation of Azerbaijan’s oil by a pipeline through Iran, and instead pushed for a purely political pipeline through Georgia and Turkey.

Whereas according to every report by the International Atomic Energy Agency Iran has abided by its obligations in the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and its Safeguards Agreement, the U.S. has repeatedly, and without presenting any credible evidence, accused Iran of having a secret nuclear weapon program, even though its own latest National Intelligence Estimate of November 2007 stated that Iran stopped its weapon program in 2003 (and there is actually no evidence, at least as of now, that Iran had such a program even prior to 2003). In violation of the IAEA Statute, the U.S. forced its Board Governor to demand the suspension of Iran’s legal uranium enrichment program. The BoG of the IAEA has no legal authority to make such a demand.

Such baseless accusations, together with the U.S. blackmail of some members of the BoG of the IAEA, were the primary reasons for sending Iran’s nuclear dossier to the UNSC. But, this was illegal, because it was against Article 12(c) of the IAEA Statute, which clearly states the conditions under which a member state’s nuclear dossier should be sent to the UNSC. As Michael Spies of the International Association of Lawyers against Nuclear Arms has explained :

Verification and enforcement of the non-proliferation objectives contained in the NPT are limited, in part to maintain the balance of rights and obligations of state parties. NPT Safeguards, administered by the IAEA, are limited to verifying that no nuclear material in each non-weapon state has been diverted to weapons or unknown use. These safeguards allow for the IAEA to report a case of non-compliance to the Security Council only if nuclear material is found to have been diverted.

According to every report of the IAEA, such a diversion has never occurred in Iran’s case. As a result, even the legality of the three UNSC Resolutions against Iran is in doubt, because they are based on the illegal actions of the BoG of the IAEA. Regardless, not only has the U.S. pressured others to enforce the Resolutions, but also imposed unilateral sanctions, and blackmailed others to do the same. Moreover, the U.S. has opposed Iran’s membership in the World Trade Organization, hence preventing integration of its economy with the rest of the world.

Iran provided crucial help to the U.S. to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan, but the Bush administration rewarded it by making Iran a member of the “axis of evil.” The Shiite groups that spent their exile years in Iran, and were supported and funded by it, are now in power in Iraq, and are considered an ally of the U.S. But, instead of recognizing and appreciating this crucial fact, the U.S. has accused Iran of aiding “special groups” in Iraq, meaning extremists and radicals. And in a show of force, and in addition to surrounding Iran with U.S. forces on three sides, the Bush administration dispatched two carrier battle groups to the Persian Gulf in May 2007, in order to frighten Iran. Dick Cheney used the deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis to threaten Iran:

We’ll stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region. We’ll stand with our friends in opposing extremism and strategic threats.

The U.S. has also pushed for the formation of regional alliances against Iran, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council, and has sold tens billions of dollars worth of weapons to the Council’s members, weapons that they neither have the capability nor the need to ever use.

Even now that the supposedly realist Obama administration has taken over, and the President is looking for Iran’s unclenched fist, the threats against it have not stopped, nor has their nature changed. Asked if the military option was still on the table with regard to Iran, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Wednesday January 28 that,

The President hasn’t changed his viewpoint that he should preserve all his options. We must use all elements of our national power to protect our interests as it relates to Iran.

Given decades of hostility, sanctions, military threats and attacks, is it any wonder that Iran’s fist is still clenched? How is Iran supposed to forget 55 years of hostility without even a simple apology by the U.S. for its deeds against Iran? All Iran has done is to preserve its political independence, and to refuse to recognize the U.S. as the hegemon of the Middle East.

Who is Afraid of a U.S.- Iran Rapprochement?

January 20, 2009

Arab Governments.

Photo: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia appears to covet a status more commonly associated with former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. Cover of Diplomat magazine, published by the Saudi foreign ministry, last November.


Diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States were broken off by President Jimmy Carter in April 1980, after the American embassy in Tehran was overrun by Iranian students in November 1979 and 53 Americans were taken hostage for 444 days. The Reagan administration tried to secretly establish working relations with Iran, but that led to the infamous Iran-Contra scandal. President George H. W. Bush was so interested in re-establishing diplomatic relations with Iran that in his inauguration speech in January 1989 he declared that “good will [on Iran’s part] begets good will” on the part of Americans.

After the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988 and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, passed away in June 1989, the Iranian government began to gradually distance itself from his revolutionary policies. Hence, in response to President Bush’s call, Iran helped the U.S. with freeing the American hostages in Lebanon, and provided support to the U.S.-led coalition forces that expelled Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait in 1991. But, Bush lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton, and the Clinton administration quickly let it be known that it was not interested in rapprochement with Iran.

In a gesture for re-establishing relations with Washington, the government of the pragmatic Iranian president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, granted in 1995 a large contract to Conoco to work on an offshore Iranian oil field, even though another oil company had won the bidding. Rafsanjani went so far as declaring publicly that “the era of Ayatollah Khomeini is over.” But, not only did Clinton prevent Conoco from doing the work, he also imposed tough sanctions on Iran.

The government of moderate Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, was also interested in re-establishing relations with the United States. Khatami suggested the “dialogue of civilizations” as an opening, but the Clinton administration did not take it seriously until it was too late. At that time, Iranian hardliners were opposed to rapprochement between Tehran and Washington because Iranian reformists were in power.

Khatami’s government did provide crucial help to the U.S., when it attacked Afghanistan in the Fall of 2001, by opening Iran’s airspace to the U.S. aircrafts and providing vital intelligence on the Taliban forces. The forces of the Northern Alliance that Iran had supported for years against the Taliban were the first to reach Kabul and overthrow the Taliban government. Then, during the United Nations talks on the future of Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001, Iran’s representative Mohammad Javad Zarif met daily with the U.S. envoy James Dobbins, who praised Zarif for preventing the conference from collapsing. Iran also pledged the largest investment and aid to Afghanistan after the U.S. Two months later, however, President Bush rewarded Iran by making it a charter member of his imaginary “axis of evil.”

In May 2003 Khatami’s government made a comprehensive proposal to the U.S., offering to negotiate all the important issues, including recognizing Israel within its pre-1967 war borders, and cutting off material support to Hamas and Hezbollah. The proposal was rejected. That was, of course, when Bush’s “mission accomplished” banner was the toast of Washington.

Contrary to popular perception, the Iranian hardliners are not opposed to re-establishing diplomatic relations with the United States. They are fully aware that the Iranian people favor such relations. Therefore, they consider re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the U.S. a “grand prize” that Khatami and his reformist camp could not have been allowed to receive. In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on June 15, 2005, right before Iran’s presidential elections, the author predicted that the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would suppress internal dissent, but would try to start negotiations with the U.S.

That is exactly what has been happening. While cracking down hard on internal dissent and committing gross violations of human rights of Iranians, Ahmadinejad has tried to bring the U.S. to the negotiation table. He sent a long letter to President Bush, but did not receive any response. Every September he has participated in the gathering of world leaders at the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly, and has met with many influential American political thinkers. In an unprecedented move, he congratulated Barack Obama upon his election on November 4. The collapse of the oil price, a deteriorating economy, and the UN-mandated sanctions imposed on Iran due to its nuclear program have provided additional impetus for the Iranian leaders to seek out better relations with the United States. President-elect Obama has also said that his administration will be willing to negotiate with Tehran without any pre-condition.

Therefore, the conditions seem to be ripe for the U.S.-Iran negotiations and rapprochement to begin, provided that Obama’s foreign policy team will take the right approach. One would think if that happens, it would be greeted with a great sigh of relief by the Middle East’s governments. Not so. Two powerful lobby groups are opposed to any rapprochement between Iran the U.S. One is the well-known Israel lobby. I will discuss Israel’s opposition in a separate article, but point out that the opposition has nothing to do with the imaginary “existential threats” Israel claims Iran poses to it.

The second group that opposes the U.S.-Iran rapprochement consists of the Middle East’s Arab governments. Their fears are rooted in their total dependence on the U.S. for the survival of their regimes, fierce anti-American sentiments of their populations, as well as the historical resentments that Arab governments have had towards Iran. Let me explain.

In the 1960s, the Labor government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson recognized that Britain could no longer afford to act as an imperial power. Thus, he announced in January 1968 that by December 1971 all the British forces to the east of the Suez Canal would be withdrawn, and began setting up the United Arab Emirates in the southern part of the Persian Gulf, as a way of transferring power to the Arab sheikhs who had worked closely with Britain. But both the British and U.S. governments were worried about the designs that the Soviet Union had on the Persian Gulf.

Since 1928 successive Iranian governments had declared sovereignty over Bahrain, and so did the Shah, a close U.S. ally. At the same time, three strategic islands near the Strait of Hormuz — the Abu Musa, and the Greater and Lesser Tonb Islands — that historically belonged to Iran were protected by the British navy and claimed by the emerging UAE, but the Shah wanted them back under Iran’s sovereignty.

The Shah and Britain reached a secret compromise. In return for Iran’s acceptance of a UN report in 1970 that indicated that the Bahraini people wanted independence, Iran sent its military to the three islands, but agreed to share economically with the UAE the Abu Musa Island. That happened on November 30, 1971, one day before the end of the official presence of British forces to the east of the Suez Canal.

That turned Iran into the undisputed power in the Persian Gulf, which was also what the Nixon administration wanted. The Nixon doctrine, announced by President Richard M. Nixon in July 1969, had declared that the U.S. allies had to take care of the defense of their own regions. Nixon and Henry Kissinger had conceived the idea of supporting local “gendarmes” that would protect U.S. interests around the world, and Iran and the Shah were the designated gendarme for the Persian Gulf. Thus, they told the Shah that he could purchase any U.S. weapon, and helped him begin Iran’s nuclear program.

The Shah started throwing around Iran’s weight. Iranian forces intervened against a leftist insurgency in Oman. He forced Iraq and Saddam Hussein to accept the Algiers Agreement of 1975 that settled a border dispute on terms favorable to Iran. These events revived the resentment and historical fears that the Arab governments of the Persian Gulf had towards Iran, even though it was the Arabs that invaded Iran in the 7th century and converted Iranians to Islam.

The Shah also had good relations with Israel, which was helping him with Iran’s internal security. Although he never hid his dislike of many Arab governments, his plans for the revival of Iran’s power did include close relationships with some of them, in order to use them against other Arab nations; for example, Egypt and Sudan against Libya and Muammar Qaddafi, who was fiercely opposed to the Shah.

Thus, after the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser whom the Shah despised (to the point that the Iranian press was not alowed to print Nasser’s picture) passed away in 1970, the Shah developed close relations with his successor, Muhammad Anvar Al Sadat. He also provided Jaafar Nimeiri, Sudan’s president, a $150 million loan after Nimeiri expelled the Soviet advisors and re-established diplomatic relations with the U.S. in 1971. The Shah also had close relations with King Hussein of Jordan, and in the mid 1970s began paying at least lip service to the rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories. In an interview in 1976 with Mike Wallace of CBS’ 60 Minutes, he even complained about the influence of the Israel lobby in the U.S.

These developments were not to Israel’s liking. Neither were Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Syria happy with such developments. The Shah’s weapons purchases from the U.S. and Britain had created a powerful military, and Iran’s oil wealth, strategic location, and control of the Persian Gulf had made it indispensable to the United States. Israel tried to dissociate the Shah from the Arab world, but to no avail. The Islamic Revolution of 1979, however, disrupted all of that. In particular, Iran’s diplomatic relations with Egypt were severed, and have never been restored.

The same type of dynamics drive the present Arab governments’ fear of Iran, which is why they are covertly opposed to the U.S.-Iran rapprochement. Iran’s strong influence on Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and the Shi’ite groups that are in power in Iraq; the large Shi’ite populations of Kuwait, Bahrain, and the UAE, and the fact that Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ites (who make up about 10% of the population) reside in the oil region of the country, all worry the Arab nations of the Middle East.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recently told his ruling party that, “the Persians are trying to devour the Arab states.” He has also said that, “most of the Shi’ites are loyal to Iran, not to the countries they are living in.” King Abdullah II of Jordan has warned about a “Shi’ite crescent” from Iran to Lebanon. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia accused Iran of trying to convert the Sunnis to Shi’ites.

The Arab governments of the Middle East profess worries about Iran’s alleged attempts to spread its Islamic revolution to the entire Middle East. But, this fear has no basis in reality. As mentioned above, when it comes to foreign policy, Iranian leaders set aside a long ago their ideological views. The only exception to this is Israel. In fact, Iran’s foreign policy has been very pragmatic for the past two decades. To give an example, in the dispute between Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan, Iran has sided with the Christian Armenia, rather than the Shi’ite Azerbaijan. Iran’s support of Hezbollah and Hamas — their armed forces are relatively weak — are meant to give it strategic depth against Israel and the United States.

The Arab governments of the Middle East are also supposedly afraid of Iran becoming a nuclear power and threatening them. Again, such fears are baseless. First, it was the Arab governments that supported Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Iran, and provided him with $50 billion in aid to keep fighting. Even then, Iran threatened almost none of the Middle East’s Arab governments. Moreover, Iran has no territorial claims against any nation.

Second, the same Arab governments have never expressed fears over Israel’s nuclear arsenal, even though they have been declaring for decades their solidarity with the Palestinians, but kept silent while Israel developed its nuclear arsenal, and has continued occupation of the Palestinians’ lands. In fact, some of these governments are still in a formal state of war with Israel.

Third, even if Iran does develop a small nuclear arsenal — and there is no evidence that it aims to do so — it would be purely as a deterrent against repeated Israeli and the U.S. threats. At the same time, the same Arab governments have been buying tens of billions of dollars worth of modern American, British, and French weapons, while Iran, under an arms embargo by the West, has had to rely mostly on its own domestic arms industry which does not produce top-of-the-line weapons.

Therefore, the fears of Iran expressed by the Middle East’s Arab government are simply smoke screens. The real reason for their fears is threefold. First, the Arab governments of the Middle East have proven impotent in stopping Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip, which is nothing short of a crime against humanity; or working out with Israel a reasonable solution to its conflict with the Palestinians.

On the other hand, due to Iran’s support of the Palestinians, and Hezbollah’s victory over Israel in the summer 2006 war, Iran’s leadership is very popular among Arab masses (certainly much more so than among Iranian people). So, the prospects of Iran negotiating with the U.S. while also supporting the Palestinians are frightening to the Arab leaders.

Second, the Arab governments are worried that if the U.S. and Iran can begin to resolve their differences, it will demonstrate to the Arab masses that it is possible to resist U.S. pressure, to negotiate with the U.S. from a position of strength, and preserve political independence from the United States, that they don’t have to be totally dependent on the U.S., as the Arab governments of the Middle East are, to the deep resentment of their people.

The Arab masses have seen that Kuwait has been used as the staging ground for the occupation of Iraq; tiny Bahrain houses the headquarters for the U.S. 5th Fleet; Qatar, Oman, and the UAE provide military bases to the U.S. and France, while Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia have close military and intelligence cooperation with the United States.

Third, the Arab governments believe that so long as Iran is under strong U.S. pressure, it will not bother with them. While they pay lip service to supporting U.S.-Iran negotiations, they do not wish such negotiations to resolve the differences between the two nations. They do not wish for the United States to attack Iran because they will also be forced to get involved, but they also do not want normalization of relations between these two present foes.

On the other hand, Iran is ripe for fundamental changes. Its democratic movement will be greatly aided if U.S.-Iran negotiations do begin and result in lessening tensions between the two nations. Once the threat of a U.S. attack on Iran is removed, Iran’s hardliners will find themselves at a crossroads. They will either have to address the aspirations — economic, political, and social — of the Iranian people, or they will be removed from power one way or another. That will be in the interest of the entire Middle East, including the Arab nations.

Therefore, it is not just the Israel lobby which is frightened by the prospects of a thaw in U.S.-Iran relations. So also are the Arab governments of the Middle East.

Head of State

December 3, 2008

Tehran Bureau | comment

It’s becoming ever more clear that U.S. Iran policy is destined to fail unless the conversation is quickly and dramatically restructured, which seems unlikely with Hillary Clinton assigned to serve as top diplomat. At the moment the United States is obstinate that under no circumstances can Iran become a nuclear power and Iran knows that nearly all direct American military threats to them made over the past thirty years have ultimately proven to be idle ones.

For America to achieve any level of compliance from Iran, the struggle should be re-framed to one of mutual respect. Whether real or perceived, Iran considers itself a major power, worthy of respect in a volatile part of the world. They simply will not submit to American demands; doing so would signify a crumbling of one of the regime’s main pillars.

In their eyes, they have their own set of demands, which are equally warranted and pressing, and ones that America continues to publicly ignore. I suspect that should the United States decide they are willing to negotiate with Iran, most of these wants have a price tag that could be paid in dollars.

Simply put, the two sides are having their separate conversations and it’s become a pattern of talking one another.

For this reason the dialogue must change from the present one, marked by a very confrontational tone, to one of symbioses and shared goals. It shocks me that the easiest ways to establish direct contact with Iran have been overlooked by nearly all American policy makers and commentators. It points to a complete lack of understanding of Iranian society and its values. It will all lead to more of the same.

The long overused mantra that “time is running out” for a satisfactory solution to Iran has become laughable. Well, to the Mullahs who have been hearing it for years, anyway.

The cartoon was first published on

Reality check, anyone

November 12, 2008

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| Tehran Bureau Comment

SAN FRANCISCO — I’m as excited as everyone about Obama’s victory, but as far as U.S. -Iran relations go, I think we must wait and see. Furthermore, as citizens of both countries, we need to take some responsibility in how it will unfold. Ascribing mythical status to any leader, before his reign even begins, is dangerous. Iranians should know that better than anyone.

It’s generally accepted now that although the two nations need each other badly they won’t talk under their current leaderships. It’s natural then that as observers with a vested interest in reconciliation we see signs of hope. The truth is, though, that we’ve seen similar signs before and while bestowing Shiite symbolism upon Obama may be popular right now, it is supremely unfair and can only backfire. It’s the kind of simple thinking that has gotten people in trouble for eons.

Most will laugh at the idea, but after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, some Iranians likened George W. Bush to the Hidden Twelfth Imam, or the Mahdi, wondering when he would make the order to “liberate” Iran from the mullahs. Of course now they say it was all a joke, but this was a theme I heard often between 2001 and early 2003.

Finding a populace that is more pro-American than the people of Iran, especially in terms of culture, values and sociability is difficult. In the face of thirty years of harsh talk against their government by the U.S., often spilling into demonizing the people, Iranians have always maintained a strong respect and admiration for all things American. In my more recent trips to Iran, especially since the U.S. intervention in Iraq began to fail, I’ve seen a skepticism developing that I never experienced before.

As elated as many people in Iran I’m sure were upon Obama’s election, if we are going to be honest about it, has little bearing on the day to day existence of the average Iranian: inflation and unemployment are still soaring, and while they’d like to see a different form of government, they’re too busy figuring out ways to feed their families. What goes on in Washington is an abstract idea that only the privileged can stop and ponder.

The kind of hyperbole the media is attaching to Obama’s election doesn’t help anyone. It will only serve to disappoint in the long run.

From my perspective the one immediate thing that Obama’s election succeeds in doing is breaking the idea that the U.S. government is under the ruthless grip of a cabal of old white men. Many in Iran, and for that matter the rest of the world (including right here in the U.S.), have long held that belief and this should go a long way to waking people up to the fact that the American system, when people participate, can work.

Still, for any real dialog to take place between the two governments it will have to happen in an air of mutual respect; unfortunately these two nations have distorted and inflated self-images. Ahmadinejad’s letter, for example, is designed in such a way that no American president would ever respond to it the way the writer wants. There’s a heavy-handed, “strings attached” approach that both governments are famous for, and no matter what kind of name the U.S. president has, nor what color skin, until the leaders are able to display the kind of hospitality and civility their people are known for, our dialog will remain between us: the people of the two nations.

Despite limited direct contact, Iranians and Americans have for years had their own dialog in the face of their governments’ opposition. We meet online, some of us financially support Iranians or make purchases for them here in the U.S., and we travel back and forth sharing personal insights about the other.

While President Khatami famously hoped to start a dialog among civilizations, the idea that this is achieved at the state level undermines the work that thousands of people in Iran and the United States have been doing for years to promote friendly, people-to-people dialog between the two societies. Both heads of state would be wise to take a cue from their civilian populations and explore the commonalities, of which there are many, between the U.S. and Iran before we try to settle our differences.