Iran-US Relations: From Enmity to Rivalry
A. A. Kazemi
January 8, 2009
George Bush will soon be leaving the White House with a huge burden of failures in domestic and foreign policies. The legacy of the “new conservative hawks” however will haunt the new democrat’s administration for some time. This is not to say that democrats have had a brighter achievement in the past, at least with respect to the Middle East insurmountable problems.
So far, many presidents have been awarded the “Noble Peace Prize” for their untiring effort to settle the Middle East tribulations and ordeals. Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, Menahem Begin, Yasser Arafat… are among those who only left a number of signed documents and photos of “hand-shaking hostiles” without much success. Perhaps George Bush should also be given a special award for his bold attempt to wipe out Iran’s two ferocious adversaries, the Baath regime in Iraq and Taliban in Afghanistan. Since undoubtedly, he has rendered the biggest service to the Islamic regime in order to claim a regional superpower status in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.
Among the many horny problems Obama’s administration will be facing, the issue of Iran will certainly be on the top of the agenda. Though it is not yet quite clear what kind of strategy the new democrat president will opt, before anything he has to decide how to look at Iran in the first place; whether it should be considered as part of the problem or part of the solution in the Middle East.
Recent development in Iran’s nuclear issue which brought a US high official to the negotiating table in Geneva and subsequent letter of congratulations to US president-elect Obama by president Ahmadinejad leaves the impression that the two countries are no longer enemies but, rather mutual rivals! Many Middle East observers believe that the unfortunate ongoing Gaza crisis and the previous 33 days war between Hezbollah and Israel are vivid indications of Iran’s power contest and rivalry with the United States in the region. Though it may look odd to consider the Islamic regime as a serious US competitor in the Middle East affairs, it appears a quite defendable hypothesis for the reasons explained here.
Is the United States really considered as an enemy or a rival party for Iran? How far the Islamic government and Iranian conservative hard-liners are prepared to re-establish normal relations with US? Who will benefit from this relation and for what purpose? Where the two rivals are headed in the weeks and months to come?
More than a quarter of a century has elapsed since Iran’s revolution driven out this country from the Western camp to what can be characterized as swinging between East and West, Islamism and nationalism, radicalism and tolerance. While many European states did not mind to deal with the Islamic regime in time of peace and war, the United States has never digested the existence of a religious ideology to run the affairs of a strategically important oil-rich country in the 21st century Middle East.
Several attempts to disperse the clouds of animosity and misperception between the two states proved to be ineffective and futile. It should not surprise anybody that the squabble over the nuclear issue is just a tiny portion of a wider and deeper range of problems overshadowing Iran-U.S. long-term relations. The already gloomy situation between Iran and the United States, which for several years has been put in the shade by the unfortunate hostage taking affaire at the very beginning of the revolution in Iran, has jumped to its critical stage after the American military interventions in Iran’s two neighboring countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, following the September 11th events.
Though these military interventions in two hostile neighbors of Iran were a heavenly gift for the Islamic regime from a strategic point of view and inadvertently promoted its position in the region, nonetheless, the United States remained as a serious contender of Iran’s new status. Now, the US is puzzled as how to put rein on Iran’s appetite for power. For Iranian leaders, still the main source of anxiety is perceived as the U.S. threat to their very existence.
As we said elsewhere, Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, have been characterized as the “axis of evil” by U.S. president, essentially for their quest of becoming a nuclear actor in international scene. Iraq’s Baath regime and Saddam Hussein were overthrown essentially on the pretext of possessing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), although such things were never found in that country. North Korea has partially surrendered to severe international pressure to abandon its nuclear project. As to Iran, it was quite clear from the beginning that the United States would not allow a revolutionary regime flagrantly hostile to Israel to ascend to the rank of a nuclear actor.
This hypothesis is especially true after the end of the cold war, the unfortunate events of September 11, and the emergence of terrorism as a non-state phenomenon, threatening peace and order of the whole world and challenging the established rules of the game in international political arena and power structure.
Islamic leaders in Tehran seem not to be deterred by UN sanctions or various military threats, although at a point of time they are very much scared about an eventual pre-emptive strike by Israel or the US. They keep emphasizing on diplomatic talks and negotiations with all interested parties. But, at the same time they refuse to accept any precondition for that purpose and stress on equal footing in the negotiation process. In other words they want to be treated as an “important world power” and equal partner.
As a matter of fact, Iranian president did not hesitate to remind the 6+1 nations on this very contention in his last speech after the Geneva meeting. He said something along the following lines: “I advise you sincerely don’t threaten us; we are not scared since we are a superpower…! If you are polite and you accept our inalienable rights for nuclear enrichment and our supremacy in the region you can sit on the negotiating table and talk about various issues of mutual interests…”
This clearly shows the president unyielding stance that Iran should be dealt with as a rival power in the region in which no problem can be solved without its consent. In fact, so far the regime has shown that it can destabilize the whole region through its proxies. Many observers regard the unfortunate Gaza crisis is in effect the product of a power contest in which Iran has an active part. Recent missile exercises and other signals were designed to demonstrate that Iran has the power and will to become what has been termed as a “world power” by Mr. Ahmadinejad.
Iranian conservative hard-line leaders firmly believe that their security and survival could not be secured through normalization of relations with the US. Since, in such circumstances, this would expose the regime’s vulnerability to US malicious covert actions for the purpose of toppling the revolutionary regime through “soft power” in the long-rum. Thus, instead, they would prefer to remain as rival by challenging the power and presence of the United States in the region.
Iran has been using various diplomatic tactics and economic leverages to divide between the United States and its European allies with the hope of benefiting from their conflicting relations. The same means have been used with respect to Russia and China without much success. Though these latter have been giving lip service to the Islamic regime, in practice they always consented to various UN resolutions putting sanctions against Iran.
It is not quite clear how the new democrat president in the United States intends to deal with Iran. But it appears that Obama’s administration is being advised to consider Iran as a serious “part of the solution” to insurmountable problems of the Middle East without whose help neither the Arab-Israeli peace process nor the stability in Iraq and Afghanistan can be achieved. While George Bush acted with perplexity in regard to the Iranian hurdle, it seems that the new US president is determined to straighten the matter once for all. We shall wait and see how much this optimism is well founded.
Ali Asghar Kazemi is professor of law and international relations in Tehran, Iran.
For detail see: Middle East Academic Forum