Published: April 6, 2008
Any candidate, Democratic or Republican, who wins the presidential elections will face a great challenge of understanding Iran. The propaganda machine does not help, and actually beclouds, our understanding of Iran. It depicts Iran as an irrational country that threatens world peace, that aims to hit the American homeland with missiles, that threatens to destroy Israel, that works to build nuclear weapons, and that aspires to dominate the oil-rich Middle East. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says publicly that she does not understand Iran, and there is no guarantee that a future secretary of state will either.
To help us comprehend Iran's America policy, we need to look beyond the headlines and search for those fundamental cultural and psychological factors that drive Iran's foreign policy in general and its America policy in particular.
No real grasp of Iran's behavior in world politics is possible without appreciating that the Iranian people take deep pride in their culture. They take pride in 30 centuries of their arts and artifacts, in the continuity of their cultural identity over millennia, in having established the first world state more than 2,500 years ago, in having organized the first international society that respected the religions and cultures of the people who were under their rule, in having liberated the Jews from Babylonian captivity, and in having influenced Greek, Arab, Mongol and Turkish civilizations. But this sense of pride in the greatness of their culture and history is countered by a deep sense of victimization. The Iranian people feel they have been oppressed by foreign powers during their long history. They remember that Alexander of Macedonia, Arabs, Mongols and Turks invaded and conquered their homeland.
Iranians also remember that the British and the Russian empires exploited them economically and subjugated them politically, and that the CIA destroyed their democratically-elected government. Today they fear that the Bush administration is seeking to change their government by covert operations or through outright use of military force, including strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.
This paradoxical combination of the sense of pride in the Iranian culture and the sentiment of victimization in dealing with foreign powers in general is also replicated in Iran's particular experience with the United States over the past 125 years. Iran took the initiative to establish diplomatic relations with the United States in 1883 for two reasons. First, by involving the United States in Iran's affairs, Iranian officials sought to create a counterbalance to a century of British and Russian economic exploitation and political domination. Second, by attracting American know-how, they believed they could modernize their backward economy.
Enlightened Iranians, however, aspired to more than economic modernization. They tried to create a democratic and representative government by constitutional means. As a result, Iran's Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911 aimed at limiting the tyranny of the monarch and ending British and Russian domination. To these ends, in 1906 they established for the first time in their history a parliament, or Majlis, which continues to the present time.
Given Iran-U.S. amicable relations, the parliament hired the American, Morgan Shuster, to modernize Iran's finances. His reform efforts ran up against British and Russian imperial interests The Russians bombarded the parliament building and, in collusion with the British, forced Shuster out of Iran. As a result, Iran's first democratic and American supported experiment with democracy failed to materialize by 1911.
Iran's second attempt to experiment with democratic government was also stopped in its tracks by foreign machination. This time, the American CIA staged a coup in 1953 that destroyed the popularly elected government of Dr. Mohammad Musaddiq. The United States returned the shah to the throne, and American economic, political, military and cultural domination ensued over the following quarter century until the Islamic revolution in 1979. Besides ending the shah's regime, the revolutionary forces aimed at terminating American domination.
After the shah fled to America, the militant students took over the American embassy and held 52 American diplomats hostage for 444 days. The students claimed that they acted out of fear that the United States might try again to return the shah to the throne in 1979 as it had done in 1953.
Just as the American destruction of the Musaddiq government had burned deeply into the Iranian psyche, the Iranian taking of American diplomats hostage humiliated the American public. These two events in combination have cast a long shadow over U.S.-Iran relations to date. Yet, this mutual psychological trauma is countered by America's and Iran's collective memory of 70 years of amicable relations between the two countries before 1953.
Iranians remember the American support of their first attempt to establish a democratic representative government, the American championship of Iranian rejection of the British attempt to impose a protectorate in Iran, the American support of Iranian resistance to Soviet pressures for oil concessions in the 1940s, and, above all, the American support of Iranian independence and territorial integrity by pressuring the Soviet Union to end its occupation of northern Iran at the end of World War II.
The real challenge for the next American president will be to draw creatively on this historic reservoir of Iranian goodwill toward the United States. The new administration should recognize the Iranian Revolution unequivocally, assess the Iranian rising power in the Middle East realistically, and end more than three decades of containment and sanctions. The next administration should also engage the Muslim people of Iran in a dialogue between civilizations, start talking to Iran unconditionally, and accept the Iranian proposal to put on the table for discussion all differences between the two countries, including Iran's support of Hamas and Hezbollah, the security of Iraq and Israel, regional security, and above all, the nuclear issue.
R.K. Ramazani is Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs and a Distinguished Professor at the University of Virginia. He has published extensively on the Middle East, including "The United States and Iran: The Patterns of Influence" and "Security in the Persian Gulf: America's Role."