Two Ships Passing in the Night: The Story of US-Iranian Relations

Even before the Iranian Revolution, Iranians had concerns about US policy toward Iran and since the Revolution both countries have legitimate issues that should be resolved if for no other reason than to enhance security and stability.

Even before the Iranian Revolution (IR), Iranians had concerns about US policy toward Iran and since the Revolution both countries have legitimate issues that should be resolved if for no other reason than to enhance security and stability in the Persian Gulf region. But no progress has been made simply because neither side understands the other and there is no appropriate venue on the horizon for achieving any real measure of appreciation for the other side's perspectives.


The average American views Iranians as people who hate the US and call it "The Great Satan." Americans see Iranian as terrorists, supporting terrorist organizations, and who spend much of their time shouting "Death to America".   Average Iranians look at the US as an arrogant country (its government, not its people) that interferes in the affairs of other countries. The US supported Iraq in all manner of ways in its efforts to kill Iranians (including selling chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein). Iranians believe the US is trying to take over the Middle East. What is sad and dangerous is that the view of policymakers on both sides is marginally above this media-driven and superficial level of misunderstanding and comprehension. Let me explain.


On the Iranian side, the majority of the key technocratic decision makers continue to be Western educated. But these post revolutionary leaders who came to the West (especially to the US) for their university education, viewed their educational goals much more narrowly than those that ruled Iran before the IR. Today's Iranian ruling class came to the West, studied their intended field and read very little outside of their narrow field of study. They interacted only with Iranians from similar backgrounds, did not melt into US society, and went back to Iran. Indirect evidence of these simple generalizations is that these "educated" technocrats' command of the English language (some from renowned universities), spoken and especially written, is to say the least sub-par, and their appreciation of Western history, traditions and culture almost non existent. It is difficult for individuals of such general characteristics to understand the true context of the decisions and pronouncements of a Western diplomat.


On the US side, since 9/11 we have a proliferation of experts on everything from Islam, terrorism, the Middle East and yes, on Iran. It is on these newly minted policy experts on Iran that US decision makers ostensibly rely for guidance and direction in dealing with Iran. Who are these Iranian experts? They fall into two broad groups: those of Western origin and those of Iranian origin. In the case of those of Western origin, many speak very little or no Farsi, some have never visited Iran, most have not visited Iran since the IR, even fewer have met a broad spectrum of Iranians in Iran and none to my knowledge have gone to Iran to interact with senior clergy, cabinet ministers and Iranian national security leaders on a regular basis. So do we have any US born policy experts on Iran? In the case of Iranian born experts living in the US, many have not visited Iran since the IR and have thus not had an opportunity to interact with a broad spectrum of the populace. I would venture to say that less than a handful have had extensive interactions with senior clergy, cabinet ministers and Iranian national security leaders. Most critical, many Iranian born Americans have their own personal agenda (as perhaps Ahmad Chalabi had in the case of Iraq); they dream of going back and recovering their lost wealth or even better, ruling the country and getting even more wealth than they had before. So are there even a handful of trustworthy Iranian-American experts on Iran?


To fill the gap, the US has used a variety of foreign governments as intermediaries. These have included Switzerland, Japan and even Saudi Arabia. Sadly each of these countries has its own extensive commercial or political agenda to thwart better US-Iranian relations.


Given this state of affairs, it is no wonder that no progress has been made in enhancing US-Iranian relations. If anything relations may be getting worse. While Iranians continue to shout "Death to America" and the US president places Iran in his "Axis of Evil", the average Iranian feels increasingly threatened by US actions in Iraq and is becoming more and more nationalistic as the American President continues to publicly threaten Iran. Yes, Saddam may be gone but the US is still occupying Iraq and innocent Iraqis are dying next door on a daily basis. In such an atmosphere of mistrust it is hardly a wonder that the average Iranian may want to see the US bogged down in Iraq. Nor is it surprising that Iranians now want their own government to acquire a nuclear bomb to dissuade US aggression. US public threats against Iran only re-enforce Iranian nationalism, lend further support to the mullahs in Teheran, and are in turn an outward sign of the little that US policymakers and US "experts" on Iran understand about Iran. In Washington the basis for dealing with Iran continues to be the appropriate mix of carrot and stick with little understanding of the possible reaction of the intended recipients of the carrots and sticks. It seems that both in Washington and in Teheran policymakers will continue to "drink their own bath water" for the foreseeable future with little hope for improved relations.


Updated 12/3/04