Posted by: sean | October 18, 2008

US-Iranian relations

Painting of Khomeini in Tel Aviv for Israeli TV commercial

Painting of Iranian Supreme Leader in Tel Aviv for an Israeli TV commercial

As he is wont to do, Michael Totten, who has announced that he’ll be blessing us with a book on Lebanon and Iraq, has decided to write something silly about a subject he obviously knows very little about. He tells us, on his blog and on Commentary, that while Obama thinks the US should negotiate with Iran without preconditions, Tehran would only negotiate with Washington if the US were to withdraw completely from the Middle East and stop supporting Israel.

Totten obviously knows very little about Iran and its foreign policy. He states that the “interests of the U.S. and Iran are diametrically opposite” but offers nothing to back that up. In the comments on his blog entry, he tells us, “We have nothing to give them, and they have nothing to give us.”

Such a breathtaking ignorance about a subject is rarely seen on the internet or elsewhere. As a matter of fact, Israel and Iran have had extensive contacts from the 1950s up until today, precisely because Israel has felt that as non-Arab states on the periphery of the region, Israeli and Iranian interests have a lot in common. If one believes that supporting Israel is in Washington’s interest, as Totten obviously does, that should be evidence in direct contradiction of his theory that Tehran and Washington have nothing in common. Besides the Israeli periphery doctrine (about which you can read a lot in Trita Parsi’s excellent book), American and Iranian aims are often in line about a number of things.

Namely, Iran cooperated extensively with the US with the war in Afghanistan and used their political and cultural ties with the Northern Alliance, America’s ally in Afghanistan, to get it to accept a compromise on the makeup of the new cabinet in Kabul. According to Parsi (p. 229):

The Northern Alliance insisted that, as the winner of the war, the spoils should be theirs. Though they represented about 40 percent of the country, they wanted to occupy eighteen of the twenty-four ministries. Around 2 a.m. Dobbins [the American negotiator at the 2001 Bonn Conference organized jointly by the US and Iran] gathered the Afghan parties, the Iranians, the Russians, the Indians, the Germans and Brahimi of the UN to resolve the final sticking point. For two hours the different delegations took turns trying to convince Yunus Qanooni, the representative of the Northern Alliance, to accept a lower number of ministries, but to no avail. Finally, the Iranian lead negotiator–Javad Zarif–took the Afghan delegate aside and began whispering to him in Persian. A few minutes later, they returned to the table and the Afghan conceded. “Okay, I give up,” he said. “The other factions can have two more ministries.” This was a critical turning point, because the efforts by other states to convince Qanooni had all failed. “It wasn’t until Zarif took him aside that it was settled,” Dobbins admitted in retrospect. “We might have had a situation like we had in Iraq, where we were never able to settle on a single leader and government.” The next morning, the historic Bonn agreement was signed.

Other areas of policy convergence include fighting al-Qaeda, combating the Afghan heroin trade that finds its way to the streets of Iranian cities before making its way to European capitals, and supporting a political peace in Iraq, where the US and Iran have often backed the same parties.

In 2003, in fact, Iran sent a letter approved by Khamenei through several back channels, in addition to the usual Swiss channel that Tehran and Washington have traditionally used to communicate, to offer terms for an agreement for a renewed American-Iranian relationship. The terms laid out by Iran were as follows:

Iranian aims:
(The US accepts a dialogue “in mutual respect” and agrees that Iran puts the following aims on the agenda)

  • Halt in US hostile behavior and rectification of status of Iran in the US:  (interference in internal or external relations, “axis of evil”, terrorism list.)
  • Abolishment of all sanctions: commercial sanctions, frozen assets, judgments(FSIA), impediments in international trade and financial institutions
  • Iraq: democratic and fully representative government in Iraq, support of Iranian claims for Iraqi reparations, respect for Iranian national interests in Iraq and religious links to Najaf/Karbal.
  • Full access to peaceful nuclear technology, biotechnology and chemical technology
  • Recognition of Iran’s legitimate security interests in the region with according defense capacity.
  • Terrorism: pursuit of anti-Iranian terrorists, above all MKO and support for repatriation of their members in Iraq, decisive action against anti Iranian terrorists, above all MKO and affiliated organizations in the US

US aims: (Iran accepts a dialogue “in mutual respect” and agrees that the US puts the following aims on the agenda)

  1. WMD: full transparency for security that there are no Iranian endeavors to develop or possess WMD, full cooperation with IAEA based on Iranian adoption of all relevant instruments (93+2 and all further IAEA protocols)
  2. Terrorism: decisive action against any terrorists (above all Al Qaida) on Iranian territory, full cooperation and exchange of all relevant information.
  3. Iraq: coordination of Iranian influence for activity supporting political stabilization and the establishment of democratic institutions and a non-religious government.
  4. Middle East:
    1) stop of any material support to Palestinian opposition groups (Hamas, Jihad etc.) from Iranian territory, pressure on these organizations to stop violent action against civilians within borders of 1967.
    2) action on Hizbollah to become a mere political organization within Lebanon
    3) acceptance of the Arab League Beirut declaration (Saudi initiative, two-states-approach)

For two countries that have nothing to offer each other, as Totten claims, this seems to be a pretty exhaustive list of points where the both countries could accommodate each other’s interests. Of course, the Bush administration refused to even discuss the Iranian offer, because after the quick fall of Baghdad, many thought the Iraqi cakewalk could be extended to Iran and possibly Syria.

Since 2003, of course, things haven’t exactly shaped up that way in the region. The US has found itself at a considerable disadvantage compared to the way things stood when the offer was put forth. It would be difficult for Washington to get such a good deal from Tehran today, because Iran is at a strategic advantage in the region. Nonetheless, the offer, certified as serious by the Swiss and authorized by Iran’s Supreme Leader, illustrates that the image painted of the Iranian regime as a bunch of “Mad Mullahs” by people like Totten (usually Israelis, American neo-cons and Islamaphobes) really doesn’t understand the Iranian brand of realpolitik that was learned the hard way after 8 years of war with Iraq. The comment that Totten mentions in his article and cites as the gospel truth coming from Iranian policy-makers is but mere rhetoric. Anyone who has paid any attention to Iranian affairs should know that the rhetoric, often aimed at domestic constituents and the “Arab street” has little to no bearing on actual Iranian policies.

This is not to say that the regime in Tehran isn’t ideological. Of course it is. But historically speaking, whenever there is a conflict between ideology and pragmatic national interests, it’s been the former that bends for the latter, and not the other way around.


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