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Engaging Iran: Time for a new approach

Benjamin Clarke

Politics | Central Asia


Iran and the US have been at loggerheads since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Despite concerted efforts to force Iran into submission, the Islamic Republic has persevered and grown even stronger. It is now a major player in Middle Eastern geopolitics and wields substantial influence across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. As the regional power structure undergoes pivotal change amid the fallout of the Syrian war, the US is making renewed attempts to weaken Iran. However, threats and demands are counterproductive. Instead, the US must swallow its pride and engage with Iran respectfully to reduce confrontation by allaying its fears.

Simply put, Iran feels threatened by a hostile US and its regional partners after military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, combined with anti-Iran rhetoric. Its political and military interventionism stems from a need to maximise its own security. So long as it perceives an existential threat, Iran will continue to bolster its military capacity and counter its rivals’ interests.

Whether the US likes it or not, Iran is here to stay as an influential power, and regional stability requires its assent.

Iran’s fears and resentments did not emerge in a vacuum. A seminal moment was the 1953 coup engineered by the CIA, when a democratically elected Iranian government was toppled for trying to establish control over its own oil resources. This sordid affair contributed to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and remains a source of national indignation.

Relations were further strained by the destructive Iran-Iraq War. Invaded by Saddam Hussein, Iran faced embargoes while Iraq was funded and armed by Western and regional states. Particularly bitter memories surround the many chemical weapons attacks Iran suffered. Not only did the international community fail to reprimand Iraq for their use, but US intelligence helped target Iranian forces. Iranian deaths from chemical attacks rival those inflicted during World War 1, and many still live with permanent health problems.

Despite these grievances, moderates in Iran have since tried to establish better relations with the US. After 9/11, Iran and the US found a common enemy in the Taliban. Then under a reformist government, Iran hoped to adopt a new foreign policy and align with the US. It supported the US invasion of Afghanistan and pledged to help rebuild the country. Yet in return, George Bush infamously condemned Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil”, imposing sanctions and threatening invasion.

[related_article align="left" show_image="yes" index=1 text="Afghanistan’s game of horses and headless goats"]

With the sanctions and the sabre-rattling, a golden opportunity to repair relations was lost and domestic indignation returned a hardline government to power. Relations between the two countries have since been tense, with Iran’s nuclear program a major sticking point.

However, there is now another window of opportunity for a rapprochement. As in the days after 9/11, there is a moderate government in power and a common enemy in violent extremism.

The 2015 Iranian nuclear deal saw sanctions lifted, with Iran eager to break its isolation and economically engage with the world. If there is to be any hope for a lasting thawing of relations, the US must now honour the nuclear deal, understand Iran’s security concerns and engage with it in a respectful manner. This should include easing remaining sanctions, consulting Iran on Syria’s future and recognising Iran’s right to develop missiles for self-defence.

Taking these steps would improve the perception of the US inside Iran and strengthen the platform of reformists who seek to steer Iran away from confrontation. Iran’s population is young, urbanised and educated, with many having little or no recollection of the revolution or the Iran-Iraq War. While patriotic, many dislike the conservative aspects of their country and there is much potential for this new generation to respond well to positive treatment from the US.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for this to happen, though. The US still refuses to constructively engage with Iran. Instead, hatred of Iran seems institutionalised within US politics and at times borders on irrational. The new Trump administration has threatened Iran and branded it the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism. This spurious claim ignores that even many in the US believe the worst forms of extremism and jihadi violence are financed by US partners like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Iran actively fights against such forces. Including Iranians in US travel bans on the pretext of preventing terrorism is simply illogical.

Of course, Iran has also been involved in some dubious activities (including holding US diplomats hostage and attacks on Israeli personnel) - but few countries haven’t, and dwelling on these will not serve any constructive purpose.

This latest aggressive rhetoric has raised tensions and fanned anti-US sentiment. It certainly hasn’t persuaded Iran to change its course, and there is no reason to expect it would. Iran has proved remarkably resilient, managing to defend and develop itself for decades even as an international pariah. The current US stance serves only to legitimise hardliners and the powerful Revolutionary Guard’s aggressive outlook. This is especially important with Iran’s presidential election looming this month.

If the US wishes to defuse tensions and protect its own interests in the Middle East, it needs to improve relations with Iran. This can only be done by building confidence through sustained positive engagement.

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