Small World: Better times for the U.S. and Iran?

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Thousands of Iranians gathered outside the ex-American Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, the day the premises were seized in 1979, to chant “Death to America” and trample on our flag.

So how does that jibe with the soft tone and sweet talk of Mr. Rouhani, the newly-elected president of Iran? Have we really moved on from those days of distrust and hatred? A few observations:

First, there has been a debate in Iran whether the slogan “Death to America” should still be used. Those against it, speaking up for the first time in 34 years, argue that Iran needs to rejoin the world community and that empty slogans inflame but do nothing to resolve outstanding issues. Hardliners retort that the words have revolutionary value and reflect the nation’s determination to resist America’s soft and hard pressures.

It is worth noting that probably few of those people demonstrating this month can recall the revolution and hostage crisis of three decades ago. Those once-young men in the street now most likely are only steps from retirement. Today’s shouters are fellows who have been brainwashed by preachers who make a living from dire warnings and threats against distant enemies.

Iran is not the only country whose politics are distorted by professional fear-mongers. The United States has quite a corps of them: those Neocon pundits who falsely warned of Iraqi nukes and terrorism connections are the same folk who now use the same sort of language against Iran. They will not be content until the United States engages in combat with Iran — or Syria, which they see as an Iranian proxy. A loud voice inspiring them is the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. His tactic is to create fear among his public and offer only violent solutions for the security of the country. The major costs, of course, would be America’s, not Israel’s.

Second, while those seeking a peaceful resolution of the dispute face formidable opponents, they must persevere. At stake are the fragile United States and world economies. Plus thousands of deaths (remember the promises of an easy victory in Iraq?) and a conflict without end.

Far, far better to extend a measure of trust (while diligently verifying as Reagan emphasized) to the Iranian leaders, assure them we are not seeking regime change and work out an agreed solution that will permit them to have peaceful nuclear energy while establishing a system of inspections that will prevent diversion to warheads. Not an impossible task, but one that will require steady, patient efforts to achieve. Some progress was apparently made in negotiations with Iran at Geneva this past week.

The circumstances we find ourselves in are the result of demonizing an antagonist. How many times have we scorned an enemy and then found we needed to negotiate with him? Our distorted propaganda estranges them and our own public. There are many issues that we need to resolve with Iran and for which we need their help — Syria and unsettled conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq, for example. But, first, we have to cease the name-calling and drop the idea of achieving further gains by piling on new sanctions. Every country has “red lines” which it must protect to preserve its security and dignity. We have to recognize that Iran has valid interests in its neighborhood — just as we do.

The two loudest opponents of a U.S.-Iran reconciliation are Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israeli politicians need an enemy to stay in office. The Saudi monarchy is based on the ultra conservative Wahabi cult (which brought us al-Qaeda) which sees schism as an heretical sect. Saudi Arabia’s Shias are concentrated in its oil-rich eastern provinces. Hence, there is great enmity towards Shia Iran – although the two nations have gotten on before.

Both Israel and the Saudis are capable of inflicting great costs on the United States if they see a U.S.-Iranian relationship beginning to flourish at their expense. It will be necessary, therefore, for Washington to move cautiously and keep both of them informed of progress. But, under no circumstances, should American policy be held hostage to a foreign nation’s interests — no matter how influential they are.

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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