US-Iran Relations: Is it only up to Iran? | CHINA US Focus

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US-Iran Relations: Is it only up to Iran?

Jin Liangxiang, a Research Fellow with SIIS
August 9, 2013
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August 4 witnessed the inauguration of Hassan Rohani as the 11th President of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This event has aroused another round of discussions of the prospect of the relations between Iran and the US, the two senior arch enemies. The position of Rohani as president of Iran is truly critical in Iran-US relations, but it is far from being sufficient. 

Global efforts to blame Iran for undermining international order and worsening US-Iran relations is an idea created by the West, instead of being the truth. It is not fair for Iran. And it is the US side that has missed many opportunities since the early 1990s to improve its relations with Iran. The examples are numerous. Two are worthy of special mention. 

During Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency from 1989 to 1997, political pragmatism overrode religious imperative. In 1996, in order to win the confidence of the US, Rafsanjani’s government offered to sign a $1 billion oil deal with the American oil company, Conoco. It should have been a good opportunity to reverse the worsening trend of Iran-US relations. But unfortunately, it did not receive a positive response from the US side. Not only did Bill Clinton’s administration reject the offer for domestic pressure, but Congress in the same year passed the notorious Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), which imposed economic sanctions on firms investing in Iran and Libya

During Muhammad Khatami’s presidency from 1997 to 2005, Iran’s policy to court the US became even more obvious. As a reformist president, Khatami proclaimed his idea of “dialogue among civilizations” in opposition to Samuel Huntington’s “clashes of civilizations”.  It was widely regarded in the world as Iran’s gesture to improve its relations with the US and the West. But unfortunately, it again received very little attention from the US. 

What’s more, Khatami, despite strong domestic opposition, gave substantial assistance to the US in its war toppling the Taliban regime and the post-war political reconstruction after 911. The details can be found in “Negotiating with Iran: Reflections from Personal Experience” in The Washington Quarterly, January 2010 by James Dobbins, Bush administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan in the months following September 11, 2001. 

If Bush’s administration had responded positively to Iran’s courtship, the relations between the two could have been normalized. However, in his state of the Union speech President Bush included Iran in the list of the “axis of evil” though Iran as a Shiite muslin nation had nothing to with international terrorism orchestrated by extremists from Sunni Al Qaeda. 

It is true that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad contributed negatively to Iran-US relations. Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric that Israel should be wiped out of the map and that the Nazi slaughter is a lie not only angered Israel but also the US, a major ally of Israel, and the world at large. Ahmadinejad’s boasting of intransigence in nuclear issues even worried the decision-makers in Washington. Ahmadinejad’s harsh and hawkish policy frustrated those who once wanted to see better relations between the two. 

Academics would like to regard Ahmadinejad as from a conservative camp but, judging from his rhetoric, he could be more reasonably categorized as a radical populist. It is generally agreed that his election is the reflection of the latest domestic political trend of turning right. Many believe Ahmadinejad represented the generation of Iran’s political elites whose values were shaped in their experience in the war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, when the international community was standing with the aggressor Iraq. 

But it should more or less be attributed to the frustration that Iran had in its experience in the interaction with the US and external world in the early years of the new century. Why can Iran not elect a radical president in response to the radical US president George Bush? This question was asked by quite a number of Iranians. 

The Western public regards Rohani as a representative of Iranian moderates or pragmatists, while Iranians categorize him as a centrist between prinicipleists and reformists. It is commonly, if not universally, believed that Rohani will bring changes for the better in Iran-US relations despite the suspicion whether Rohani will have sufficient authority to control the direction of Iran-US relations. 

Such beliefs are not without grounds. Rohani used to serve as the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for sixteen years during Rafsanjani and Khatami’s presidencies. The two were both moderates. In his capacity as chief negotiator on nuclear issues, Rohani reached an agreement with the EU3 in 2004, which led to Iran’s suspension of relevant sensitive nuclear activities for more than half a year in 2004 across 2005. 

It is predicted that he will adopt a more moderate policy toward the West and more transparent approaches in nuclear related issues. Since winning the vote, he has on many occasions clearly expressed that his government will advocate (the promotion of) peace and friendship across the globe and will not spare any effort to this end, and that Iran will be "more transparent to show that its activities fall within the framework of international rules”. He should be serious. 

However, it will also depend on the US whether Iran-US relations will enter a stage of normalization. Further observation finds that the US is not ready for such a process, though some senior diplomats are once again calling for reviewing US-Iran relations. Almost all US administrations since Jimmy Carter have initiated sanctions against Iran either through quantity or by quality, which has covered a vast area of Iran’s economy. Some of them have been implemented as bills. It will be extremely difficult for the US side to remove even a few of the sanctions. And without significantly removing some of the sanctions, how can Iran deliver concessions? 

It seems that the general public of the US is also not prepared for reconciliation. For instance, the movie Argo tells the story of a CIA agent that came to rescue six of the American hostages in 1979. The movie won several Oscar medals, and Michelle Obama even personally awarded the medals to the director and actor. People reasonably believe that this indicates that the American public would like to have such a movie. The movie once again reminded Americans of the trauma of more than thirty years ago. 

China-Iran relations have always been illogically questioned by the US. The reasons why the US cannot reverse its relations with Iran lie largely in its own domestic anti-Iran politics rather than other external factors. How can bilateral relations between two nation states or UN members affect the relations between other states? Why can China not have regular relations with Iran while some Americans themselves are seeking to reestablish diplomatic relations with Iran? 

Dr. Jin Liangxiang is a research fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.

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