Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Middle East
     Jul 16, 2008
Page 1 of 2
Iran-US: A study in misperceptions
By Hossein Askari

WASHINGTON - In the popular media and even in learned journals and think-tank conferences, the failure of United States-Iran rapprochement is invariably blamed on Washington's insistence on a suspension of Iran's uranium-enrichment program and on Iran's intransigence on the same.

While the obstinacy of both sides may indeed be the superficial cause of the breakdown in relations, the real reason is that neither side even tries to understand the other. The cynical reader may label me as naive to even think that politicians in the world's only superpower should care about understanding an adversary's perspective. To a cynic, there is nothing to understand. Power is might, and might makes right. The US has power and it will do as


it wishes. End of story!

But if the US is serious about negotiating with Iran, what does Washington need to understand about the Iran of today? What should it know about Iran's power structure? What is the input required of advisors and Iran experts for a US president and for other senior decision-makers? Do such advisors and experts even exist in the US? Does the US seek out such counsel?

Given that US presidents and secretaries of state do not vet their "experts" to see if they can deliver what is needed, it would certainly seem they don't care to understand Iran. Consulting "experts" may simply be another opportunity for photo-ops or to lead a naive public to conclude that its leaders have taken the time to carefully consider important policies and decisions.

Background to understanding Iran
The Iran of today is nothing like the pre-revolutionary Iran. For those who knew Iran before the revolution of 1979 but have not visited since, you have to go back to Iran, spend significant time there, and talk with people from every walk of life to appreciate how it has changed. Reading about it does not allow you to absorb the dimensions of the change and the extent and intensity of beliefs and views.

Iran's population has about doubled since 1979, to 70 million. The country, especially the large cities, has become crowded, with no elbowroom for the average person. Open spaces have become more limited and less accessible for the typical person to enjoy. Pollution has increased. Employment opportunities are not good for the average man and woman. Real per capita incomes are about what they were at the time of the revolution, nearly 30 years ago, and income distribution has not improved. Inflation is about 30% per year. All in all, it's a depressing picture.

Iran's population is young, with a median age of about 26 years. They know little about the former ruler, the shah, and his era. Instead, they vividly know what has happened since 1979. They care little about the many international concerns of the government, such as the Arab-Israeli impasse. Higher oil prices have not improved the daily lives of most Iranians and the government has not, and most probably will not, adopt the reforms and economic policies to achieve sustained and rapid growth. The young educated class is primarily concerned with good employment opportunities. But the outlook for university graduates is dim. And most importantly, the hope for a better economic future is rapidly dying for a large majority of Iranians. Young educated Iranians are leaving the country in droves, at an enormous cost to Iran.

While Iranians have not faired well economically and largely, and correctly, blame their government for most of their economic misfortunes, due to corruption, waste, short-sighted and inconsistent policies, inefficient institutions and more, they blame the outside world, especially the United States and Western Europe, for much of their human suffering.

Understanding this fact is essential to understanding Iran's attitude towards the outside world and the West. A brief snippet of recent history from an Iranian perspective (after all, that's what matters if you want to understand Iran, not the Western view of Iran's history) is needed to appreciate the context of the average Iranian's frustration with the West.

Iran and Iranians (and not just those who oppose the mullahs) feel more insecure and victimized than at any time since World War II. Where does this sense of insecurity and victimization come from?
The US and Britain overthrew the constitutionally elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. Iraq's invasion of Iran in 1980, along with the West's subsequent support for Saddam Hussein, shaped and molded the Iranian psyche and affected their attitudes toward the West, and especially toward the United States.

The acquisition of nuclear technology (that could lead to the development of nuclear arms if necessary) may become an increasingly popular policy in the eyes of the average Iranian. Why?

After Saddam invaded Iran, the United Nations and the West took no serious diplomatic actions against this aggression. The reasons are clear. First was the fact that on November 4, 1979, Iranian students had attacked the US Embassy in Tehran and taken 52 Americans hostages. The US did not consider this egregious act on the part of Iranian students as a possible reaction to the overthrow of the legitimate government of Iran by the US and Britain; the students may have felt that history was about to repeat itself.

The Iranians were wrong to have taken hostages, but at the same time one should note that they felt their entire nation had in effect been held hostage by the US since 1953. Western presumptions of Iranian religious expansionism were another factor in the West's support of Iraq at that time.

During the course of the bloody eight-year war, Saddam used US and European-supplied biological and chemical weapons to kill and maim Iranians in the thousands, while the West embargoed the sale of even conventional weapons to Iran and supplied Iraq with all its needs, including satellite intelligence from the US. The result was that over 500,000 Iranians died and even more were injured, with many permanently disabled from biological and chemical weapons.

Most, if not all, Iranian families have been touched by the tragedy of this senseless war of aggression. As a result, average Iranians, not just the mullahs, painfully learned what it was to be vulnerable to external aggression. The UN and international agreements do not provide peace of mind for Iranians. To the majority of them, and not just the government in Tehran, the international rule of law is only a phrase used by the powerful to justify the imposition of their will on the rest of the world.

Then came the first Gulf War in 1991, with Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. While Iran played a positive role, not only did it not receive any recognition, it was excluded from the ensuing regional US-sponsored security arrangements that included even far-away Egypt. Iran did not receive any war reparations from Iraq. The US further alienated Tehran by opposing Iranian participation in Caspian Sea oil development. In addition, US economic sanctions on Iran were further tightened to change Iranian policies to support US wishes.

The first Gulf War was followed by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan on Iran's eastern border in late 2001. Again, here was an opportunity for quiet rapprochement between Iran and Washington; after all, Iran had supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance throughout the Taliban rule and had accepted over 2 million refugees. But Iran was to be disappointed once more. Iran did not receive positive recognition and was instead labeled a founding member of the so-called "axis of evil" by President George W Bush; this further alienated average Iranians (not just the mullahs) and made most Iranians feel less secure.

During the second Gulf War, that is, the invasion of Iraq by US-led forces in 2003 to topple Saddam, Iran did not appear to interfere to the degree it could have in Iraqi affairs, especially in the Shi'ite south, where it has significant influence. But again, the rhetoric against Iran continued.

Now, the US surrounds Iran on all sides. Remember, this is the same US that has not upheld the international rule of law, that allows the provision of banned chemical and biological weapons to client countries, that reserves the right to overthrow regimes, invades countries that pose no threat, that does not follow the Geneva Convention and that has been belligerent toward Iran for many years.

Is it really so difficult to understand why Iranians feel insecure and blame the West for much of their suffering? While many, or even the majority, of Iranians may not support the mullahs, Washington's record hardly inspires confidence. It may surprise some readers that the majority of Iranians are aware of these historical facts and that these same facts are an integral part of the Iranian psyche.

Western pronouncements and claims in support of democracy and human rights are seen as duplicitous at best. Iranians are more engaged in the impact of foreign relations on their daily lives than are Americans of the same educational standing. Iranians have to be informed and engaged because their lives have been greatly affected by outside forces.

The average American, fed by the popular media, sees Iranians as people who hate the US and who call it "The Great Satan". Americans see Iranians as terrorists and as supporters of what they believe to be terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. What is sad and dangerous is that the view of policymakers is hardly any better than this media-driven and superficial level of misunderstanding and comprehension.

US belligerence toward Iran has not only stiffened the regime in Tehran but it has afforded it a much longer lease on life, motivating Iranians to defend what they see as their dignity and their rights as an independent nation. A major source of legitimacy for the regime in Tehran in the eyes of Iran's citizenry is the fact that it has stood up to the US. Had the shah been wise enough and had the backbone to stand up to Washington, we might never have witnessed an Iranian revolution.

Iran's power structure
Western observers of Iran invariably complain that, on top of everything else, it is difficult to have a meaningful dialogue with Iran because it is unclear who runs or speaks for the country. This lack of insight is absolutely understandable when one looks at how Washington deals with countries under absolute rule, such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia.

But for most other countries, no one person can always deliver on what he or she says or signs. In fact, even US presidents cannot deliver on their signature. Can a US president commit the US to the Kyoto Treaty or the International Court of Justice? I could go on. The point is that it is easy to know who speaks for a dictatorship on every issue, but not for other forms of government.

Moreover, in the case of Iran, such frustration is an indication of ignorance and bias. French President Nicolas Sarkozy's unreported and private frustration with a letter from Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and an emissary from Iran's Supreme Leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is merely a sign of Western ignorance. The same set of facts in the case of an ally would be labeled as a sign of a "thriving" democracy or the "birth pangs" of democracy.

I must repeat the obvious about the functioning of the Iranian government: as is the case in most other countries, no single person in Iran commands universal loyalty and no single person is the national spokesperson on all issues.

The Supreme Leader may set the broad policy agenda, but he 

Continued 1 2  

Iran's missiles are just for show
(Jul 11, '08)

Why the US won't attack Iran
(Jul 11, '08)

1. Forget those retirement plans

2. Midnight in the kindergarten
of good and evil

3. Syria basks in diplomatic breakthrough

4. Hong Kong's dirty little secret: Racism

5. With friends like these ...

6. And now, for Fannie and Freddie

7. China's veto just part of business

8. Bush outfoxed in the Iraqi sands

9. The G-8 ignores basics

10. Five weddings and many funerals

11. Just the facts

(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET,Jul 14, 2008)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 1999 - 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Head Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East, Central, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110