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