WASHINGTON - After 30 years of enmity closed off most lines of communication,
the recent crisis in Iran has suddenly engendered a boom of American interest
in the Islamic Republic.
But much of the attention in Washington and elsewhere in the US is often
misplaced, misguided, or completely detached from the realities currently
embroiling Iran in its most significant crisis since the 1979 Islamic
United States diplomatic relations with the nascent Islamic Republic were
severed after a hostage crisis, when a group of
Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979, and held
many of its occupants hostage for 444 days.
Since then, few significant steps have been taken towards repairing relations,
and the remaining contacts between the US and Iran atrophied as US experts with
firsthand knowledge of Iran grew older and their knowledge grew more obsolete.
"[The revolution] was 30 years ago," said ambassador Nick Burns, a former State
Department under secretary for political affairs in the George W Bush
administration. "We have a whole generation of foreign service officers who
didn't learn Farsi."
Furthermore, while there have been some diplomatic contacts with Iran on
matters such as Afghanistan - before 2003 when Bush placed Iran in the "axis of
evil" - and later Iraq, those contacts were uncommon and narrow in scope.
"I was the point person on Iran from 2005 to 2008, and I never once met an
Iranian official," said Burns.
The resulting knowledge deficit has haunted attempts at easing relations, as
when president former president Bill Clinton's secretary of state Madeline
Albright waited outside a conference room at the United Nations. As a gesture,
Albright planned to catch her Iranian counterpart on the way out and shake his
hand. But the Iranian foreign minister wouldn't shake a woman's hand, nor did
he want pictures of him with a high-ranking US official to get back to Iran.
Many pundits and politicians in the US view the current crisis as an
opportunity to instigate a regime change in Iran, projecting their own
aspirations on those of the demonstrators and supporters of the ostensible
loser of Iran's election, former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi.
"This is not about my expertise versus somebody in a think-tank," declared
Senator Lindsey Graham as he announced his sponsorship for a bill that would
boost funding to Radio Farda and Voice of America in Farsi to help the
US-sponsored news outlets get broader reach in Iran. "This is about me doing
what I need to do."
Along with Graham, neo-conservative Senator Joe Lieberman and Senator John
McCain announced their support for the bill, to be written over the next
The Iranian government has charged that the broadcast of foreign news sources
into Iran is spurring on demonstrations. This claim is cited in the
oft-repeated government mantra that the protests are merely foreign meddling in
These accusations became all the more vocal this week, with Iranian President
Mahmud Ahmadinejad on Thursday telling US President Barack Obama to avoid
"interfering in Iran's affairs".
"Our question is why he fell into this trap and said things that previously
[former US president George W] Bush used to say," Ahmadinejad was quoted by the
semi-official Fars news agency as saying.
In response, the White House accused Ahmadinejad of seeking to blame the US for
unrest following the disputed election which saw Ahmadinejad re-elected for a
"There are people in Iran who want to make this not about a debate among
Iranians in Iran, but about the West and the United States," White House
spokesman Robert Gibbs said. "I would add President Ahmadinejad to that list of
people trying to make this about the United States."
Early in the crisis, when tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets
objecting to the landslide victory of Ahmadinejad, Mousavi said that the
ultimate objective of the protests was to get the allegedly fraudulent results
annulled in favor of a new election.
When Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced a crackdown against
the protests, rumors began to fly that a campaign was underway to unseat
Khamenei as the supreme leader. While this presented a challenge to the order
within the system, no credible evidence has emerged to suggest that the protest
movement as whole endorses an overthrow of the system.
Indeed, Mousavi has repeatedly said the demonstrations are within the
constitutional rights of Iranians granted by the Islamic Republic (article 27
permits peaceful protest). Even attempting to unseat Khamenei can be
accomplished through the existing structures of the system - namely the
Assembly of Experts, which appoints and can impeach the leader.
Undeterred by those realities, or perhaps unaware of the dynamics, US
commentators continue to present the protesters as opposed to the system of the
Islamic Republic. For example, widely read New York Times foreign affairs
columnist Thomas Friedman seized on the Mousavi campaign's green color scheme
and declared the movement "Iran's Green Revolution to end its theocracy".
Asieh Mir, an Iranian who formerly worked in government and civil society there
and who now is a fellow at the US Institute of Peace (USIP), says that the
battle being waged in Iran is between two factions within the regime. Even
Mousavi's faction, she says, seeks a "workable democracy for Iran that holds to
Islamic values" and does not necessarily want to install a democracy in the
At the same USIP forum, Brooking Institution fellow Suzanne Maloney said that
in the current crisis, reliable information about elite wrangling was at a
minimum because those with knowledge and a stake in the process were unlikely
to get on "international phone lines" or the Internet to distribute the
information around the globe.
Furthermore, Maloney contends that the crisis itself is evidence of a knowledge
deficit in the US, "As we've seen in the past two weeks, we had no idea what
was going on in Iran," nor an ability to predict what happened, noting that
there is little information from "anyone who means anything".
But the most glaring misunderstanding of Iran seems to come from US
neo-conservatives and their right-wing allies, who have called on Obama to make
broader efforts at democracy promotion in Iran and stronger denunciations of
the Iranian regime in light of the maltreatment of peaceful protesters.
But Maloney, mirroring Mir's comments, contends that a pro-democratic faction
already exists in Iran, but the US doesn't understand or know much about it.
"This movement already exists and we don't touch it," she said. "We have no
idea where it is."
Nonetheless, neo-conservatives, some of whom like Daniel Pipes admitted their
preference for an Ahmadinejad victory, have urged Obama to make demands of the
Iranian leadership and levy sanctions against the regime.
But Iranian-American journalist and author Hooman Majd, one of the
best-connected Western journalists in Iran, rejects the neo-conservative
mantras as an example of ignorance about Iran and an inability to get over the
Bush goal of regime change.
"The neo-cons know nothing about Iran, nothing about the culture of Iran," Majd
told Salon.com. "They have no interest in understanding Iran, in speaking to
any Iranian other than Iranian exiles who support the idea of invasions - I'll
call them Iranian Chalabis," a reference to now-disgraced neo-conservative
darling Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, who reportedly provided some of the bad
intelligence on Iraq's weapons programs and was slated for a prominent
post-invasion role in Iraq.
"It's offensive, even to an Iranian American like me," said Majd. "There are
people who would have actually preferred to have Ahmadinejad as president so
they could continue to demonize him and were worried, as some wrote in op-eds,
that Mousavi would be a distraction and would make it easier to Iranians to
build a nuclear weapon. And now all a sudden they want to be on his side? Go