Why the US doesn't talk to Iran
By Ismael Hossein-zadeh and Karla Hansen
The unrelenting diplomatic and geopolitical standoff between Iran and the
United States is often blamed on the Iranian government for its
"confrontational" foreign policies, or its "unwillingness" to enter into
dialogue with the United States. Little known, however, is that during the past
decade or so, Iran has offered a number of times to negotiate with the US
without ever getting a positive response.
The best-known effort at dialogue, which came to be known as Iran's "grand
bargain" proposal, was made in May 2003. The two-page proposal for a broad
Iran-US understanding, covering all issues of mutual concern, was transmitted
to the US State Department through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran. Not only
did the State Department not respond to Iran's negotiating offer, but, as
reporter Gareth Porter pointed out, it "rebuked the Swiss ambassador for having
passed on the offer".
Since then, Iran has made a number of other efforts at negotiation, the latest
of which was made by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad ahead of last week's trip to
the United States to attend the annual meeting of the United Nations General
Assembly. Regrettably, once again the US ignored Ahmadinejad's overture of
meeting with President Barack Obama during his UN visit.
The question is why? Why have successive US administrations been reluctant to
enter into a conflict-resolution dialogue with Iran, which could clearly be in
the national interests of the United States?
The answer, in a nutshell, is that US foreign policy, especially in the Middle
East, is driven not so much by broad national interests as they are by narrow
but powerful special interests - interests that seem to prefer war and
militarism to peace and international understanding. These are the nefarious
interests that are vested in military industries and related "security"
businesses, notoriously known as the military-industrial complex. These
beneficiaries of war dividends would not be able to justify their lion's share
of our tax dollars without "external enemies" or "threats to our national
Taking a large share of the national treasury was not a difficult act to
perform during the Cold War era because the pretext for continued increases in
military spending - the "communist threat" - seemed to lie conveniently at
hand. Justification of increased military spending in the post-Cold War period,
however, has prompted the military-security interests to be more creative in
inventing (or manufacturing, if necessary) "new sources of danger to US
When the collapse of the Soviet system and the subsequent discussions of "peace
dividends" in the United States threatened the interests of the
military-industrial conglomerates, their representatives invented "new threats
to US interests" and successfully substituted them for the "threat of
communism" of the Cold War. These "new, post-Cold War sources of threat" are
said to stem from the so-called "rogue states", "global terrorism" and "Islamic
fundamentalism." Demonization of Iran and/or Ahmadinejad can be better
understood in this context.
Now, it may be argued that if beneficiaries of war-dividends need external
enemies to justify their unfair share of national treasury, why Iran? Why of
all places is Iran targeted as such an enemy? Isn't there something wrong with
the Iranian government and/or Ahmadinejad's policies in challenging the world's
superpower knowing that this would be a case of David challenging Goliath, that
it would cause diplomatic pressure, military threats and economic sanctions on
These are the kind of questions that the "Greens" and other critics of
Ahmadinejad's government ask, rhetorical questions that tend to blame Iran for
the economic sanctions and military threats against that country - in effect,
blaming the victim for the crimes of the perpetrator. Labeling Ahmadinejad's
policies as "rash", "adventurous" and "confrontational," Mir Hossein Mousavi
and other leaders of the "Greens" frequently blame those polices for external
military and economic pressures on Iran.
Accordingly, they seek "understanding" and "accommodation" with the US and its
allies, presumably including Israel, to achieve political and economic
stability. While, prima facie, this sounds like a reasonable argument, it
suffers from a number of shortcomings.
To begin with, it is a disingenuous and obfuscationist argument. Military
threats and economic sanctions against Iran did not start with Ahmadinejad's
presidency; they have been imposed on Iran for more than 30 years, essentially
as punishment for its 1979 revolution that ended the imperial US influence over
its economic, political and military affairs. It is true that the sanctions
have been steadily escalated, significantly intensified in recent months. But
that is not because Ahmadinejad occasionally lashes out at imperialist/Zionist
policies in the region; it is rather because Iran has refused to give in to the
imperialistic dictates of the US and its allies.
Second, it is naive to think that US imperialism would be swayed by gentle or
polite language to lift economic sanctions or remove military threats against
Iran. During his two terms in office (eight years), former president Mohammad
Khatami frequently spoke of a "dialogue of civilizations", counterposing it to
the US neo-conservatives' "clash of civilizations". This was effectively
begging the Unites States for dialogue and diplomatic rapprochement, but the
pleas fell on deaf ears. Why?
Because US policy toward Iran (or any other country, for that matter) is based
on an imperialistic agenda that consists of a series of demands or
expectations, not on diplomatic decorum, or the type of language its leaders
use. These include Iran's giving up its lawful and legitimate right to civilian
nuclear technology, opening up its public domain and/or state-owned industries
to debt-leveraging and privatization schemes of the predatory finance capital
of the West, as well as its compliance with US-Israeli geopolitical designs in
the Middle East.
It is not unreasonable to argue that once Iran allowed US input, or meddling,
into such issues of national sovereignty, it would find itself on a slippery
slope, the bottom of which would be giving up its independence. The US would
not be satisfied until Iran became another "ally" in the Middle East, more or
less like Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the like.
It is ironic that Green leaders such as Mousavi, former president Ali Akbar
Hashemi Rafsanjani and Khatami blame Ahmadinejad for the hostile imperialist
policies toward Iran. For, as mentioned above, US imperialism showed its most
venomous hostility toward Iran during the presidency of Khatami while he was
vigorously pursuing a path of friendship with the US.
While Khatami was promoting his "dialogue of civilizations" and taking
conciliatory steps to befriend the US, including cooperation in the overthrow
of the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan, the US labeled Iran as a
member of the "axis of evil", along with Iraq and North Korea. This
demonization was then used as a propaganda tool to intensify economic sanctions
and justify calls for "regime change" in Iran.
In the face of Khatami's conciliatory gestures toward the US, many Iranians
were so outraged by its unfair and provocative attitude toward Iran that they
began to question the wisdom of Khatami's policy of trying to appease the US.
It is now widely believed that the frustration of many Iranians with Khatami's
(one-sided) policy of dialogue with the US played a major role in the defeat of
his reformist allies in both the 2003 parliamentary elections and the 2005
By the same token, it also played a major role in the rise of Ahmadinejad to
Iran's presidency, as he forcefully criticized the reformists' attitude toward
US imperialism as naive, arguing that negotiation with the US must be based on
mutual respect, not at the expense of Iran's sovereignty. (See
Iran's Greens deserted Asia Times Online, June 16, 2010.)
In its drive to provoke, destabilize and (ultimately) change the Iranian
government to its liking, the US finds a steadfast ally in Israel. There is an
unspoken, de facto alliance between the US military-industrial complex and
militant Zionist forces - an alliance that might be called the
More than anything else, the alliance is based on a convergence of interests on
militarism and war in the Middle East, especially against Iran; as Iran is the
only country in the region that systematically and unflinchingly exposes both
the imperialist schemes of Western powers and expansionist designs of radical
Just as the powerful beneficiaries of war dividends view international peace
and stability as inimical to their business interests, so too the hardline
Zionist proponents of "greater Israel" perceive peace between Israel and its
Arab neighbors as perilous to their goal of gaining control over the "Promised
The reason for this fear of peace is that, according to a number of United
Nations resolutions, peace would mean Israel's return to its pre-1967 borders,
that is, withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But because proponents
of "greater Israel" are unwilling to withdraw from these territories, they are
fearful of peace and genuine dialogue with their Arab neighbors - hence, their
continued disregard for UN resolutions and their systematic efforts at
sabotaging peace negotiations.
So, the answer to the question "why is Iran targeted?" boils down to this:
because Iran has broken the mold, so to speak, of a pattern of imperialist
domination in the Middle East (and beyond). Iran's only "sin" (from the
viewpoint of imperialist powers) is that it tries to be an independent,
sovereign nation. All other alleged "offenses", such as pursuit of nuclear
weapons or support for terrorism, have proven by now to be harebrained excuses
that are designed to punish Iran for trying to exercise its national rights as
a sovereign country.
Under the influence of hawkish neo-conservative pressure groups (representing
the interests of the military-industrial-Zionist forces) the US has cornered
itself into a position in which it is afraid of talking to Iran because if it
does, all of its long-standing accusations against that country would be
It is worth noting that while the powerful special interests that are vested in
the military-security capital benefit from (and therefore tend to advocate) war
and military adventures in the Middle East, the broader, but less-cohesive,
interests that are vested in civilian, or non-military, capital tend to incur
losses in global markets as a result of such military adventures.
Militaristic American foreign policy is viewed by international consumers as a
significant negative. Representatives of the broad-based civilian industries
are aware of the negative economic consequences of the militarization of US
foreign policy. And that's why leading non-military business/trade associations
such as The National Foreign Trade Council and USA*Engage (a coalition of
nearly 800 small and large businesses, agriculture groups and trade
associations working to seek alternatives to the proliferation of aggressive US
foreign policy actions) have expressed disappointment at the recently expanded
US sanctions against Iran on the grounds that such sanctions would
significantly undermine US national interests.
Yet US foreign policy decisions, especially in the Middle East, seem to be
driven not so much by broad national interests as they are by narrow (but
powerful) special interests, not so much by "peace dividends" as they are by
"war dividends". These powerful special interests, represented largely by the
military-security and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee forces, tend
to perceive international peace and stability, especially in the Middle East,
as detrimental to their interests.
Ismael Hossein-zadeh, author of the The Political Economy of US
Militarism (Palgrave-Macmillan 2007), teaches economics at Drake University, Des
Karla Hansen, director-producer of Silent Screams, is a social
worker and peace activist from Des Moines, Iowa.