Stephen Gottlieb: What’s Up With Iran?

Sep 3, 2019

This Administration continues to try to inflame the relationship between the US and Iran. So let’s look at how we got here, for which we have to go back to about 1981. We could start earlier but that’s about the US and Iran screaming about which was worse and which was justified – our deposing their Prime Minister and installing the Shah in 1953, or their seizure of the Embassy and holding Americans hostage in 1979. Both sides are equally convinced they win that argument. So let’s start with 1981.

Iran tried several times since 1981 to meet, discuss, and work out our differences with everything on the table, calling one such effort a “dialogue of civilizations.” We largely refused or scuttled their efforts. More than refused, we did our best to isolate Iran, to leave them out of any and all discussions about the future of the Middle East. Finally Obama sat down with them and got to a deal which not only restricted their enrichment of nuclear fuel, but also created a platform for confidence building between us and them, only to have his successor rip it up – actually rip up our obligations while trying to leave theirs intact!

What is Iran supposed to do? For all but a few of those 40 years there have been no meetings, discussions or deals, and when we and they reached an agreement, the US dishonored it. What are they supposed to do?

Trump seems to think they should role over and say “Uncle” but why shouldn’t they expect the Eric Garner treatment: Iran, “I can’t breathe”; US, “OK, die.” The very idea of unconditional surrender is not one they could trust or accept, not one the Iranian public would trust or accept, and not one that any reasonable Iranian could believe was a good idea. In other words we have spent most of 40 years teaching them that they have no option but to push back.

We are not their only problem – a Shia nation in a sea of Sunni countries, they need allies. Israel is helpful because a number of countries in that area hate the Israeli occupation of lands the Palestinians owned. By arming guerrilla armies, Iran makes itself look like a shining white night among Islamic countries, and it also makes clear that Iran is not powerless and has to be taken into account, at least about affairs of that region. The US hasn’t gotten that point but we’ve been stung anyway – to cheers, open or muffled, of others in the Islamic world.

Scholars and diplomats, understand the problem, by the way, and have been writing about the effect of isolating Iran. But American prejudices don’t allow realism about the Middle East.

So asking what Iran should do puts the focus on the wrong country. Iran was willing to work with us. There is a lot of latent fondness and admiration for this country among the Iranian people. Iran has in fact worked with Israel – until we upset the Middle Eastern balance of power by crushing and eliminating Iraq from the calculus. Indeed American diplomats were stunned when Iran and Israel pulled apart after the US crushed Iraq.

The real problem is that since 1981, American policy toward the Middle East has been governed by prejudice rather than intelligent analysis and careful calculation. In other words, America, know thyself.

(For full disclosure, Professor Gottlieb’s wife is now president of the Peace Corps Iran Association, and he is a member of its Advocacy Committee.)

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

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