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The Iran-American dialogue: enemies within

Sanam Vakil
4 June 2007

A week which began with a long-awaited, much-hyped meeting between senior officials from the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States of America is ending with reports of the US's military build-up in the Persian Gulf and of Iran's prosecution of scholars with links to western institutions. The diplomatic dance seems already to be in the shadow of a more familiar game where hardliners on each side reinforce each other by raising tension and looking for confrontation. What then is the real importance of the mere four-hour conversation on 28 May 2007 in Baghdad between Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, and his counterpart, US ambassador Ryan Crocker?

The first answer is Iraq itself, whose government acted as the notional host of the meeting and whose predicament formed its ostensible purpose. Indeed, cooperation over an Iraq where the US military strategy is visibly failing and where problems of insecurity and violence appear endemic would in principle benefit both countries.

The second answer is that Iraq was also the pretest for the opening of a far larger conversation that represented the first official diplomatic meeting of its kind since relations soured in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution in 1979 (the brief and equally pre-hyped encounter between Iran's foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki and US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice at the Sharm al-Sheikh summit of 3-4 May 2007 - aborted, it seems by the red dress of a Ukrainian violinist - can now be seen clearly as a false start).

During the long era of confrontation that followed the revolution, the two countries have taken turns to lambast each other on the domestic, regional and international stage. Some factions in both countries continue to gather benefits from this antagonistic relationship. But the supreme leaderships in Tehran and Washington - Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President George W Bush - appear to have round to the view that such protracted hostility is no longer in their national interest, and that the negotiating table is preferable to the megaphone.Sanam Vakil is an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy.Also by Sanam Vakil in openDemocracy: "Iran's nuclear gamble" (1 February 2007) "Iran's hostage politics" (2 April 2007)

A cultural wall

A background of tension made it something of a relief that the ambassadorial-level meeting in Baghdad passed without evident problems. The run-up to the meeting was filled with tension that could easily have stalled it or led to its postponement - from the US navy exercises in the Persian Gulf and George W Bush's renewal of his call for tougher sanctions against a nuclear-defiant Iran, to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's claim to have identified spy rings organised by the United States and its allies. (Indeed, the detained Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari was on 29 May charged with espionage along with Kian Tajbakhsh, a consultant with the Open Society Institute; meanwhile Radio Farda journalist Parnaz Azima has been prevented from leaving Iran).

Despite these distractions, all parties involved described the meeting as positive: in language that was just the other side of routine diplomacy-speak, Kazemi-Qomi said that they tackled the issues "honestly and transparently" while Crocker characterised the encounter as a "businesslike" discussion. There was broad agreement on the principles governing US and Iranian policy toward Iraq, and the shared goal of a stable, democratic Iraq that is in control of its own security and at peace with its neighbours.

Kazemi-Qomi even suggested this could become the first of a series of meetings between Tehran and Washington over a clearly overlapping area of interest in Iraq. Crocker responded that the US would consider any such invitation, but emphasised: "I think we are going to want to wait and see not what is said next, but what happens next on the ground, whether we start to see some indications of a change in Iranian behaviour."

In its way this statement - and the expectation it embodies - reflects one of the main differences in Iranian and American political culture. For Washington, Tehran must show tangible signs of positive action and goodwill to build confidence. For Tehran, a sign of progress would be when Washington abandons or at least subdues its threatening rhetoric. One of the paramount diplomatic obstacles standing in the way of a genuine meeting of minds between the two capitals is these differing dimensions of political culture and expectation.Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Iranian politics in a period of crisis: Nasrin Alavi, "Iran's attack blowback"(5 February 2007) Paul Rogers, "The Persian gulf: a war of position"(8 February 2007) Fred Halliday, "The matter with Iran"(1 March 2007) Nasrin Alavi, "Women in Iran: repression and resistance"(5 March 2007) Anoush Ehteshami, "Iran and the United states: back from the brink"
(16 March 2007) Andreas Malm & Shora Esmailian, "Iran: the hidden power"(10 April 2007) Nazenin Ansari, "Tehran's political dynamic: after the kidnap crisis"(16 April 2007) Omid Memarian, "Iran and the United States: time to engage"(2 May 2007) Rasool Nafisi, "Haleh Esfandiari: Iran's cultural prison"(17 May 2007)

Watch your back

This at least is something that the participants in dialogue, and their advisers, have in their own hands to address. A further complicating factor is far less amenable to resolution: the fact that many powerful figures on both sides are actively opposed to this dialogue.

In Iran, the conservative, ideological factions within the regime - prominently represented by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies among the Revolutionary Guard, including Yahya Rahim Safavi, and the more intransigent clerics - are adamantly opposed to renewing relations with the "great satan." Any rapprochement would to them be doubly damaging: it would corrode the ideological foundations of Iran's revolution and threaten their monopoly of the economic, political, and religious institutions. Indeed, this group thrives on the aggressive rhetoric of sanctions and possible military action emanating from Washington, and is skilful in turning it into a domestic weapon of coercion and fear.

In Washington a similar band of neo-conservative oppositionists see no need to reward what it sees as the region's "central banker of terror" with restored relations. This group is well represented both in the political leadership and in intellectual circles. Its voices include former US ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton; the influential conservative journal the Weekly Standard; and within the administration, vice-president Dick Cheney, who warned Tehran on 12 May that "(we'll) stand with others to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and dominating the region". The laundry-list of impropriety the neocons advance for a hardline stance against Iran includes its sponsorship of Hizbollah in Lebanon and Shi'a militias in Iraq.

These two factors - cultural misunderstandings and domestic obstruction on each side - make it certain that the road to US-Iran rapprochement will continue to impede what should in principle be a much swifter reconciliation. An argument that has lasted close to twenty-eight years will not be resolved overnight. Washington's action-oriented diplomacy and Tehran's verbal and symbolic concerns reinforce the hard political issues of nuclear development, strategic rivalry, regional insecurity and internal factionalism. A true rapprochement in the long soap-opera of US-Iranian relations is still far from sight, but 28 May 2007 be in time be seen as the end of the beginning.

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