Western analysts often and articulately point out why the United States fears Iran. Reasons include the Islamic Republic's nuclear program, its opposition to Israel, its substandard record on human rights and its support of terrorists. This discussion is needed.
But what does Iran have against the United States? The Islamic Republic essentially ignored the Obama administration's 2009 attempt to build a relationship with Iran "grounded in mutual respect" and has remained defiant in the face of relentless economic sanctions.
Do we understand why Iran is taking such a belligerent course? Some have attributed Iranian policy to its leadership being evil, irrational or suicidal. While it may be convenient to brand a faraway enemy with deep-rooted political problems in such a way, this line of reasoning oversimplifies the Iranian position. Indeed, it writes off years of key historical events as completely irrelevant to current decision making.
Misunderstanding or ignoring some of the motives behind Iranian truculence toward Washington is an invitation for bad policy. One need only look at Iraq to understand why. Iraq's suspicious behaviour and lack of cooperation with UN inspectors was used as evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD—a fairly logical assumption. Yet, as documented by a CIA mea culpa released last year, Washington misread Saddam's motives, and this led to a massive error in judgement.
"Analysts tended to focus on what was most important to us—the hunt for WMD—and less on what would be most important for a paranoid dictatorship to protect," noted the report. "Viewed through an Iraqi prism, their reputation, their security, their overall technological capabilities, and their status needed to be preserved. Deceptions were perpetrated and detected, but the reasons for those deceptions were misread."
In other words, intelligence analysts were not particularly adept at understanding the Iraqi mind--a failure which contributed to significant loss of blood and treasure for the United States (not to mention for Iraq). Some may argue the US invasion was still worth it, but that is ultimately beside the point. Policy based on perfunctory and biased analysis may not always be bad policy, but it will rarely be the best policy.
The ancient military strategist Sun Tzu advises us to "know thy enemy," and understanding Iranian antagonism toward the United States requires some history. In the early 1950s CIA operatives engineered a coup against the country's democratically elected premier, Mohammad Mossadegh. The Eisenhower administration feared that Mossadegh had drifted too close to the country's communist party, the Tudah, and thus too close to the Soviet Union.
Rather than see Iran fall into the Kremlin's orbit, the CIA pushed Mossadegh out of office in 1953 and brought back the country's former monarch, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi who had been living in exile in Italy. The US then helped train the shah's secret police, consequently aiding what became one of modern history's most repressive regimes.
Yet the West's interference in Iranian affairs did not begin in 1953. The British helped Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's father, Reza Shah Pahlavi, gain power in the 1920s, then forced him from the throne in 1941 due to what the British saw as solicitous relations between Reza Shah and the Axis powers. The U.S. helped Britain and the Soviet Union replace Reza Shah with his son shortly thereafter.
The West was not entirely responsible for Iran's tumultuous 20th century. Not surprisingly, however, Iran has come to see the United States as much less than a dependable and friendly ally. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said as much over a decade ago.
The 1953 "coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development," she admitted at an official function in Washington in 2000. "And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs."
Former Republican presidential contender US Representative Ron Paul went even further in an exchange with former Senator Rick Santorum during a debate in 2011. He argued that the United States started the current conflict with Iran by deposing the shah in the 1950s. The Iranian revolution in 1979 and the ensuing rivalry between Washington and Tehran is simply a repercussion of American meddling.
Despite years of rocky relations, an opportunity to improve ties presented itself several years ago. This came in part because of the apology offered by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Interviews carried out during the same year by Daniel Heradstveit, a professor emeritus at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, indicate that Albright's statement made a powerful impression on opposition elites in Iran.
More importantly, Washington and Tehran began to work together soon after 9/11. Both the United States and Iran were interested in defeating the Taliban and collaborated during the early part of America's mission in Afghanistan. Iran played a helpful role at the November 2001 conference in Bonn where an Afghan transitional government was set up.
Collaboration collapsed soon after, however, when Bush declared Iran part of the "Axis of Evil" in his 2002 State of the Union Address. The Bush administration followed this with more aggressive rhetoric, completely shattering any hope of cooperation. Indeed, it is hardly surprising that Obama's attempt to reach out to Tehran in 2009 fell on deaf ears.
Perhaps US government officials still feel the 1953 coup and "Axis of Evil" policy were worth the price. And it should be noted that U.S. intervention and aggressive rhetoric are not the sole cause of Iranian hostility toward America. The fact remains, however, that when a country forcefully intervenes in the internal affairs of another nation, negative repercussions are inevitable.
Iran does not view the United States as a sincere mediator trying to increase world peace and stability (as some in the US may), but as a combative hegemon working to orchestrate regime change in Tehran. Iran's leaders appear to have decided that belligerence is the best defence against American aggression. Denouncing the country as part of an arbitrary "Axis of Evil," and other bellicose statements by US politicians do nothing to convince Iranian leaders that they should be taking a more accommodating approach.
US officials are right to point out Iran's deficiencies and express concern with the country's nuclear ambitions. Iran's system of government is deeply flawed and its current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made hateful and profoundly ignorant statements. But we would be foolish to pretend that pugnacious American rhetoric and the West's history of interference in Iranian internal affairs bear no impact on current Iranian strategy. Surely Iran has not forgotten these events, and neither should the United States.
Understanding why Iran is hostile toward the US will not solve all of America's problems. But it is difficult to make wise decisions without doing so.