Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace (This is the second review of this title)

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By: Seyed Hossein

Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic

New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. 368p. $23.54. ISBN: 978-1628920079.

Volume: 2 Issue: 11

November 2014

Review by:

Robert Mason, PhD

British University in Egypt

Cairo, Egypt

Covering more than 150 years of bilateral U.S. – Iran relations which have oscillated between the cordial and the frozen, the pragmatic and ideological, the engaged and contained, this book is a useful summary of all that has gone right — but more often wrong — in the relationship. It is written by a former Iranian diplomat, Seyed Hossein Mousavian who was formerly Iran’s Ambassador to Germany (1990-1997) during the period when four Iranian Kurdish dissidents were killed in Berlin. This was later found to have been officially sanctioned by the Iranian government and effectively halted Iran – West diplomatic relations, as the EU states recalled their ambassadors from Tehran. Mousavian was then made head of the Foreign Relations Committee of Iran’s National Security Council (NSC) (1997-2005), when President Khatami attempted to engage the U.S. through a bold attempt at public diplomacy amid opposition from hardliners in Iran, including Ayatollah Khamenei (p. 149), and from the U.S. Congress as reported by the New York Times in 1999 (p. 155).

In 1996, the Khobar bombing in Saudi Arabia which the Clinton Administration originally blamed Iran was later found to be more likely commissioned by al-Qaeda. If not for the distrust — of which the bombing episode was a part — Mousavian argues that this period could have been a golden opportunity for the reformist Khatami government to engage with the Clinton Administration. In 2001, 9/11 undermined another potential renaissance in relations through G. W. Bush’s conflation of U.S. grievances against various states by labelling Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an “axis of evil.”

Mousavian’s post at the NSC overlapped with his becoming spokesman for Iran in its nuclear negotiations with the European Union from 2003 until 2005 — the basis on which a broader engagement might have been made with the European states (and by extension the U.S.) after the particularly negative period which preceded it. However, it was impossible to make headway with the G. W. Bush Administration at this time since it was clear that Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sought to extend the Iraq War in 2003 into regime change in Iran (p. 202). Even though President Bush may have been open to discussing all the bilateral grievances with Iran, his axis of evil speech, like Ahmadinejad’s controversial “wiping Israel off the face of the earth” speech in 2005, negated that possibility. However, Mousavian denies that the phrase attributed to Ahmadinejad was ever made, giving the Persian translation on pp. 184-185. The more deliberate Holocaust denial (p. 213) would be harder to retract, but is inherently linked to Iran’s identification with the Palestinian occupation which forms another unresolved piece in the U.S. – Iran relations puzzle.

As Foreign Policy Advisor to Saeed Jalili, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and Iran’s nuclear negotiator (2005-2007) and Vice President of the Center for Strategic Research for International Affairs (2005-2009), Mousavian, by choice, had a less high profile input into Iranian foreign policy. This was wise since it is made clear from Mousavian’s first meeting with Ahmadinejad, when he was being considered as a potential Foreign Minister, that he would not be able to work with Ahmadinejad effectively. Conservatives had control of all the levers of power, and mistrust once again dominated official decision making. Ahmadinejad was clear in his criticism of America and its inability to impede Iran’s freedom of movement in developing the nuclear program. This was despite facing possible referral by the western dominated IAEA to the UN Security Council (p. 209). Iran was duly referred to the UN Security Council in 2006 at a time when the U.S. viewed Iran as a pre-eminent threat in its second National Security Strategy document (p. 219).

The most interesting part of the book is not the inclusion of all the stages in the evolution of the U.S. – Iran relationship. These have been covered by various volumes looking at the Islamic Revolution, U.S. hostage crisis, the Iran – Iraq War, and Iranian foreign policy in general. It is in the personal encounters with leading figures of Iranian politics and in the West which brings Middle Eastern politics and IR theory to life. With years spent working at the forefront of the major issues which continue to govern Iranian foreign policy and western policies towards Iran, his conclusions are invaluable.

There are some pertinent points made by the author throughout the work which should be the basis for further reflection on both sides. First, the superior attitude of the West felt by Iranian politicians and diplomats, when a more open and balanced exchange may have received a much more positive reaction from Tehran. Second, the motivation of Iran in its foreign policy: independence, dignity and freedom, as espoused during the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which has often been ignored in western policy circles. For example, Mousavian states that Mossadegh may have been a modernist, but he also rebelled against foreign domination, and the West punished him with a coup in 1953 (p. 149). The result is a struggle rather than an accommodation of wills within international affairs which has persisted throughout the past three decades.

Third, the defensive nature of Iranian attempts to block U.S. domination or hegemony in the Middle East and tip the balance of power back in its favor (p. 261). Fourth, the unusual situation in which Iran has been denied its right to enrich under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and yet has not been able, until recently, to conduct an effective dialogue with its main adversary on the matter. Rightly, the book dismisses any “Clash of Civilizations” as being redundant in explaining the U.S. (liberal) vs. Iran (Islamic) dynamic (p. 262) since values are only a part of the foreign policy decision making process. After all, Saudi Arabia is another Islamic state with which the U.S. has enjoyed cordial relations for many years. Certainly, Israel is identified as a major irritant in the relationship, but again Mousavian states that only 11 of the other 57 members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference have recognized Israel (p. 264). Fifth, there needs to be consistency in the foreign policy approach employed by both sides in order to sustain a peaceful solution and better social ties to support dialogue, understanding and tolerance.

There are vital and common interests upon which both states could cooperate, including: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and al-Qaeda. U.S. support for a regional security organization would also boost regional cooperation (p. 289). Progress on any of these would elevate and enhance international stability and security and should therefore be a policy priority in Iran, the West, and amongst Arab states once a nuclear deal has been reached. Mousavian rightly prizes détente over the Middle East Cold War struggles and proxy conflicts which are apparent today. It is in that spirit that the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action should be taken forward.

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