Why Can’t the U.S. and Iran Just Get Along?
A woman wearing a chador walks past an anti-American wall mural outside the former U.S. embassy in Tehran. (Photographer: Ali Mohammadi/Bloomberg)

Why Can’t the U.S. and Iran Just Get Along?

“The new administration in Washington has a fundamental choice to make,” wrote Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, recently in Foreign Affairs magazine. “It can embrace the failed policies of the Trump administration and continue down the path of disdain for international cooperation and international law … Or the new administration can shed the failed assumptions of the past and seek to promote peace and comity in the region.”

Well, I guess it depends on your definition of peace and comity. While the 2015 nuclear deal put a temporary halt to vital aspects of the Islamic Republic’s atomic weapons program, the Iranians felt no compunction about developing ballistic missiles, supporting terrorism across the Middle East, backing the atrocious regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, facilitating attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure and, most recently, taking hostage a South Korean tanker. 

Given all this, would even a return to the nuclear pact — or, as the U.S. would prefer, negotiating a tougher one — help repair a relationship between the two countries severed by violence and rancor since 1979? If history is any guide, there may a chance.

As John Ghazvinian demonstrates in his new book, America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present,” for three centuries the two nations shared a relationship marked by alliance, friendship and especially mutual fascination. Here is a lightly edited transcript of a discussion we had this week:

Tobin Harshaw: A few weeks ago, I did a Q&A with Tom Ricks, the longtime war correspondent, who has written a book about the influence of classical Western thought on the founders. You point out that the ancient Persians were of interest to them as well.   

John Ghazvinian: Absolutely. Of course, I would never imply that the fascination with ancient Persia was on the same level as the interest in Greco-Roman history. But it is a largely unstudied and under-appreciated aspect of the founders’ intellectual heritage.

There’s a biography of Cyrus the Great called the Cyropaedia, which was written by the Greek historian Xenophon in the fourth century BC. It’s very flattering of Cyrus. We know that Jefferson owned two copies of the Cyropaedia, and that he read them carefully because in his handwriting in the margins he notes the differences between the two copies. And we know that John Quincy Adams was advised by his mother, Abigail Adams, to read the Cyropaedia for inspiration on how to govern.

I think the reason that the founders found the example of Cyrus interesting was that he has this reputation as one of the earliest examples of religious tolerance. When the Persian Empire would conquer other territories, they would allow people to continue worshiping their gods. Benjamin Franklin, even well before the revolution, said Americans should emulate the Persians’ emphasis on education.

TH: In the book, you talk about the reading primer.

JG: Yes, the way that generations of American schoolchildren learned how to read and write from the 17th century until the 20th century was through a book called the New England Primer. The letters in the alphabet are done with little rhymes, and when you get to the letter x, it’s not “xylophone,” which is how we learned the letter x. It’s, “Xerxes the Great did die, and so must you and I.”

TH: I’m a sucker for books that go into great historical detail to help us understand truths about the modern world. Were you concerned that readers wouldn’t be interested in so much material predating the contemporary U.S.-Iran relationship?

JG: I could have started the book in 1953, with the CIA-backed coup against the elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, like everybody else does. This is a problem in the way that we approach the history of U.S.-Iran relations, to place blame and use history as a weapon to say, well, America started it or Iran started it. To me, that’s not what history is about. It’s not about figuring out who is at fault, it’s not a weapon, it’s not a courtroom drama. To me this history between these two countries is much richer than that.  

TH: Before the coup in 1953, Mosaddegh attempted to create a liberal, nationalist Iran. Was Iran ready at the time to become that sort of nation?

JG: It’s very clear that Iran was ready for a Mosaddegh-style government in the early 1950s. The problem was in the Cold War context, and the fear in the U.S. that if there was the slightest instability, the Soviets would sweep in and take advantage of it. You couldn’t risk having a country that was still developing to have this kind of freewheeling democratic system that could risk economic or political instability. Obviously, the U.S. ended up paying the price in a big way for that belief.

TH: Jumping to 1979, you write that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini “was not the only, or even the most prominent, figure to oppose the shah in the last two decades of his reign. But he was the only one who seemed capable of leading a genuinely revolutionary movement.” Can you explain that briefly?

JG: I’m not an expert in the history of the Iranian revolution domestically, but I tried to demonstrate that there were three basic strains of resistance: the shah; the liberal middle classes; and then religious radicalism. There were a lot of divisions within all of those; it was much more complex than that. But the ayatollah emerged as a charismatic and very authentic kind of Iranian resistance figure.

TH: There’s a school of thought that says the hardcore Islamists stole the revolution from more moderate forces, in the way that you could say the Bolsheviks hijacked the Russian Revolution. Is there anything to that?

JG: I don’t really accept that interpretation of history. No one really “owned” the Iranian revolution. There was a feeling among a growing generation of radicals in Iran in the 1970s that taking a liberal democratic approach to opposing the shah was not going to work. It didn’t make a lot of sense to go out and sign petitions and have newspapers. They weren’t even allowed to do it. So opposition to the shah went underground, and became radicalized because there was no democratic channel for it.

TH:  Right. And this specifically led to anti-Americanism?

JG: Well, that mentality fueled a sense of radicalism — the belief that if you play nice you don’t get anywhere. Khomeini was part of a larger trend that was taking place in the Middle East generally in the 1970s. There was an increasing disillusionment with Western-style politics and with socialism as well, a feeling that those things hadn’t worked across the Arab world and that maybe it was time to turn to some of the more authentic traditions of the societies. And that made sense, a need to return to Islam.

When the Iranian revolution succeeded, it became a model for a lot of other places in the region. So Khomeini had this kind of inspirational touch that no one else had because the shah didn’t allow any domestic opposition leaders to emerge and Khomeini had the luxury of being in exile in Najaf in Iraq.

TH: So much of Iran’s modern history is tied up in the scramble for oil and gas. Yet there are good reasons to think that we’re approaching an electric future in which oil initially and eventually natural gas may become, if not obsolete, far less important to global affairs. I’m wondering: Is that a disaster for Iran, or is it maybe a blessing in disguise?

JG: One of the unexpected benefits of the very extreme sanctions on Iran over the last few years is that oil exports have dried up to almost nothing. So Iran has been forced to find other ways to run its economy and not be so reliant on oil. Which is something that Iran, like many oil-exporting countries, was heading toward anyway over the long term. But I think that’s been brought into sharper relief in recent years because of the sanctions.

It’s also ironic because that has been the main reason for Iran’s nuclear program dating well back to the 1960s and 70s. That oil would run out. That for a developing country it doesn’t make a lot of sense to build refineries. It’s very expensive and very complicated, and there isn’t a lot of domestic demand for petrol and for gasoline anyway. So it makes sense to export the oil and use it as revenue to develop a sustainable domestic energy industry, and nuclear is the most obvious way to do that.

That was an official recommendation of the U.S. Energy Department in the 1970s actually, and it is genuinely a large part of Iran’s motivation for exploring nuclear energy. Then, of course, other things have come into it, and I don’t want to imply that that’s the only motivation.

TH: Well, the problem is it’s very hard to separate at some point a nuclear energy program from a nuclear weapons program.

JG: I think it depends on what you mean by that. It’s actually pretty easy to separate in the sense that one doesn’t have to lead to the other. Iran has been a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty since 1968, and therefore to International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear inspections. Many countries have nuclear energy programs.

But, of course, the problem in Iran’s case is that it exists within the context of a very, very hostile political relationship with the U.S. and a number of other countries. So there is an atmosphere of suspicion that can be sometimes be self-perpetuating.

TH: There is a very long history going back to the tsarist empire of both cooperation and rivalry between Russia and Iran. I think at the moment the best way to describe that relationship is “allies of convenience.” What is the future for Putin’s Russia and Tehran?

JG: Russia and Iran are not friends or allies, as you say; it is largely a relationship of convenience. Russia is straightforward that it puts national security interests first in its foreign policy, and recognizes that it needs to have a friendly relationship with Iran for a whole host of reasons.

It also sees Iran as a convenient ally in its attempts to undermine Western dominance or hegemony in the region. In the current architecture of alliances in the Middle East, Russia and Iran see a lot of benefit to working side by side on a lot of issues.

TH: I want to tread lightly here, but in the New York Times Book Review, Abbas Milani wrote that in the book you “sometimes teeter dangerously close to legitimizing the Islamic Republic of Iran with its claims to represent the marginalized, anticolonial forces, although it is itself the embodiment of harsh forms of authoritarianism.”

JG: I have a great respect for Professor Milani. I’ve read his work for many years and make reference to it in the book. I gave my first public lecture on my work at Stanford’s Iranian studies program, which he directs. I understand why he feels that way, but I don’t want to make this about him.

TH:  Of course. More generally, then, how about the idea that in trying to be neutral and give both sides, you leaned toward the Islamic Republic?

JG: I think that says more about the state of the narrative in the U.S. than it does about my book. I tried to present, in the most neutral terms possible, everyone’s perspective, without justifying or taking sides. It’s important to understand where everyone is coming from. But we have reached such a point of demonization of Iran in this country that if you even try to do that, it somehow comes across as being exculpatory toward Iran.

I have no special affection for the Islamic Republic. My general instincts as a human being are that whenever there’s a disagreement between two parties, whether it’s two people or two countries, you can do one of two things: You can decide that the person you’re disagreeing with or the country you’re disagreeing with is evil or crazy: or you can make an effort to walk in their shoes a bit and understand why they’ve taken the approach they’re taking. I genuinely believe that every day I’ve spent working on this book, I’ve bent over backward trying to make sure that every side has its voice heard and its motivations understood.

TH: Obviously, President Donald Trump did not do anything to smooth over U.S.-Iran relations. Israel and the Gulf Arabs are now teaming up to form this anti-Iran bloc in the region. The Iranian economy remains battered. The nuclear deal is for the moment a dead letter. And Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is over 80. So how does all of this end well in terms of the U.S. and Iran finding a future of accommodation and respect?

JG: I’m not very optimistic. It’s hard to end on an upbeat note, although I tried to in the book. But again, I think there is value in looking at the deep history, in that you come away realizing it doesn’t need to be like this — it just really doesn’t. The basic logic of warm ties between the U.S. and Iran is still there, if we want it, if politics allows us to tap into it.

TH: How can the Joe Biden administration move us toward that?

JG: There’s a presidential election coming up in Iran in June, and the campaigning is going to kick up into full swing probably in March or April. President Hassan Rouhani has served two terms, and there will be a new president.

The good news is that Rouhani is going to be very invested in trying to resurrect the nuclear deal before his term comes to an end. The bad is that it’s very unlikely a reformist or moderate president is going to win this election.

Campaigning on a platform of better relations with the U.S. is not going to win you a lot of votes in Iran right now. This is not necessarily a comment on Trump — it’s not a partisan comment — but the fact is that America’s withdrawing from the nuclear deal has really energized hardline anti-American elements.

Rouhani and his reformist foreign minister, Javad Zarif, are going to be strongly incentivized to try to resurrect the nuclear deal so that they can take away that campaigning tool for the hardliners, and also so that they can simply salvage their legacy. This was their great foreign policy achievement, and they were completely humiliated by the withdrawal of the U.S.

At the same time, the Biden administration has a lot of incentive to get back in, too. A lot of the people who negotiated the deal are now in the Biden administration. They worked closely with people in the Rouhani administration. They’re personally invested in the idea of resurrecting it. 

But time is extremely limited, and inevitably we know that the Israelis and the Saudis and other important U.S. regional allies do not want to see better relations between America and Iran, and they’re not going to be standing around idly. So the pressure is on for the new U.S. administration. And, of course, [laughs] they have a few other things on their plate as well.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tobin Harshaw is an editor and writer on national security and military affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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