Monday, October 10, 2005

The Perpetual Hostage Crisis

The Perpetual Hostage Crisis
by William O. Beeman

American diplomats were taken hostage by Iranian dissidents, who were unhappy at the insults that Washington had leveled against the Islamic Republic. The diplomats were then held, helpless, by their Iranian captors for more than a year despite protests, threats and entreaties.

This describes the events of 1979-1980 during the Hostage Crisis following the Iranian Revolution, when U.S. embassy personnel were held captive for 444 days by Iranians protesting the U.S. admission of an ailing Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to American soil. However this also describes the present state of the United States today vis-à-vis Iran. Washington still has a failed Iran policy, or rather "non-policy," after more than 25 years, and American diplomats are still held hostage to a regime that bests them at every turn.

American dealings with Iran have failed in large part because the United States has never articulated any goals in its dealings with Iran that make any sense either to Iranians or to Americans. They mostly consist of calls for Iran to cease actions that Iran claims are not being carried out in the first place, such as developing nuclear weaponry, supporting Al-Qaeda, and providing arms to Iraqi insurgents. The United States then tries to prove that Iran is indeed carrying out the things of which it is accused. The Iranians counter with further proof that the accusations are baseless, and so it goes, ad infinitum.

As if to demonstrate that Iran is indeed an evildoer, despite lack of any proof, the United States then tries to impose unilateral punishment for the things it accuses Iran of doing. Washington's recent machinations designed to haul Iran before the United Nations Security Council for purported nuclear arms control violations is an example. The Iranians get angry, claiming that they are being unjustly singled out for opprobrium and circumvent the punishment by, for example, making sure that any future Security Council sanctions against it will be vetoed by one of its reliable trade partners.

It doesn't help the United States press its case when it is demonstrably powerless to back up either its accusations or its sanctions. The disastrous current state of the Bush administration with a losing undermanned war, scandals galore, and the President's own party in revolt against him makes that patently clear. It doesn't help, either, that Iranian leaders know all this, and realize that they consequently don't have to pay much attention to Washington. The Iranians then continue doing whatever it was they were doing that made Washington mad in the first place. The cycle of vituperation and recrimination continues to escalate with a lot of huffing and puffing, but no action. This is the pitiful result of the diplomatic encounter between the two states.

If this all sounds childish, it is no accident. The world is cursed with a stubborn American administration that symbolically holds its breath and stomps its feet when thwarted, and an Iranian regime full of proud people who believe that compromise is capitulation. Both American and Iranian leaders are painfully naïve in the area of international relations. Their relations are the diplomatic equivalent of an ignorant irresistible force meeting an ignorant immovable object.

However, the sides are not equal. Iran is a very immovable object indeed, and as long as U.S. diplomats are trapped in a monomaniacal policy of futilely pushing against Tehran, they can neither move forward nor backward. They are as captive as if they were tied and blindfolded in the cellar of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.

The current standoff could be dismissed as the ridiculous, ineffectual posturing that nations occasionally fall into (á la Greece and Turkey for so many years) if the stakes were not so high. Both Iran and the United States know that Iran is the most powerful nation in the Middle East today. It is the key to long-term peace, stability and uninterrupted energy supplies in the region. The Iranians have little to lose by standing pat against empty American threats. It is for this reason that the United States must alter its pointless current strategy, and release itself from the captivity of unrealistic expectations, by beginning the slow and painful process of genuinely engaging with Iran.

William O. Beeman is professor of Anthropology at Brown University, and president-elect of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. His current book is The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other (Praeger).

Copyright 2005 William O. Beeman