Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Tehran Wanted to Deny Carter any Kind of Victory--Interview with William O. Beeman (Rooz Online)

Tehran Wanted to Deny Carter any Kind of Victory
Interview with William O. Beeman - 2009.01.21

Barack Obama’s views on the Middle East are not very different from the Bush Administration’s, said Professor William Beeman, Chair of Anthropology and specialist in Middle East Studies at the University of Minnesota, in an interview with Rooz.

However Barack Obama’s promise of change during the presidential election has led many to expect his Middle East foreign policy approach to differ from that of President Bush.

Almost thirty years ago Iran’s revolution, and the hostage taking tragedy, was tied to U.S. presidential elections and now, once again, Iran seems to be one of the major foreign policy issues that the new President will face in the White House. Iran’s increasing influence throughout the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Lebanon and Palestine, and Tehran’s nuclear program has been the major concerns of the U.S. towards Iran over the past years.

Beeman's most recent work, The “Great Satan vs. the Mad Mullahs: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other”, deals with the highly negative rhetoric and discourse between Iran and the United States over the three decades since the Iranian revolution, and its effects on national attitudes toward the Bush administration's policy towards Iran, as well as the possibility of military confrontation between the two nations.

In an interview with Rooz, Beeman explained how the delay in releasing American hostages in 1980, contributed to the fall of President Jimmy Carter. “I believe the Iranian government wanted to deny Carter any kind of victory, so yes, I believe the delay from the Iranian side was enacted on purpose,” said Beeman adding that, “The characterizations of Carter in Iran were very bitter, likening him to all kinds of mythological villains.”

At this time many Iranians are hoping that Obama’s election will bring a new approach by the new administration to start talking to the Iranian government, and an end to three decades of punishment of the Iranian people because of Iranian government’s international defiance, Beeman believes that picking Denis Ross, as the key person at the State Department to deal with Iran will be a mistake. “The neoconservatives do not want a different policy,” said Beeman adding that, “They want to continue to attack Iran, or have Israel do it, and the Obama administration is not able to do anything about it.”

Rooz: Do you believe that in 1980 there existed politicians in the United States who were interested in using the hostage issue in order to influence the results of the presidential elections?

William Beeman (WB): We will probably never know whether there was a real "October Surprise," though there has been much evidence in support of it. There is no question that ANY issue coming before an election is used by both parties to affect the outcome of the election--even the silliest and most trivial matters become important, largely because voters are very shallow in their opinions and in their research of candidates.

Rooz: Do you believe in the October Surprise Conspiracy theory in the 1980 elections? And that Ronald Reagan’s elections campaign had attempted to convince Iranian officials in its talks with them to postpone the release of the American hostages until after the elections in the US in return for providing American weapons to Iran?

WB: Personally, I don't believe in the conspiracy. Moreover, the hostage crisis had been settled by the time of the elections. It was only the actual release of the hostages that was delayed. I think that Carter's overall incompetence, particularly the abortive rescue mission, was the more important factor affecting the election.

R: Why did the congressional and the Senate investigations about the possibility of an October Surprise lead to no proof in this regard?

WB: I am assuming that there was no proof because there was no proof. As I said above, it almost doesn't matter. The hostage crisis had already doomed the Carter administration. I suppose that if the hostages had been released before the election, things might have been different, but Carter was already far down in the polls. Also, the U.S. economy was in terrible shape, and that usually is more important than any foreign policy issue in determining the election.

R: Was there a pre-determined desire to disprove the October Surprise possibility?

WB: Certainly, the Republicans wanted to disprove this. They wanted their candidate to be elected on his merits, not by default.

R: In the last meeting of the Iranian Parliament on the subject in October 1980, in which it had to decide on the release of the hostages, representatives who were opposed to the release of the hostages who constituted a minority prevented Parliament from reaching a decision through an obstruction thus postponing the release of the Americans to after the elections (specifically, 20 minutes after President Reagan was sworn in). Do you believe that this was an accidental event?

WB: Quite aside from whether Reagan made a "deal" with the Iranians, I believe the Iranian government wanted to deny Carter any kind of victory, so yes, I believe the delay from the Iranian side was enacted on purpose. The characterizations of Carter in Iran were very bitter--likening him to all kinds of mythological villains, like Zohak, the White Div, and Yazid.

R: To what extent did the hostage taking of American diplomats in Iran impact the outcome of US presidential election in 1980?

WB: It was important, because it showed Carter to be ineffective.

R: In addition to some American analysts supporting the October Surprise theory, the then-President of Iran and the Foreign Minister at the time (who was subsequently executed by the regime) have both stressed how Iranian officials from the ruling party met with officials from the US Republican party and agreed to postpone releasing the hostages to after the 1980 elections so that Carter would not use the opportunity for his re-election bid. The Russian intelligence apparatus in 1993 in response to a Congressional inquiry about the October Surprise, also confirmed the views of the Iranian officials. Were the above-mentioned Russians and Iranians points either wrong or they have been untruthful?

WB: There was definitely a confluence of interests between the Republicans and Iranian officials, all of whom wanted to deny Carter a victory. There is some indication that Iran and the U.S. were on somewhat better footing in the Reagan administration than, say, today. The Iran-Contra affair could not have taken place if there was not some kind of communication between the two parties. Also, accusations of support of terrorists, despite Iran's support of Hezbollah, did not occur during the Reagan administration. The U.S. was blaming Libya during this time for support of terrorism (under AIPAC guidance). Also, Iran was engaging in arms trafficking with Israel, so things were somewhat friendlier between Iran and the U.S. It certainly could stem from this communality of interest. It is also interesting that initially, Iranian officials expressed a preference for George W. Bush, saying that Iran had generally fared better under Republicans than Democrats. Of course the Bush administration broke that pattern.

R: Tuesday, the 20th, is the swearing in day of Barack Obama as the next President of the U.S. In your view, what role did issues in the Middle East, and particularly Iran, play in electing Obama to the presidency?

WB: Not very much. Obama's views on the Middle East are not very different from the current administration. He has called for negotiations in preference to force as a way of dealing with the problems of the region, and he called for American withdrawal from Iraq. The Republicans tried to use these two positions against him without success. Most Americans seem to agree with Obama on these points.

R: What has been the impact of issues regarding Iran on the US presidential election until now?

WB: Only Obama's opinion that talks should be undertaken with Iran was even used in debate. Obama has officially called for Iran to suspend nuclear enrichment and "stop supporting terrorism." The neo-cons are very cynical. They think that they can agree to let talks take place on the assumption that they will fail, and then the U.S. can go ahead with its former hostile posturing.

R: Do you have a personal anecdote that may be of interest to Iranian readers about the U.S. presidential election in 1980 and the impact of the timing of the release of the American hostages after the election?

WB: Yes, Professor Marvin Zonis and I were consulting with Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance. As soon as we left his office, he resigned his position. He showed us that he was disgusted with the ineffectiveness of the Carter administration and was furious at the rescue mission, which was undertaken without his knowledge while he was on vacation. The mission (which failed) was a total surprise to him. I later cited this incident in calling for Colin Powell to resign after his fatal speech to the United Nations, because he had been equally badly used by the Bush administration.

You should know that I was in Iran until February 1979, and witnessed the entire revolution, but not the hostage crisis. A number of my friends were hostages.

R: You mentioned that Obama's foreign policy would not be much different than George W. Bush. With Denis Ross, as the key person to deal with Iran at the State Department, and given his background in this field, how will Obama's premise of change be accomplished?

WB: Clearly, it won't. Ross is being pushed by the neocons (WINEP, AEI), and the Obama transition team is in the pocket of AIPAC. They want to plant their operatives in the Obama administration.

R: President Bush changed the Republican's pattern toward Iran. Is there any potential that Democrats break their pattern as well and initiate a more friendly relation with Iran?

WB: Obviously, I hope so, but both Democrats and Republicans have had more or less the same policy toward Iran since the Revolution. No politician ever lost a vote by attacking Iran.

R: Thomas Friedman once said, Iran and the United States are natural allies. How does the possible designation of Denis Ross contribute to this?

It won't. Picking Ross is a mistake, if the idea is to have a different policy toward Iran. The neocons do not want a different policy. They want to continue to attack Iran, or have Israel do it, and the Obama administration not able to do anything about it.

R: The United States is facing with a variety of difficulties in the Middle East and the possibility of going to war with Iran seems pretty slim. Can the Obama administration live with a nuclear Iran, in case both countries compromise on some of their positions and policies?

WB: Do you believe Iran has an active nuclear weapons program? I don't. We can definitely live with Iran having nuclear power. The US is selling nuclear power to the UAE for heaven's sake.

Regarding the wall of mistrust between the two countries, in what sort of scenario would negotiations with Iran succeed?

It all starts with opening formal relations. Right now the U.S. and Iran have no relations whatever. Until they do, nothing can proceed.