Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Willliam O. Beeman--A New Era in U.S.-Iranian Relations?

A New Era in U.S.-Iranian Relations?

William O. Beeman

Iran is in the midst of celebration of the 30th Anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. Since the United States has also had a recent revolution of sorts in its political life, it would make sense to see how these two events might coincide to produce a new future relationship between the two nations.

The Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 ousted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and with him the extraordinary influence that the United States had on Iranian life. According to many right-wing pundits, the revolution was the start of an era of hostility between the United States and the Muslim world—an era that they see as still underway.

However, now with President Barak Obama in the White House, clearly a new rhetoric has taken hold—one in which the United States does not assume an automatically hostile posture toward Iran or the Muslim world, but will base its actions and reactions on deeds rather than perception of ideology. The depths of our past mutual hostility can be seen in the fact that President Obama’s mere willingness to talk to Iran is seen as earth-shattering in some quarters.

In this light it is important to look at matters from an Iranian perspective. The Iranian Revolution was not an anti-American Revolution, it was an anti-colonial revolution directed at all outside control of Iranian affairs. Americans forget that one of the great slogans of the Revolution was “Neither East nor West.” The United States unfortunately inherited the mantle of Great Britain and Russia, who had oppressed the Iranian State for more than 150 years before Ayatollah Khomeini began to rail against the Shah. Iran was just as upset with those powers as with the United States, and still remains distrustful of all European influence in its affairs.

Even after the Revolution, Iran sought not simply to oppose the United States, but rather to chart its own course as a regional power, an industrial leader, an economic force in the region and as a diplomatic broker for its neighbors. Although its revolutionary ideals were the driving force in many of its early policies—such as the founding support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, these ideals soon proved to have little currency in an Islamic world where the Iranian Shi’a were viewed with suspicion.

So, the original Revolutionary ideals, initially hailed throughout the Islamic world now have little practical force, and Iran has changed in turn. Today Iran’s politics are less ideological and religious than practical. It has good diplomatic relations with all of its neighbors, and despite the fiery pronouncements of its largely powerless president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, operates with caution in the region. It no longer has any effective control over Hezbollah, and never had much direct influence over Hamas or other regional oppositionist groups.

Indeed, now there are many possibilities for building ties with the United States if Americans can only wake up to them. The U.S. has common cause with Iran on many fronts. In political terms, the United States and Iran both oppose Islamic extremists like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Despite attempts on the part of the Bush administration to tie Iran to these groups to frighten the American public, the truth is that Iranians oppose them fervently. One prime reason is because these extremist groups utterly reject Shi’ism, even to the point of sanctioning the murder of Shi’a believers, such as the Hazara minority in Afghanistan.

Like the United States Iran also favors stability in the region. Again, contrary to the Bush-era accusations, Tehran’s leaders are not pleased with the militarism of individuals like Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, and have worked to quiet his opposition groups in Iraq in the name of a more comprehensive stability for the Shi’a community, which must eventually rule Iraq. Tehran’s leaders also want stability in Afghanistan. Iran is host to millions of Afghan refugees. They would like most of them to go home, and that can’t happen until Afghanistan is quiet once again.

Other areas of potential cooperation include prevention of drug trafficking, environmental protection, health care, trade stabilization and international transport. Iran also has a strong stake in culture and tourism. The whole world travels to Iran to see the astonishing historical and archaeological sites—except for Americans.

Americans see it as a paradox that Iranians love Americans and American culture, but this is no surprise given the primacy of Iranian independence rather than opposition to the West in its national sentiment. As long as the United States does not try to dominate Iran, treating the Islamic Republic with “mutual respect” (to quote President Obama), Iranians have no problem with Washington. Iran’s youthful population now has a majority of citizens who have no experience of the original Revolution, or remembrance of Ayatollah Khomeini or other Revolutionary leaders.

It is not likely that any administration will offer Iran congratulations on the anniversary of its Revolution, but just stopping the invective pouring out of Washington will be congratulations enough. It is time to realize that a generation has passed since the United States’ hostile reception of the Revolution. With a new generation comes a new opportunity. With luck we will see the mood of Washington change. It was always permissible to denigrate Iran in American politics. A good first step toward a “breakthrough with Iran” would be to let it be known that this cheap political rhetoric is no longer acceptable in the Obama Era.


William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, and past President of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association. His most recent book is The “Great Satan” vs. the “Mad Mullahs”: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other (Chicago, 2008).