The history of U.S. – Iran relations has traveled rough and tumble roads since 1979, when direct bilateral diplomatic relations ended with the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. But between 1997 and 2003, those relations were becoming a bit smoother. Unknown to most Americans, U.S. – Iran relations had been quietly, albeit gingerly, becoming slightly more cooperative during the closing years of the Clinton presidency when Madeleine Albright was U.S. Secretary of State.
This cautiously improving context was the one in which the George W. Bush White House snubbed the Iranian diplomatic reachout to the U.S. in May 2003. It soon became commonplace to blame that decision on the strong neoconservative element in the Bush administration. That seems right, and I want to explain why in a future post. But many people do not see the snub as foolish, largely, I think, because they are unaware that beginning in 1997 certain events and decisions taken by the U.S. and Iran were starting to thaw their relations. So I want us to look at that larger context here. We’ll return to the neoconservatives afterward.
Before there was the ranting sixth president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there was the peaceable reformist politician and fifth president, Seyyed Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005). A surprise landslide election (70% of the vote) carried him into office and changed the tenor of Iranian politics.
Dialogue of civilizations. Khatami shaped a foreign policy around a remarkable initiative that he called “a dialogue of civilizations” and reached out regionally to the Sunni Arab world. As that began to lessen tensions between Shiite Persian Iran and Arab states, Khatami then too his dialogue farther afield and reached out to Europe and America. EU – Iranian relations improved, and a number of public speeches and warm comments from Khatami about the United States were reciprocated by President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright.
The signals being sent by both states were noteworthy, even if they indicated only the possibilities of a new beginning. But small practical steps ensued, although, as diplomatic correspondent Barbara Slavin puts it, Iran and the U.S. remained out of sync. In her book Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies Slavin discusses this wobbly dance between the U.S. and Iran during the Clinton – Khatami years.
Early in 1998, when he was unveiling his dialogue of civilizations, Khatami, in a major interview with Iranian-born CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour, proposed cultural exchanges with the U.S. to chip away at what he called “the bulky wall of mistrust” between the two nations. In response, writes Slavin, the Clinton administration gave visas to Iranian filmmakers and university professors, and, wrestling being a popular sport in Iran, a team of U.S. wrestlers and their coaches flew to Tehran to compete in an international competition.
In September 1998, when Khatami was visiting America for the first time, attending the annual UN General Assembly, he praised President Clinton and got everyone’s attention when he said that the Iranian government would not carry out the death sentence (issued nearly ten years earlier by Ayatollah Khomeini) against Salman Rushdie. The Rushdie affair, he said, should be regarded as “completely finished.” Some commentators questioned why Khatami, as president, did not rescind the fatwa, or religious order, until they learned that since Khomenei had issued the fatwa only he could rescind it, and he had died shortly after he had issued it.
In 1999, the Clinton administration softened some U.S. sanctions on Iran, and on St. Patrick’s Day 2000, four days before the Persian New Year, Secretary Albright stunned the Iranians in a major speech in which she apologized for the role of the CIA in overthrowing Iran’s democratically-elected Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953 and reinstalling the shah. She also said that U.S. support for Saddam Hussein [in the Iran – Iraq war, 1980-1989] had been “regrettably short-sighted,” and she hinted at a further easing of sanctions.
Albright also listed areas of mutual interest to the United States and Iran and hoped that the two nations could put aside their differences and “plant the seeds for anew and better future.” Although Albright also carefully include U.S. grievances against Iran, the speech, as Slavin writes, was “a major attempt to turn” Khatami’s dialogue of civilizations between America and Iran “into a true reconciliation.”
A number of Iranian gestures toward America ensued. Tehran stopped helping Baghdad smuggle oil in violation of UN sanctions. It toned down its anti-Israel rhetoric. It agreed to accept whatever final agreement the Palestinian leadership hammered out with Israel. The latter item was huge. By implying that it would in principle recognize a two-state solution, should that be the case, Khatami’s government was indirectly granting Israel recognition. Slavin recounts a conversation in which Javad Zarif, Iran’s then UN ambassador, and currently Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs under President Rouhani, affirmed that very point. Zarif said that although Iran does not officially recognize Israel, “We believe that that position is not incompatible with accepting whatever solution the Palestinians come up with.”
Ever hear the media or the pundits on talk radio discussing this stuff? I didn’t think so. I don’t want to give the impression that the picture turned rosy. Many thorny issues remained. But the progress was noteworthy enough that the gingerly improving bilateral relations, believe it or not, continued with President George W. Bush. We will pick up that part of this fascinating wobbly dance in the next post.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Images by Ars Electronica & Nick Kenrick respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)