Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Democrats Beaten Back by the Waves of History: Is Rapprochement with Iran a Possibility?

 Outside the American embassy after a mission to rescue hostages failed
January 20th 2012 marked the 31st anniversary of the release of the American hostages held in Iran. 52 people were held for a total of 444 days in Teheran's American embassy, as the world (ie America and its allies) -- to coin a cliche, -- 'held its breath'. In retrospect, it was a somewhat significant period of time to be 'holding one's breath'.  A botched rescue mission by the name of Operation Eagle Claw, in which eight military personnel and one Iranian were killed, buried the Democrats at the 1980 elections, when the Republicans had a landslide victory, returning them to office after the disgrace of the Watergate years.  Incumbent Ronald Reagan was set up and ready instead to welcome back the hostages when they finally returned. The hostage crisis was a symptom of the severe lack of trust between the growing opposition movement to the Shah in Iran and the western powers, who seemed to believe they had the right of sovereignty in Middle Eastern affairs, but actually showed an appalling ignorance when it came to comprehending the aspirations of its people.

Burning an effigy of Uncle Sam outside U.S. embassy in Tehran
 Despite the fact that it actually happened, revolution in Iran was far from the thoughts of the western powers. United States interference in Iranian affairs had long been resented by the predominantly shi'ite population going back at least to 1953. A a coup backed by the United States and Britain, installed Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran as absolute monarch, in direct contravention to the sovereignty of the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mosaddeqq. The Shah of Iran was a Middle East strongman of my parents' generation. His position had always been  compromised by his blind adherence to the United States who were after all, responsible for his sudden influence in world affairs. He was blatantly anti-democratic and kept an autocrat's eye on what his people thought of him through a repressive domestic spy network known as the SAVAK. With the same sense of unreality that we have become used to recently, the Shah had no idea what his people really thought of him, and when the Iranian revolution happened, it came as a shock not only to the rest of the world, but also to the Shah himself.

 Decades of interference, both overt and covert,  had convinced the west that any kind of uprising to get rid of the Shah did not exist, even within the realms of possibility. Opposition to the Shah's rule within Iran was dismissed by the CIA in a report which stated only months beforehand that Persia 'was not even in a pre-revolutionary situation'. In his New Year's Eve toast in 1978 President Carter issued the immortal words, 'under the Shah's brilliant leadership Iran is an island of stability.'

An American flag set on fire by Iranian protesters
When the hostage situation emerged,  American president Jimmy Carter appeared to not grasp the seriousness of the situation, at least not to the voters at home. The hostages were returned safely, but the damage to the self-esteem of the Democrats has probably not been adequately calculated.  Domestically, the deterioration of the relationship between Iran and the United States became a political issue in the 1980's that both Democrats and Republicans used to enhance their chances of getting elected. Consequently neither party escaped with much in the way of integrity, much less public credibility.

 The Reagan  administration was plagued (at least in its second term),  by the possibility of the public finding out about a number of arms for hostages deals. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of the staff of the National Security Council  gave the go-ahead to take twelve million dollars from arm sales to Iran, and give the money to the contra 'freedom' fighters in Nicaragua. This was pointedly against all protestations from Reagan that he absolutely and categorically refused to negotiate with terrorists and that any arms for hostages deal was out of the question. [1]. An ongoing scandal for the Republicans with a Democrat congress to contend with, the exact role of President Reagan in the scandal was never properly delineated, and will probably never be known.

One of many spontaneous mass demonstrations against the Shah
The Concluding Observations of the Walsh Iran/Contra report state  that the Congress was unwilling to engage with a popular president and his executive in order to find out the truth. In doing so, Congress accepted the concept of a conspiracy by subordinate officers, so they could eliminate the need for the testimony of President Reagan and Vice President Bush. Congress was essentially defrauded, and was erroneously led to believe that the administration was acting within the law.  Despite a fighting, all-American  image the Republicans enjoyed promoting, Reagan's image was tainted both at home and abroad. Arms for hostages deals appeared to initiate more terrorism, and the United States could no longer claim the moral high ground against other nations who refused to make concessions to terrorists and their demands.

With a regime change in 1992, President Bill Clinton appealed to many as a progressive who would perhaps reach out to Iran in a show of  friendship (with of course the necessary conditions.) As with most centre-left parties in western democracies, the Democrats had to worry  about managing to stay in power, once they were elected. They had to tread carefully with the voters in order not to seem indifferent to matters of national security. They had to appear resourceful, and able to take the initiative when it came to protecting the country's interests abroad. Yet the bellicosity of the Republicans did not seem to work for them. They had to forge an image which enhanced their ability at making the peace, at reaching out and achieving some kind of dialogue with nations whose customs and religious beliefs were less comprehensible to them than others, in an area of the world as important economically as it was politically.

Reagan receiving the Tower Commission report c1987
Clinton was at first stolid in his refusal to negotiate with Iran issuing Executive Orders 12957 and 12959, banning all trade between the two countries.It could be questioned whether these orders were meant to stand or were merely symbolic of a president who was inexperienced in foreign affairs.  In the late 1990's an apology for the 1953 CIA coup was placed on the table and it seemed that the Democrats were on cue to resume  necessary diplomatic relations which had been revoked since the hostage crisis. However, an apology from the Iranians for the hostage crisis was not forthcoming in return. The executive orders were not rescinded but communications had at least been restored by a combination of private negotiation and a  desire to officially attempt to ease tensions between the two countries.

With a Democrat President currently in office, the rhetoric of the hawks with their itchy trigger fingers is balanced by a more prudent and rational discourse, as the United States attempts to balance national security pre-occupations with its  international responsibilities and its revisionist stance to right the wrongs of the disreputable regime that came before the current administration.  Neither political party has had much success in breaking through the institutionalised antipathy that America and Iran feel for each other. But that isn't to say that it won't happen, and in the process save the world from a confrontation that may be too dreadful to contemplate.

[1] Bob Woodward, Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1999, Ch. 10, p. 110.

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