Keep it simple
Free thoughts on Iran-U.S. normalization
December 9, 1999
There is no cogent structure to this essay. It is a boundless running
of the consciousness and unconsciousness, rambling on and muddling through
one of the greatest mysteries of our times: When should dialogue culminate
in intercourse and what does the case of Iranians accused of spying for
Israel have to do with Hillary Clinton seeking the senate seat from New
York, or a bunch of American scholars getting pulled out of Tehran last
summer, or Iranian and American governments constantly threatening one
another on how they will not go ahead with a nonexisting relationship!
There are many reasons why the United States should normalize relations
with Iran and there are equally convincing reasons why Iran should normalize
relations with the United States. Those reasons, however, are generally
subjective in nature. The proponents of normalizing relations articulate
their reasons in national terms, but their national-interest rhetoric really
masks personal preferences and dedication to the pursuit of self-interest.
The same is true of people who prefer no normalization or little of it.
Given the coincidence and mutuality of interests in many areas such
as geopolitics, trade, and cultural exchanges, why not go ahead and normalize
relations? The answer, as simple as it is, is often drowned in attempts
to over-complicate the issue. The answer is, one cannot just go ahead with
normalization, because in order to effect normalization the parties must
agree as to the timing and, even more importantly, the content or nature
of the normalized relations. The lack of consensus on timing and nature
of those relations has gummed up the works.
Some American and Iranian commentators believe that the results of the
next Iranian parliamentary elections would inform the next steps in the
normalization process and so the mantra in Tehran and Washington presently
is "Let us wait and see" or "We need to be patient".
This is about as useless a proposition as saying that the results of the
next round of American elections would do the same informing in this country.
Take the case of the United States. Here, roughly speaking, the president
and his coterie of national security advisors and cabinet officers formulate
foreign policy, the Congress appropriates funding, and the Department of
State implements it. Surely, there is consultation among the various player
groups, including the business community but, by and large, those who constitutionally
have responsibility to formulate and pay for foreign policy are elected
officials and their election in this day and age is hardly ever decided
by international concerns, unless the issue has a specific hyphenated constituency
appeal, such as Israeli peace and security in the context of the Jewish
vote or the US-Cuban relations in the context of the Cuban-American vote.
In the case of Iran, US imperialism, Zionism, and other forms of satanic
isms too find their electoral appeal.
In the twenty years that has interposed since Iran's republican revolution,
Washington has seen six administrations come and five go, Democrat and
Republican. In the same period, Iran has had a few administrations of its
own and two supreme leaders. When it comes to the two countries' representative
bodies, the U.S. Congress and the Iranian Majlis each has had its own "hardline"
and "moderate" camps, religious zealots and pragmatists. Hell
may freeze first before the internal electoral processes in the two countries
would ever contribute positively to the normalization process.
The record indicates the contrary. In the past twenty years, neither
the electoral process, nor domestic concerns or ideological differences
have stood in the way of Iran and the United States dealing with one another
where their interests converged. While others may add many examples of
this than this space permits, one prime example of this is the Iran-Contra
Affair, where Iran under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini bought American
arms through Israel and the United States diverted the earnings from that
transaction to finance counter-revolutionaries fighting the communist government
in Nicaragua. Meanwhile, the officials of the Reagan administration paraded
into Tehran bearing cakes, keys and bibles to promote goodwill.
The public disclosure of the Contra Affair caused no embarrassment to
Tehran, but only a slight constitutional and penal detriment to some of
the American actors involved. National interest was served in both capitals.
In Iran, the arms helped the war effort against Iraq, which pleased Israel
and the United States because an Iraqi victory would have spelled longterm
threats to Saudi Arabia and Israel. No one's god proved mightier than self-interest;
the religion that Iran and the United States espoused was therefore one
based on mutual advantage, not theologies. No one understood this better
than Khomeini, in whose view everything is at the service of the Islamic
If timing has nothing to do with it, if Iran and the United States have
dealt with one another before in the past two decades, if they share so
much in common objectives -- then, why is it so difficult to normalize
relations? Because, the nature, content, or shape of normalized relations
is as yet to be envisioned and articulated in a cogent and cognizable form.
The problem is that any vision of the future is largely laced with fears
grounded in past experiences. In Washington, the fear is owed to how relations
with Tehran would affect relations with other Middle Eastern states, especially
the relationships which have evolved largely in countermeasure to Iran
in the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and the Caspian regions. In Tehran, resistance
to normalization comes from the fear of American cultural hegemony, with
all of it ramifications, including the changes which it will engender in
Iranian homes and bedrooms. In terms of Iranian national interest, resistance
to normalization comes from the fear of being once against exploited and
dictated by America.
The fear of being dictated or exploited is endemic to the Iranian view
of the United States. It is a mistake to point to the Islamic leadership
and presence of religious hardliners in government as the reason Iran is
not moving to normalize relations with the United States. The essence of
virulent anti-Americanism in Iran is in Iranian nationalism, which was
there before the rise of Khomeini and will remain long after the Iranian
parliament is filled with moderates and cream puffs longing for relations
with the United States. It is ultimately the American penchant to dictate
and interfere in domestic affairs which compels the Iranian leadership
to take a super cautious approach to rapprochement.
While president Khatami has asked for a dialogue between the civilizations,
president Clinton has been insisting on intercourse. No case best illustrates
this than the recent Clinton-Khatami contacts. It is on the public record,
through clandestine or otherwise "quiet diplomacy" Clinton asked
Iran last summer to "help" apprehend and extradite the alleged
perpetrators of the bombing of the Khobar tower in Saudi Arabia. He is
also said to have warned Khatami, under threat of use of force, that the
path to normalization would be irreparably damaged if Iran moved ahead
with the trial of the Iranian citizens who had been arrested in March and
April, 1999, in Shiraz on charges of espionage for Israel and the United
States; thirteen of the accused were Jewish and the other eight were Moslem.
Under the 1996 law, if convicted of spying for the United States or Israel,
one could receive the death sentence.
When pressed about Clinton contacts with Khatami on the on again, off
again "spy trial", State Department spokesman James Rubin side-stepped
the matter by saying that he had nothing more to say on the Clinton-Khatami
contacts, which he had discussed in the context of the Khobar matter. What
the United States and Iranian governments have yet to disclose is the response
which Khatami might have sent to Clinton on the matter: "The issue
surrounding the detention and trial of Iranian citizens on the charges
of espionage is entirely an Iranian matter", Khatami could have written.
Quite Chinaesque, the retort could have added a pinch of Iranian indignation,
too: "This is none of your business, Mr. Clinton."
The animus generated by the so-called spy trial and Khobar issues resulted
apparently in a few anxious and tense moments last summer, hastening apparently
the departure from Tehran of a group of American scholars "studying"
in Iran. The handling of that abrupt departure by the Swiss Embassy, which
looks after American interests in Iran, might well have been the reason
for president Clinton's next request of Khatami, to allow the United States
to open a consular office in Iran, ostensibly to ensure correct reading
of events in the future.
The problem with the Clinton administration lecturing Iran on the "spy
trial" is that the United States has no moral authority to lecture
anyone on anything, much less on this subject. Jonathan J. Pollard some
years back was arrested, tried and convicted of spying for Israel. Apparently,
he faced up to his responsibility in the matter; his lawyers have argued
since about the severity of his punishment, which is a life sentence. Compared
to this sentence, what others received for spying for the former Soviet
Union seemed like a slap on the wrist. The supplication of the Israeli
government and others on his behalf has failed to soften the Clinton administration's
resolve; Pollard remains locked up in a Federal penitentiary.
Nor does the United States have the moral authority to lecture anyone
about human rights and due process, largely because its own prosecutorial
practices at home and "championing" of causes abroad smack of
double standards, if not outright hypocrisy. The case of China is only
one stark example of the Clinton administration and its predecessors fawning
over China at the expense of human rights and due process, doing precious
little in either regard for fear of upsetting the profit cart. Principle
is sacrificed to expediency, universal human rights to provincial corporate
greed. The fact is that the United States has no business with or interest
in Iran and so it is free to lecture it or even threaten it with physical
harm. No wonder then, in a relationship so hollow every American whisper
should resonate as deafening, intrusive and assaulting to Iranian ears.
The Western countries' condemnation of the "spy trial" must
have had its desired effect in postponing the trial, for reasons which
are not fully explained. In September, the head of Tehran's revolutionary
court announced that the "spying charges had been proved" and
that the court was in possession of "strong and sufficient documents"
in the case. If the charges against the spies were "proved" sufficiently
to bound them for trial, then what could possibly be the reason for not
proceeding to trial. Foreign pressure, Iranian pressure, or the hollow
nature of the charges themselves? Iranian officials, nevertheless, insisted
repeatedly that the matter was not political and was purely a matter for
the "independent" judiciary.
In October, on his visit to Paris, Khatami pledged that the 13 Jews
would receive a "just and fair trial." He also asked, rhetorically,
why the case of the eight accused Moslems had not received the same level
of concern in the West. By allowing the question to be divided or recognizing
publicly its division into a Jewish-Moslem split, Khatami did a great disservice
to the cause of justice and due process in Iran and for all Iranians. He
allowed the Western vituperations on the issue to define the terms of the
debate; those who define the terms, also control the debate. His statement
on the subject should have left absolutely no doubt that any Iranian brought
before the courts should receive a fair trial. To pledge it, as Khatami
did, simply underscored the point that not even this most elemental principle
of justice has become second nature to the Iranian system of justice.
On November 23, 1999, the head of the Tehran revolutionary court had
stated publicly that several of the accused Jews could be freed "in
the national interest". He also said in the same breath, the Iranian
judiciary was continuing its work on the case without "heeding foreign
pressure". That he had to couple the freedom of the accused to independence
of the judiciary from foreign pressure speaks volumes about the intimate
connection between the two, despite denials. The head of the revolutionary
court was also quick to point out that the fate of the accused could be
decided also by the Iranian leadership which "has to consider the
interests of the country". That, he said, "was not the job of
the court". If they are released in national interest, he said, it
"will happen independently of the justice system". So much for
the "independence" of the Iranian judiciary!
It is always good news when an accused innocent is sprung free from
the criminal process. It is however a complete abomination and subversion
of the judicial process if an accused bound for trial is simply freed during
the process because sheer political expediency or extra-judicial influence
demands it. Granting amnesty or clemency is acceptable conduct under the
Iranian constitution and perhaps the leadership may contemplate that possibility
if and when the trial produces convictions. Prosecutorial discretion is
also an acceptable reason for abandoning or proceeding with a prosecution,
even in the middle of a case. In this case, however, what baffles is the
complete subordination of the judicial process, regardless of Iran's claim
to have an independent judiciary.
It should no longer be a secret, when the Iranian leadership refers
to "independence" of the judiciary it does so only to obfuscate
by shifting responsibility on another branch of government. Therefore,
in the case of the "spy trials" the Iranian government, too,
does not have the moral authority to lecture to the United States about
the inviolability of its internal affairs because, by all objective measures,
it has shown a manifest disregard for its own constitutional requirements
of due process and independent justice. That is an invitation to America
and everybody else to meddle rightfully in Iranian affairs.
This affair is also interesting in that its handling by the Clinton
administration may well end up affecting Mrs. Clinton's run for the U.S.
Senate from New York. Already Mrs. Clinton raised eyebrows with Jewish
voters when she declared many years back that she favored a Palestinian
state. Her husband's arm-twisting of the former Israeli premier Netanyahu
over the peace process alienated many other Jewish voters from the Clinton
camp. Recently, Mrs. Clinton again raised concerns when she was late in
responding to Mrs. Arafat's statements about the Israeli atrocities against
her people. Mrs. Clinton therefore cannot afford a mishandling of the 13
Iranian Jews facing spying charges. Being "tough on Iran" may
well attract two sets of voters to Mrs. Clinton , Jews and perennial Iran-haters.
Ultimately, if the trial proceeds and produces convictions and the Iranian
government permits their departure from Iran, would the Clinton administration
grant the accused residence in the United States and house them near where
Pollard is held captive? Or perhaps, they will be paraded down 5th Avenue
just before the November 2000 elections?
Enmity with one another serves Iran and the United States in ways that
political friendship may not and so there is no incentive to normalize.
Rightly, the fear of what that friendship might entail should scare Iranians
and Americans alike. Yet, there is a sector in the United States and Iran
which, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, fears nothing, but fear itself;
that is the business community. The business interests in the two countries
should demand of their respective governments to get out of the way of
trade and investment. Commercial relations based on negotiated mutual advantage
and self-interest is the only inherently balanced vehicle toward eventual
normalization of relations on other levels.