Clinton & the Iranian-American community
September 22, 2000
A while back a friend asked my opinion about a piece in which he had
compared the reported search by presidents Clinton and Khatami for some
sort of elusive legacy. Exhorting Clinton to work harder toward normalizing
Iran-U.S. relations, the piece ended with a very probing question: What
is Clinton's legacy? To this query, I quipped, "A blow job or two
by Monica Lewinsky." Then, I got to thinking about all this by some
in the Iranian-American community to measure Clinton's political legacy
in terms of Iran-U.S. relations. Flippantly, I fired back at my friend:
"Never mind Clinton's legacy, what about Khatami's?"
Legacy, indeed! The word means "bequest" or "inheritance,"
something left to the survivors by will, hand, or other methods. In political
terms, the word is used to convey a sense of continuity or leaving behind
something slightly less mortal than one's tenure in office or life itself.
In any event, legacies happen after the fact, but some believe that somehow
Clinton can fabricate his legacy now and by himself. He can try, as can
Khatami, just as a testator puts together his own will, but the truth
is that in politics legacy is created by the public and not until the
person is out of office. It is all about how or for what one remembers
The issue of legacies is an overrated phenomenon in American politics,
if for no reason then at least because in the United States politics is
consensus and not one person can take all the credit for a policy. The
notion or exhortation to leave behind a particular legacy is often foisted
on sitting presidents in order to get them to do things that they otherwise
are not willing to do.
The broadcloth of any political legacy is not a specific policy or its
consequence, or an act of commission or omission by the president: it
all boils down to that by which the people will remember Clinton, a sort
of word association game. "I name the president, you tell me the
first thing that comes to your mind." The answer to that question
often will come from impressions that the American popular culture imprints
on us. Nixon arguably opened the door to China, but most remember him
for Watergate and his self-promoting proclamation that he was not a crook.
To those who wanted to see him finish off Saddam, George Bush was a wimp,
but most Americans will remember him for breaking his "no new taxes"
pledge. But in eastern Europe, Bush is revered as the great emancipator
of the Soviet colonies. In Iraq, he is viewed as a mad dog. I wonder why.
Clinton will be the youngest president to leave office. He has a proverbial
few good years left in him and all this talk about his legacy is premature.
It is conceivable that we might not remember him as a successful two-term
U.S. president, but rather as the Secretary General of the United Nations,
or a judge on the International Court of Justice or the U.S. Supreme Court,
or the governor of New York or California, or "the king of the world."
The same goes for Monica Lewinsky, who might be remembered not for her
intimacy with Clinton but rather for her tulips on display at her flower
shop on Santa Monica Boulevard.
In foreign policy, Clinton has achieved much, even if the results are
not all in and the jury is out on many of them. The Irish initiative,
Bosnia, Kosovo, Arab-Israeli peace, Russia-U.S. relations, China and
the World Trade Organization, inaction in Africa, lifting of the deli sanctions
against Iran, opening to Vietnam, softening of the Cuba policy, keeping
Iraq in the box, the Cyprus initiative, nonproliferation, and so on. If
I have omitted a legacy, the reader should take the omission as evidence
that legacies are numerous in quantity and often subjective in their appeal.
In the area of foreign policy, Clinton and Khatami should be expected
to leave not a legacy but many different legacies. But it is not very
clear whether either leader thinks of his legacy in terms of normalization
of relations between the United States and Iran. Their acts certainly
do not show it, but their rhetoric on the issue has sounded wishful on
this score, at least until Khatami's remarks in New York earlier this
month to a group of Iranians. On that occasion, he acknowledged as a good
step the United States' admission of responsibility in the overthrow of
the Iranian government in 1953. But, and this is a big but, he also intimated
that the United States should now apologize for its role. If that were
done, expect the Iranian government to then demand compensation.
It has become standard operating procedure for the Iranian government
to constantly move the goalpost when it comes to defining what it wants
from Washington, the haggling is endless and bait-and-switch routine.
Carter was burned by the Iranian government's tactics and negotiating
postures. President Reagan and his vice president, George Bush, were betrayed
by the Iranian government over the arms-for-hostages deal. Bush, too,
with all his international diplomatic skills could not figure out the
Iranian government. Clinton, too, has had his share of receiving contradictory
signals. Caution therefore is required by experience and compelled by
prudence. In contrast to Iran's vacillations, the United States has stuck
to its three requirements from Tehran -- forsaking of military nuclear
technology and weapons of mass destruction, noninterference in the Arab-Israeli
peace process, and an end to state-sponsored terrorism.
The Nixon overture to China is often cited as the model for Clinton
to emulate in shaping his foreign policy legacy toward Iran. That was
another time and another place in history, however, and the Nixon initiative
came after decades of no relationship at all between the United Sates
and Red China. Besides, the two countries needed one another to deal with
the Vietnam War and the Soviet Union. None of those conditions are present
here: there is no complete absence of relations between Iran and the United
States, as the two countries continue to flirt with one another openly,
always falling short of that embrace so desired by many here and in Iran.
With the demise of the Soviet Union, there is no common adversary that
would compel closer cooperation between Iran and the United States. Some
issue-by-issue cooperation does take place and perhaps that is the best
for both the United States and Iran in the short to medium term.
By the sound of his remarks in New York, the Iranian president did not
seem to be either personally eager or politically capable of pursuing
diplomatic rapprochement with the United States. While Clinton is leaving
office in January, Khatami has just begun at home. Khatami is in the grip
of a visceral domestic fight with his ideological adversaries; Clinton
is a lame-duck president who does not mind putting off to his successor
the hard decisions, like a national strategic missile defense system.
Clinton could finish at least what he started in March of this year, which
was to signal the lifting of the ban on some Iranian imports. He should
go the full distance and allow for the Iranian oil, carpets and caviar
to become once again available to the American consumer.
But this is an election year and how would a decision on Iran play
into the hands of the Republicans? As for a possible snipping by the Republicans,
the president's decision on liberalizing Iranian trade relations will
be fire-proof because Dick Cheney, the Republican vice-presidential candidate,
has just resigned as the CEO of the oil giant Halli-Burton, which still
has significant operations in Iran. Although, nothing in the past has prevented
the Republican pot calling the Democrat kettle black. Besides, the Leiberman
vice presidency, in the case the Democrats retain the White House, will
serve to make sure that an Iranian-American entente does not overshadow
the traditional American support for Israel. Greater overtures to Iran,
may very well be exactly the impetus needed by the Israelis and Palestinians
to jump start the Middle East peace process. Prudence however dictates
that the opening of the door to Iran be done in such a manner that the
door does not come off its hinges altogether.
Maybe improved Iranian-American relations is in the cards. Maybe not.
Either way, the Clinton presidency will leave behind an Iranian legacy,
for the better or worse. How he will be remembered in American history,
however, will not be because of his Iran policy. As for the Iranian-American
community, it should grow to not care about what Clinton or his successor
thinks of Iran, but rather what Americans think of Iran and the Iranians
among them. It is in this field the Iranian-Americans should labor, to
change the image of the "I-rainian" in America's pop culture.
That begins with becoming teachers, social workers, and volunteers in
the communities across this country, with taking back one's Iranian name
from the ravages of expedient abbreviations and Americophone equivalents,
with no longer practicing a bizarre mixture of elitism and victimhood.
Guive Mirfendereski is a professorial lecturer in international relations
and law and practices law in Massachusetts.