American foreign policy has reached a crossroads that obliges us to rethink how diplomatic lines are drawn. The allies we choose today, particularly in the Middle East, will have a pronounced impact on our future well-being and security. Regrettably, we are bypassing a golden opportunity with the most unthinkable of allies – Iran.
Ayatollah Khomeini, the hostage crisis, and terrorism dominate Americans’ popular image of Iran. But past history can no longer be the criterion upon which to base foreign policy. If it were, Russia would be a charter member of the “axis of evil” instead of a US ally (albeit a lukewarm one) as it is today.
That doesn’t mean history can be ignored. The origin of today’s stand-off goes back fifty years, when the US helped overthrow a progressive and popular government in Iran, replacing it the Shah. We propped up the Shah’s corrupt and repressive regime with a brutal death squad (“Savak”) headed by the father of Gulf War hero General Shwartzkopf. The hostage crisis that followed the Shah’s overthrow in 1979 was a direct result of intense popular frustration at our role.
Present day Iran looks and feels very different from twenty years ago. The streets are frequently flooded with student protesters demanding democracy. After September 11th, thousands of Iranians turned out at a candlelight vigil in Tehran — making Iran the only Muslim nation to hold such an event. The economy is growing fast and is attracting large investments from Europe and Asia. The country also sits atop one of the world’s largest natural gas reserves, the fuel of the future.
Despite all this, Iran continues to be cold-shouldered by the Bush Administration. At the same time we remain close allies with Saudi Arabia, one of the most corrupt and oppressive monarchies in the region.
If the US were to extend an arm of friendship to the growing student movement in Iran today that would pay immense dividends in the future. With a possible long-term US involvement in Iraq looming, we need the help of a friendly government as a partner in dealing with regional turmoil. Europe has already seen the light and is developing friendly ties with Iran, pouring billions of dollars into the country. So why are we ignoring such a strategic opportunity?
The official Administration line is that Iran is developing weapons of mass destruction. Ignoring the fact that US allies such as Pakistan and Israel are doing exactly the same, the truth is that Iran has built, under Russian supervision, a nuclear power plant to ease its power crisis. To date about 60 outside inspections have been conducted and all have deemed Iran clean. Iran is also a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which India, Israel, and Pakistan all refuse to sign.
America’s shortsighted foreign policy has a habit of coming back to haunt us – including our past support for Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Military might is not the only (or even the most effective) way to solve the Middle East’s problems. We must fashion strategic partnerships that will not only aide our current efforts, but will bear fruit in the future. Iran is the single most promising candidate for such an alliance. Holding the country’s hand as it makes the transition to democracy might be turbulent at times. But, in the end, we will have a key Middle Eastern ally that will be there for us when we need it most.
Baha Hariri is pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.