The mere fact that the announcement by Secretary of State Rice, that the US government is willing to talk to the Iranian regime, was received around the world as great news is indicative of the enormity of the crisis between the two countries. Talking with enemies has always been the norm, rather than the exception, in international relations. In modern times the US has done it with most of its adversaries. Negotiation was almost a constant feature of US-North Vietnamese relations even at the height of their hostilities. Talk between the American government and Saddam’s regime in Iraq was going on and off for most of the time before both “Gulf Wars”. North Korea too, another fellow of Iranian regime in the President Bush’s trio of “axis of evil” is in long conversation with the US for many years. Fighting means that you oppose each other. But not talking – it amounts to hate.
The hate from the Iranian side has been explicit and overt. From the “Death to America” slogans that can be heard in virtually every government-sponsored mass gathering for over 25 years, to huge billboards with the same hate content adorning premium sites in Tehran and elsewhere, the message is clear. The Iranian regime does not look at the US as its adversary but as an object of hate. The slogan refers not to the US administration but to America. Compare this to the attitude shown by the Iranian regime towards its adversary Iraq during the 8 long years of fighting and bloodshed. There, all the hate was being directed at Saddam personally and not Iraq. You never heard a slogan like “Death to Iraq”, but always “Death to Saddam”. Along with the US, only three other countries in the world have been subject of “Death to” slogans under the Islamic Republic regime: Israel, Britain and the old USSR (on occasions).
From the American side, too, the element of hate can be detected. However, this hate is specifically directed at the Iranian regime and not the Iranian people or the Iranian State. How else the US government’s repeated statements that it respects the Iranian people and has high regards for them can be explained? When was the last time we heard an American official paying respect to the North Korean people in terms used to address the Iranian people? The explicit hate shown by the Iranian regime towards America has generated distaste in America towards the Islamic regime, and repeated assurances that the US has no quarrel with the Iranian people only reinforces that attitude.
In other words, the US distaste for the Iranian regime has come as a reaction to the Iranian attitude. The hate relationship started from the Iranian side, its cause being partly historical and partly ideological. The historical bit relates to the CIA-sponsored coup against the democratic government of Dr. Mossaddegh in 1953 and the support given to the Shah’s regime afterwards. But this played a minor part in the hate attitude after the 1979 revolution. After all, the British has had no better record in Iranian politics over the last century or so, and there were no raids on the British Embassy or so much hostility shown to them as to the Americans. The major part was ideological: viewing America as the bastion of Western civilisation so much anathema to the backward thinking of the Mullahs, or as the Imperialist power so much the object of hatred by the ideological Left who greatly influenced the new Islamic regime.
But are we now witnessing an end to this hate relationship? Surely, the vocabulary of the two governments has started to change. However, this may be only on the surface. There are strong reasons to believe that the change of heart on both sides is tactical rather than strategic. The two sides have different and diverging objectives in mind in this tactical move and the two lines of thought may not meet.
The Iranian regime is trying to buy time. It views the Bush administration as a dying one. It will soon pass its half term mark, and is going through one of its lowest ratings in the opinion polls. The Iraq debacle has finally caught up with his credibility and has hampered any attempt at a new misadventure. The mid-term election is looming and the president has not much to rely on in a bold foreign policy. So from the Iranian side, engaging Americans in never-ending rounds of talks may be the best way of seeing the end of Bush administration and the neocons’ aggressive strategy in the Middle East. And in the meantime, if the Iranian regime can continue with its enrichment program to the weapon-level point, the better. Hence, the categorical insistence by the Islamic regime that it will not accept any suspension of its nuclear program.
The US government, on the other hand, is trying to impress Russia and China that it is doing all it can to resolve the Iranian regime’s nuclear crisis peacefully. Getting the consent of these two countries for a UN resolution has so far proved very difficult. So the US has agreed to talk to Iran, as well as agreeing to other “incentives”, but making it conditional that Iran suspends its enrichment program. The US is doing it without being very hopeful that Iran would accept the condition. It hopes to demonstrate to Russia and China (and the rest of the world) that Iran has no intention of giving up its suspicious nuclear program. Then it can press these reluctant countries to agree that there are no other means left but to threaten Iran with sanctions.
So the two governments are trying to use the offer of talk as means of achieving different objectives. The Islamic regime has successfully used the talk mechanism with Europeans to buy time while under US threat of invasion following the US-UK attack on Iraq. Once that threat was apparently lifted (due to the Iraq debacle), it saw no more need to continue with the talk and to suspend the enrichment program. So with the new fundamentalist president in power in Tehran, it broke off the negotiations and resumed the nuclear activities. Now it wants to talk while these activities continue. On the other hand, the US has offered to talk only if these activities ceased. There is no midway point for the two conditions to meet. One side has to yield for talks to take place. Some new brinkmanship is in place, but the prospect of talk has not much improved. The hate relationship between the two governments is still dominant.
Hossein Bagher Zadeh is a human rights activist and commentator on Iranian political and human rights issues. He is a spokesperson for Manshoor 81 (Charter 2003). His weekly column on Iranian affairs (in Persian) appears in Iran Emrooz and Iranian publications. He lives in England.