Ignore the extremists in Tehran and on Capitol Hill

Detente with Iran could unleash a cascade of benefits

November 18, 2013 1:15PM ET
Iranians burn U.S. flags outside the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 2013, during a demonstration to mark the 34th anniversary of the 1979 embassy takeover.
AFP/Getty Images

On Nov. 4 in Tehran, several thousand demonstrators converged on the site of the long-abandoned U.S. Embassy and, repeating an annual ritual, chanted "Death to America!" One of their leaders, Saeed Jalili, who earlier this year ran unsuccessfully for president, told the crowd that "fighting the global arrogance and hostile policies of America is a symbol of our national solidarity."

Nine days later in Washington, members of the U.S. Congress took part in an eerily similar ritual. None used the phrase "Death to Iran," but at a hearing staged by the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, they competed with one another at denouncing Iran with ever more colorful fervor. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., called for "even stricter sanctions"; Ted Poe, R-Texas, called the recently inaugurated president of Iran "a slick snake-oil salesman"; and Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., lamented that Americans were "making a fool out of ourselves" by negotiating with Iran.

These two collections of shortsighted extremists are mirror images of each other. Deeply invested in the norm of U.S.-Iran hostility and unable or unwilling to see the strategic interests their countries share, they are working frantically to upset diplomatic progress toward reconciliation. If they succeed, both countries will suffer.

In Iran the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard Corps has emerged as a key force opposed to reconciliation. It has good reason. American hostility has made this organization, which has been an instrument of brutal repression, very wealthy. The corps runs the lucrative sanction-busting business, taking speedboats full of forbidden goods across the Persian Gulf. The regime of comprehensive sanctions the United States has imposed on Iran makes this business possible. If ties between Washington and Tehran are normalized, sanctions will be eased or lifted, and there will be no more need for sanction busters.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee is emerging as a U.S. version of Iran's rejectionist Revolutionary Guard Corps. Its Nov. 13 hearing was another reflection of its determination to keep Iran and the United States locked in eternal hostility.

"I'm so upset over the fact that this administration thinks that if they put their arms around these terrorists, we're going to sing 'Kumbaya' and everything's going to be fine," said Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa.

These two mirror organizations, the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the House Foreign Affairs Committee, form a bizarre partnership aimed at assuring that diplomacy between Washington and Tehran fails. The emotion that undergirds their mutual hostility is deeply dangerous to both Iran and the United States. Emotion is always the enemy of wise statesmanship. As farseeing leaders in Washington and Tehran seek to lead their countries out of a bitter 34-year confrontation, emotion leads radicals to self-defeating extremes.

If emotion is the worst guide for diplomacy, cool assessment of national interest is the best.

There is ample reason for Iranians and Americans to fear and detest each other. In 1953 the United States intervened to destroy Iranian democracy — a tragic blow from which Iran has never recovered. In 1979 Iranian activists stormed the U.S. Embassy and held diplomats hostage for more than a year. Since then, each side has launched concerted and at times violent campaigns against the other.

If emotion is the worst guide for diplomacy, cool assessment of national interest is the best. By this standard, reconciliation between the United States and Iran makes eminent good sense. No step the United States could take anywhere in the world would strengthen U.S. national security more quickly and decisively than reconciliation with Iran.

The United States has an urgent interest in stabilizing Iraq, where hundreds of people are dying every month in a horrifically escalating civil conflict. Americans have an equally pressing interest in assuring that Afghanistan does not degenerate into full-scale war after the U.S. military withdraws next year. Finding a way to end the terrible violence in Syria is also an important U.S. interest. Only with the cooperation of Iran, which borders Iraq and Afghanistan and has influence in all three countries, can the United States hope to achieve these goals.

Iran and the United States are both deeply troubled by the Afghan drug trade, which is the source of most of the world's heroin.  Even more important, Iran is the bitter enemy of radical Sunni groups like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani seem to grasp these common interests. They seek partnership not because they are love struck but because both see great strategic benefits.

Americans are right to mistrust Iran's assurances that its nuclear program has only peaceful goals. For years, Iran has been deceptive and mendacious as it seeks to hide aspects of this program from public view. Only by fully opening its nuclear facilities to outside inspectors can Iran reassure the world. The way to guarantee that this openness is permanent and verifiable is through negotiation. Yet in their most recent hearing, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee sought to assure that this negotiation fails.

In the 1940s, President Franklin Roosevelt led the United States into a partnership with Joseph Stalin. Decades later, President Richard Nixon made Mao Zedong a partner. These dictators were among the most monstrous criminals in modern history. The United States made them partners not because we respected or admired them but for a simple reason: It was in our interest. The same calculation drives wise strategists in the United States to seek a partnership with Iran. Inability to make this calculation drives shortsighted politicians in Washington to take steps that directly weaken U.S. security.

Bringing Iran out of the diplomatic cold could unleash a cascade of benefits. A negotiated settlement to the nuclear dispute, based on strict verification requirements, would guarantee that Iran never acquires nuclear weapons. In Iran it might well lead to a political opening that could have wide-ranging effects, including greater respect for human rights and more moderate policies toward Israel.  

Reconciliation between Tehran and Washington would be a turning point in modern Middle Eastern history. Those in both capitals who seek to block it are undermining the long-term security of their two countries. They are also missing a remarkable chance to calm escalating crises in which Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians are dying every day.         

Stephen Kinzer is a former New York Times foreign correspondent who has covered more than 50 countries on five continents. He is the author of “Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change From Hawaii to Iraq” and “The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles and Their Secret World War.” He is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, where he teaches international relations.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

US-Iran Diplomacy

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter