Iran and the US should offer a mutual apology

It is time to bury the past and start a new relationship

November 21, 2013 4:30PM ET
A portrait of Howard Baskerville

After a turbulent 10-day recess, Iranian and American negotiators — along with representatives from the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and from Germany — resumed their negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program in Geneva on Wednesday. The delegations from both the U.S. and Iran are led by seasoned, thoughtful diplomats. The greatest obstacle they face is not each other’s intransigence but radicals at home.

There is one step that would greatly advance the cause of peace between the two countries: a frank and heartfelt apology for past wrongs. But domestic political realities inside both countries — fear that extremists will denounce any apology as a sign of weakness or self-flagellation — prevent any president of either country from uttering those often-painful words, "I'm sorry."

Yet each side in this poisoned relationship has good reason to seek pardon from the other. Since neither can be realistically expected to issue an apology of its own, they might consider a joint statement in which they recognize the harm they have done to each other and agree, if not to forgive each other, at least to put the past behind them as they move toward a more promising future.

Albright's hedged apology

Sincere and deeply felt apologies are rare in the realm of international affairs. When they are made at all, apologies are often halfhearted, full of qualifications and self-justification. Often they do as much harm as good.

Such was the case when then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acknowledged America's role in overthrowing Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh of Iran in 1953. Though not precisely an apology, it was intended as a gesture of goodwill toward Iran. Albright told a group of American business leaders in 2000 that the United States "must bear its fair share of responsibility for the problems that have arisen in U.S.-Iranian relations." She added that "in 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran's popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh," and acknowledged that "it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs."

Yet political realities dictated that in the same speech, Albright accused Iran of a host of sins. She said — not without justification — that Iran’s government was responsible for "religious persecution," that it was engaged in a "determined effort to acquire technology, materials and assistance needed to develop nuclear weapons" and that "control over the military, judiciary, courts and police remains in unelected hands."

The blood that an American shed in defense of Iran’s freedom a century ago fell on fertile soil.

Her statement disturbed Americans who believe their country should never apologize for anything. It also failed to touch Iranian hearts, because it was shrouded in familiar anti-Iran rhetoric.

Incomplete as it was, Albright's statement at least included recognition that the United States had acted aggressively and unjustly against Iran. That is further than any Iranian leader has gone to acknowledge Iran's misdeeds.

Text of a mutual apology

Drafting the text of such a "mutual apology" would be a delicate but intriguing task for diplomats. It might look like this:

At the beginning of the 20th century, a young American schoolteacher named Howard Baskerville came to Tabriz, Iran, full of enthusiasm for the country's democracy. Moved by the love of freedom that is part of both countries' heritage, he joined forces with brave Iranians who were fighting for their liberty. On April 20, 1909, he was killed in battle, making him the only American to have given his life for the cause of Iranian freedom. In the spirit of Baskerville, we seek to return our two countries to the path of peaceful cooperation.

Violent currents that surged through the world over the last 100 years pushed us off that path. Both countries, acting in what we mistakenly considered to be our national interest, took steps that undermined what should have been a strong friendship based on shared ideals. As we seek to rebuild our partnership, we acknowledge the harm we have inflicted upon each other. This we do with sincere regret, and with the hope that recognizing errors of the past will allow us to surmount the bitterness that has divided us for too long.

In 1953 the United States violated Iran’s sovereignty by intervening to depose a democratically elected government. Over the next 25 years, the United States supported an authoritarian regime that made the re-emergence of democracy impossible. In the 1980s, the United States supported Iran's enemy in a war in which hundreds of thousands were killed. American operations over the last three decades have aimed to limit Iran’s growth and restrict its ability to defend itself.

Iran has also taken steps that have contributed to the hostility between our two countries. The seizure of diplomats as hostages in 1979 violated both Iranian and international law. In the years that followed, American blood was spilled in attacks launched by groups that found support in Iran. Iranian operations have been aimed at undermining American interests in the Middle East and beyond.

Each side has threatened and denounced the other in terms that were disrespectful and that escalated tensions between our peoples. We have not been fully candid with each other. Nor have we fully recognized the pain that many Iranian and American families felt, and still feel, as a result of acts that our governments have carried out.

Our security interests are legitimate and deserve respect. In the past we have acted to defend what we perceived to be our national security, but we did not always calculate our security interests carefully. If we differ in the future, we will confront our differences peacefully, without the threat or use of force. We commit ourselves to seek, actively and without reservation, peace and justice within our countries, in the Middle East and around the world. Misjudgments of the past are now consigned to the past.

The blood that an American shed in defense of Iran’s freedom a century ago fell on fertile soil. From that soil, we seek to nurture a fruitful partnership that will serve American and Iranian interests without infringing on those of any other country.

An apology like this is not a precondition of better relations between Iran and the United States. More urgent and tangible questions must be dealt with first.  Durable partnership between longtime rivals, however, must be based on an acknowledgment of the factors from which the rivalry sprang. Candid recognition of historical facts, especially if done jointly, can help solidify what may soon become a mutually beneficial strategic relationship between the United States and Iran. 

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.

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