The United States and Iran: restructuring a fractured relationship

Iran’s reported dinner-table snub of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Sharm el-Sheikh and the recent arrest of American Middle East expert Haleh Esfandiari are the latest in the U.S.-Iran shouting match.

For years, Iran and the United States have been flexing their political and military muscle, yet failing to show their diplomatic agility. We are tenuously positioned for a violent confrontation but ill prepared for constructive communication.
The temptation is to apply unilateral economic sanctions or enforce international political isolation. However, our failure to address the underlying issues may cause such standard deterrent strategies to backfire and lead to an unexpected conflict.

A review of the U.S.-Iranian historical relationship reveals a legacy of misdeeds and misunderstanding. Iran has yet to forget 1953, when British and American intelligence agents overthrew democratically elected Mohammed Mossadeq, a liberal reformer who threatened to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. We brought the Shah of Iran back from exile and he proved a compliant tool of American and British interests. The Shah’s secret police also terrorized and suppressed all opposition groups — in the eyes of the Iranian citizen, a feat possible only through U.S. and U.K. assistance.

America should not forget 1979, when the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary Islamic regime seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Sixty-six American diplomats and workers held hostage for 444 days, the event prompted both the U.S. and Iran to cease diplomatic relations altogether.

In the 1980s, Iran’s funding of Hezbollah made it complicit in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy and Marine barracks in Lebanon. American support of Iraq in its war with Iran, a battle that left nearly 800,000 Iranians dead, remains fresh in the minds of Tehran’s leaders.

Today, our top leaders’ inflammatory statements say it all. One is the Axis of Evil; the other is the Great Satan. Iran is calling for the destruction of Israel; we are calling for a radical transformation in Iran.

We believe that it is time to reconstruct our relationship with Iran to prevent a wider war in the region. We recommend that Secretary Rice and President Bush restore diplomatic relations with Iran, convene a series of regional conferences and aggressively support citizen diplomacy efforts.

Maintaining an active dialogue and open lines of communication preserves the potential to find solutions to resolve differences with our adversaries. The U.S. should strongly consider engaging in direct talks with Iran, either with its European allies or on its own. The U.S. should convene a series of regional conferences similar to the Iraq regional conferences to discuss outstanding issues between the Middle East and the West, as recommended by the Iraq Study Group report. Creating a forum for the U.S. to address our shared concerns with our partners would help reinvigorate the notion of the U.S. as an impartial broker in the region. It would also generate discussions over the future of the Middle East’s oil industry, recognition of the state of Israel, support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the promotion of nuclear non-proliferation and the global war on terror.

Citizens of both nations can work to transform U.S.-Iranian relations and prevent the escalation of hostilities. The business, academic and religious communities are often effective channels between countries when high-level diplomacy is slow to evolve. Through the establishment of official and unofficial exchange programs, academic studies, business relations and support for nongovernmental people-to-people programs, citizens can serve as ambassadors of their respective countries and pave the way for establishing normalized relations between the U.S. and Iran.

The administration and Congress should be actively leading by example in working to strengthen these relationships.


Rubenstein is a professor at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.