The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Some considerations for the US-Iran political interchange

Getty Images

The Iranian regime is nervous. Members of the Islamic Republic administration wonder about their future and that of their form of government. They cannot trust the Americans to preserve their Islamic state — perhaps the Americans want another monarchy, a dictatorship or a republic in Iran.

This concern about possible regime change has plagued Iranian governments for years, particularly since the 1950s. In 1953, the United States undertook its first covert action to overthrow a foreign government during peacetime in cooperation with the United Kingdom. Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was removed in favor of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, resulting in the continuation of the Pahlavi Dynasty. Kermit Roosevelt of the Central Intelligence Agency served as the on-the-ground manager of the coup.

The U.S. supported the shah until the late 1970s during the Carter administration. Following President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Tehran on New Year’s Eve 1977 and his praise for the shah and Iran, communication between the two leaders ceased; the shah asked me to represent him to Mr. Carter with a proposal he had for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy based on the British model. Both the White House and the U.S. Department of State refused to entertain the possibility.

At the same time the shah was making his proposal, both the U.S. ambassador to Iran and Ayatollah Khomeini were engaged in back-channel diplomacy in an effort to set up what became known as the Islamic Republic. Khomeini himself sent a message to Carter from his home in exile, expressing his opinion that the Iranian military leaders would heed the orders of American military personnel more readily than they would his orders and asking the president to help him and his followers maintain order among the members of the military. Despite social upheaval for a period of time, the back-channel diplomacy used in favor of Khomeini and his followers — and the U.S. refusal to even consider any suggestion for the change proposed by the shah — resulted in the establishment of the Islamic Republic and some 41 years of chaos and oppression.

Under several U.S. administrations, members of the government of the Islamic Republic felt their regime was at least tolerated and that a U.S.-backed coup was not imminent. President Bill Clinton imposed oil and trade sanctions on Iran in 1995 but made no apparent effort to effect regime change. In fact, Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under Clinton from 1997 to 2001, lifted many of the sanctions and suggested a new effort to establish U.S.-Iran relations in 2000. 

Early in 2003 President George W. Bush dubbed Iran an “axis of evil” during his State of the Union message but later provided aid to its earthquake victims. According to The Guardian, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent President Bush a long letter hinting at the possibility of improved U.S.-Iran relations.

During the Obama administration, some of the mullahs thought perhaps they had found a friend and supporter in President Obama. Under Obama’s leadership, the Iran Nuclear Agreement was concluded in 2015, and a $400 million debt from the 1970s — plus about $1.3 billion in interest — were returned to Iran. While the nuclear agreement may have been far from perfect, it did indicate a willingness on the part of the U.S. to talk with the mullahs and begin a process of negotiation and possible cooperation.

The 2016 U.S. election changed the diplomatic ambiance dramatically. 

From the outset, President Donald Trump didn’t seem interested in improving U.S.-Iran relations or even entering into discussions with the Iranian regime. In 2018, he withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal without consulting the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council which were also signatories to the deal. Trump has regularly criticized both the Iranians and the Obama administration for an agreement he feels is poorly constructed and totally inadequate as a framework for curbing or controlling Iran’s nuclear activities.

Since his election, President Trump’s approach to Iran and the ruling regime has shown ignorance of Iranian culture and a seeming desire for regime change. Iran does not represent a backward group of people, but a sophisticated and alert citizenry. I know first-hand that Iranians are negotiators, subtle diplomats and keen observers. It is difficult to deceive them. They respond well and quickly to a display of respect and a willingness to listen on the part of an opponent or potential adversary.   

In Iranian culture, President Trump will be viewed as a diplomatic jester — but a person to fear because of his apparent egotism and lack of cultural knowledge and sophistication. The Iranians will resent his refusal to listen and treat others as equals. The Iranians tend to become a little careless when they can’t see a possible solution or a way to solving a problem. They might tend to behave somewhat irrationally, as shown in their downing of the Ukraine passenger plane.

The recent assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani clearly shows both President Trump’s social weaknesses and the unorthodox response of Iranians. Gen. Soleimani was apparently worthy of death because of all his years of conducting terrorism; President Trump’s behavior after the general’s assassination overshadowed any value of the death, however. His Persian tweet showed a lack of cultural understanding and political savvy. Many Iranians would resent a non-Persian speaker sending a message, the content of which he knew little, if anything, about. His disregard for the protesters’ lives by announcing his strong support for them clearly showed a lack of political understanding. He might inadvertently have encouraged the regime to clamp down on the protesters rather than tolerating them.                                                                  

President Trump’s behavior has undoubtedly frightened the ayatollahs, who wonder if the United States will again interfere in Iran’s internal affairs and seek regime change as it did in the past.

The U.S. is not working with a backward but with a very advanced culture, with thousands of years of diplomatic history and political knowledge. A clear strategy and a goal are needed if workable and mutually-acceptable U.S.-Iran relations are to be reestablished. Sophisticated diplomacy and trust are definitely required.

Franklin T. Burroughs lived and worked in the Middle East for more than 15 years. He served as consultant to the Prime Minister and Minister of Health in Iran, and represented Mohammad Reza Shah as personal representative to President Jimmy Carter. He also served as General Manager of the U.S.-Iran Chamber of Commerce in Iran until the revolution. After returning to the United States, Burroughs worked as a consultant with the U.S. Dept. of Commerce and the U.S. Dept. of Energy, and as contractor with the U.S. Dept. of State. He also served as professor, chair of the MBA program and acting dean, School of Business, Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, Calif., and as adjunct professor at John F. Kennedy University in Pleasant Hill, Calif.

Tags Bill Clinton Donald Trump Foreign relations of Iran Iran Iranian Revolution Iran–United States relations Jimmy Carter Mohammad Reza Pahlavi Politics of Iran Qassem Soleimani

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

More International News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video