I don’t know nearly enough about Iran, but I’m working on it.
I have picked up a little bit over the years, though, and that little bit tells me that the handful of experts calling for a rapprochement with Iran are onto something.
After sixty years of nonsense – on both sides – it’s time to build a working partnership with Tehran.
First, Iran is a power in the Middle East – with or without nuclear weapons – and it’s not going to go away. The reason is that Iran is a real nation.
What does that mean?
Since the creation of the UN, it has been necessary to pretend that every part of the globe – except for Antarctica – is part of one nation or another. And it’s a fundamental precept of international law that all nations are sovereign equals.
But that’s a legal fiction. Many so-called “nations” aren’t much more than lines on a map. In much of Africa and the Middle East, national borders are awkward remnants of 19th century European colonialism or post-World War I decisions by the victorious Allied powers. These borders don’t define real nations. In many cases, they never will.
Iraq, for example, was created by the British in the early 1920s. The Brits needed a suitable kingdom for an Arab prince who had been a wartime ally, so they cobbled together three vilayets – provinces – of the defunct Ottoman Empire and called the result Iraq.
Iraq never worked very well. It only held together into modern times because Saddam Hussein ruled it with an iron fist. In 2003, when we blundered in and ousted Saddam, the fictitious nation of Iraq began coming apart at the seams.
We tried holding it together – at the cost of thousands of American and Iraqi lives. But that was foolish. Iraq isn’t a nation – just lines on a map.
Iran, on the other hand, is real. Human civilization has existed in Persia for five thousand years. Despite waves of migration and conquest – specifically including the Islamic conquest in the 7th century – Iran has enjoyed considerable linguistic and cultural continuity over millennia.
It’s also a relatively modern society. In 2012, an Iranian film, A Separation, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. I wish more Americans had seen it. A Separation had almost nothing to do with politics. It was a domestic drama about the marital difficulties of a middle-class, urban couple trying to do the best thing for their clever daughter while caring for the husband’s father, who was sliding into dementia.
The remarkable thing about A Separation was how much the people in the film – the couple, the daughter’s teachers, the lawyers and judge in their divorce case – resembled urban, middle-class Americans.
The great obstacle to understanding between the U.S. and Iran is our long history of mutual bad blood. Most Iranians would date that bad blood from 1953, when the CIA brought about the overthrow of Iran’s popular, constitutionally-elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh.
Mosaddegh’s ouster came at the instigation of the Brits, who resented Mosaddegh’s nationalization of the British-run Anglo-Persian Oil Company – now BP – which exercised monopoly control of Iran’s oil.
America’s heavy-handed intervention led to our replacing Britain as the Western power most resented by the Iranian people. Most Americans paid little attention to this resentment – or even knew it existed – until it boiled over in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when activists seized the U.S. Embassy and held its staff hostage for 444 days.
Those of us alive at the time were outraged by the behavior of the Iranian “students” – and by the failure of its revolutionary government, headed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to secure the hostage’s prompt release.
At this point, the bad blood became mutual – and it has remained so to this day.
But the question remains: Should why mistakes the U.S. made during the Eisenhower administration – and mistakes Iran made during the Carter administration – doom our two countries to perpetual animosity?
Iran is a serious country – a real nation with 75 million people, enormous oil reserves, and an advanced nuclear-weapons program.
It is also, as Syria’s strongest ally, the potential key to resolving that not-so-real nation’s civil war.
Iran is also a potential force for stability in Afghanistan, its neighbor to the east.
Recently, Iran elected a new President – a reasonable fellow named Hassan Rouhani – who replaced the truly dangerous Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. President Rouhani has expressed a willingness to negotiate seriously about everything – including nuclear weapons.
Forty years ago, in one of the unlikeliest moves in American diplomatic history, President Richard Nixon – the old Cold Warrior – went to China. The results of that mission transformed our world forever.
Perhaps it’s time for President Obama – winner of a Nobel Peace Prize he has yet to earn – followed Mr. Nixon’s example.