Defusing the Crisis

In mid-April, after more than a year of posturing, Iran again met with representatives of the United States, Russia, China, France, and Britain (the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members), and Germany. The objective, at least from the non-Iranian side, was to deal with the Tehran regime’s nuclear ambitions. However, little was accomplished beyond the parties agreeing to meet again in late May. And not much will be accomplished thenunless both sides cool the rhetoric and broaden the discussion.

The problem with rhetoric is that, in conflict situations, it becomes progressively overheated on each exchange, and the chances of constructive talks that might avert a dangerous conflict dwindle proportionately.

That’s not to say it will be easy for the United States and Iran to end their long diplomatic estrangement and start talking, if not as friends then at least as grownups with a range of shared interests.

In 1979, I was one of more than 50 Americans taken hostage in the U.S. Embassy and held in Tehran for 444 days. It was an event that still casts a deep shadow.

In the United States, it evokes images of crowds of bearded men shouting “Death to America” and burning the American flag. In Iran, every year on Nov. 4 – the anniversary of the start of the crisis – there are parades and speeches celebrating the event as though it is something to be proud of.

Both sides need to put the event behind them, but that will be possible only if Iran admits it made a shameful mistake. If that happens, perhaps the two sides can really begin to talk – and not just about nukes, as scary as the prospect of an Iran with a nuclear–weapons capability might seem.

In my assessment, the depiction of Iran as some imminent military, political, and cultural threat to its region is vastly overblown.

The Islamic Republic is a threat, but mostly to itself and its own people. It has pursued self-defeating policies, exercised brutal repression, and applied staggeringly inept diplomacy.

Iran has great difficulty simply because of its unique identity. It is not Arab. It is not Turkish. It is not Sunni. So where does it fit in?

It had some success beating the drum for the Palestinian cause, but a lot of that success has gone by the boards because Iran has identified itself strategically with Bashar al-Assad’s repressive Syrian regime. That unpopular move makes Iran’s pro-Palestinian and pro-Arab propaganda something of a joke.

As for Iran building a nuclear arsenal, you have to ask what it would accomplish. The regime seems to grasp that the biggest threat to its survival, and survival is its priority, is not foreign military intervention but a soft overthrow from within – driven by internal dissidents, perhaps fomented by outside powers. In that case, a nuclear weapon wouldn’t be much help.

On the other hand, the Iranians remember their war with Iraq when Saddam Hussein used poison gas against them and the international community sat on its hands. With this history in mind, perhaps the decision to develop nuclear weapons – if that’s what they’re doing – in order to deter future attacks is rational.

I take U.S. President Barack Obama at his word that he wants to change what, for over 30 years, has been a very unproductive relationship. However, making such a change has proved much more difficult than people thought.

I would counsel two things: forbearance and patience. An estrangement that has gone on this long, and holds this much bad blood, resentment, and mistrust, is not going to be changed by one meeting, or two meetings, or one speech, or two speeches.

But I do know this: The more that the White House speaks of a new beginning, and of mutual respect, the more difficult it is for the Iranians to continue their traditional anti-American rhetoric. It simply doesn’t work anymore.

John Limbert is Distinguished Professor of International Affairs in the departments of political science and history at the U.S. Naval Academy. During a long and distinguished career in the Foreign Service, he was, among other appointments, Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran.

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