, CA
Dec 31 2008

Who's Afraid of US-Iran Détente?

Why Arab governments fight rapprochement

by Muhammad Sahimi

Diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States were broken
off by President Jimmy Carter in April 1980, after the American
embassy in Tehran was overrun by Iranian students in November 1979 and
53 Americans were taken hostage. The Reagan administration tried to
secretly establish working relations with Iran, but that led to the
infamous Iran-Contra scandal. President George H. W. Bush was so
interested in reestablishing diplomatic relations with Iran that, in
his inauguration speech in January 1989, he declared that "good will
[on Iran's part] begets good will" on America's part.

After the Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988 and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini,
the founder of the Islamic Republic, passed away in June 1989, the
Iranian government began to gradually distance itself from his
revolutionary policies. Hence, in response to the first President
Bush's call, Iran helped the U.S. to free the American hostages in
Lebanon and provided support to the U.S.-led coalition forces that
expelled Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait in 1991. But Bush lost his
reelection bid to Bill Clinton, and the Clinton administration quickly
let it be known that it was not interested in rapprochement with
Iran. In a gesture of willingness to reopen relations with Washington,
the government of the pragmatic Iranian president Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani granted a large contract to Conoco to work on an offshore
Iranian oil field in 1995, even though another oil company had won the
bidding. Rafsanjani went so far as to declare publicly that "the era
of Ayatollah Khomeini is over." But Clinton not only prevented Conoco
from doing the work, he also imposed tough sanctions on Iran.

The government of moderate Iranian president Mohammad Khatami was also
interested in reestablishing relations with the U.S. Khatami suggested
the "dialogue of civilizations" as an opening, but the Clinton
administration did not take it seriously until it was too late. At
that time, Iranian hardliners were opposed to rapprochement between
Tehran and Washington, because Iranian reformists were in power.

Khatami's government did provide crucial help to the U.S. when it
attacked Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 by opening Iran's airspace to
U.S. aircraft and providing vital intelligence on Taliban forces. The
forces of the Northern Alliance that Iran had supported for years
against the Taliban were the first to reach Kabul and overthrow the
Taliban government. Then, during the United Nations talks on the
future of Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001, Iranian
representative Mohammad Javad Zarif met daily with the U.S. envoy
James Dobbins, who praised Zarif for preventing the conference from
collapsing. Iran also pledged the largest investment and aid to
Afghanistan after the U.S. Two months later, however, President Bush
rewarded Iran by making it a charter member of his "axis of evil."

In May 2003, Khatami's government made a comprehensive proposal to the
U.S., offering to negotiate all the important issues, including
recognizing Israel within its pre-1967 war borders and cutting off
material support to Hamas and Hezbollah. The proposal was
rejected. That was, of course, when Bush's "mission accomplished"
banner was the toast of Washington.

Contrary to popular belief, the Iranian hardliners are not opposed to
reestablishing diplomatic relations with the U.S. They are fully aware
that the Iranian people favor rapprochement. Therefore, the hardliners
considered reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the U.S. a
"grand prize" that Khatami and his reformist camp could not be allowed
to receive. In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on June 15, 2005,
right before Iran's presidential elections, Shirin Ebadi and I
predicted [.pdf] that the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
would suppress internal dissent but still try to start negotiations
with the U.S. That is exactly what has happened. While cracking down
hard on opposing voices and committing gross violations of human
rights of Iranians, Ahmadinejad has tried to bring the U.S. to the
negotiation table. He sent a long letter to President Bush but did not
receive any response. Every September he has participated in the
gathering of world leaders at the annual meeting of the UN General
Assembly, and he has met with many influential American political
thinkers. In an unprecedented move, he congratulated Barack Obama upon
his election on Nov. 4. The collapse of oil prices, a deteriorating
economy, and the UN-mandated sanctions imposed on Iran because of its
nuclear program have provided additional impetus for Iranian leaders
to seek out better relations with the U.S. President-elect Obama has
also said that his administration will be willing to negotiate with
Tehran without any preconditions.

Therefore, the conditions seem to be ripe for U.S.-Iran negotiations
and rapprochement to begin, provided that Obama's foreign policy team
takes the right approach. One would think that such a step would be
greeted with a great sigh of relief by the other governments of the
Middle East. Not so. Two powerful lobby groups are opposed to any
rapprochement between Iran the U.S. One is the well-known Israel
lobby. I will discuss Israel's opposition in a separate article, only
pausing to point out that it has nothing to do with the "existential
threats" Israel claims Iran poses to it.

The second group that opposes détente between the U.S. and Iran
consists of the Middle East's Arab governments. Their fears are rooted
in their total dependence on the U.S. for the survival of their
regimes, the fierce anti-Americanism of their populations, and the
historical resentments that Arab governments have had toward Iran. Let
me explain.

In the 1960s, the Labor government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson
recognized that Britain could no longer afford to act as an imperial
power. Thus, he announced in January 1968 that by December 1971 all
the British forces to the east of the Suez Canal would be withdrawn,
and he began setting up the United Arab Emirates in the southern part
of the Persian Gulf as a way of transferring power to the Arab sheiks
who had worked closely with Britain. But both the British and
U.S. governments were worried about the designs that the Soviet Union
had on the Persian Gulf.

Since 1928, successive Iranian governments had declared sovereignty
over Bahrain (which currently houses the headquarters of the U.S. 5th
Fleet), and so did the shah, a close U.S. ally. At the same time,
three strategic islands near the Strait of Hormuz ` the Abu Musa and
the Greater and Lesser Tunb Islands ` that historically belonged to
Iran were protected by the British Navy and claimed by the emerging
UAE, but the shah wanted them back under Iran's sovereignty.

The shah and Britain reached a secret compromise. In return for Iran's
acceptance of a UN report in 1970 that indicated that the Bahraini
people wanted independence, Iran sent its military to the three
islands but agreed to share the Abu Musa Island economically with the
UAE. That happened on Nov. 30, 1971, one day before the end of the
official presence of British forces east of Suez Canal.

That made Iran the undisputed power in the Persian Gulf, which was
also what the Nixon administration wanted. The Nixon doctrine,
announced by President Richard M. Nixon in July 1969, had declared
that U.S. allies had to take care of the defense of their own
regions. Nixon and Henry Kissinger had conceived the idea of
supporting local "gendarmes" that would protect U.S. interests around
the world, and Iran and the shah were the designated gendarme for the
Persian Gulf. Thus, they told the shah that he could purchase any
U.S. weapon, and helped him begin Iran's nuclear program.

The shah started throwing around Iran's weight. Iranian forces
intervened against a leftist insurgency in Oman. He forced Iraq and
Saddam Hussein to accept the Algiers Agreement of 1975 that settled a
border dispute on terms favorable to Iran. These events revived the
resentment and historical fears that the Arab governments of the
Persian Gulf had toward Iran, even though Arabs invaded Iran in the
7th century and converted Iranians to Islam.

The shah also had good relations with Israel, which was helping him
with Iran's internal security. Although he never hid his dislike of
many Arab governments, his plans for the revival of Iran's power did
include close relationships with some of them, whom he played off
against other Arab nations, e.g., Egypt and Sudan against Libya and
Muammar Gadhafi, who was fiercely opposed to the shah.

Thus, after the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, whom the shah
despised (to the point that the Iranian press was not allowed to print
Nasser's picture), passed away in 1970, the shah developed close
relations with his successor, Anwar El Sadat. He also provided Jaafar
Nimeiri, Sudan's president, a $150 million loan after Nimeiri expelled
Soviet advisers and reestablished diplomatic relations with the
U.S. in 1971. The shah had close relations with King Hussein of
Jordan, and in the mid 1970s he began paying at least lip service to
the rights of Palestinians in the occupied territories. In a 1976
interview with Mike Wallace of CBS' 60 Minutes, he even complained
about the influence of the Israel lobby in the U.S.

These developments were not to Israel's liking. Nor were Saudi Arabia,
the UAE, Kuwait, and Syria happy with such developments. The shah's
weapon purchases from the U.S. and Britain had created a powerful
military, and Iran's oil wealth, strategic location, and control of
the Persian Gulf had made it indispensable to the U.S. Israel tried to
dissociate the shah from the Arab world, but to no avail. The Islamic
Revolution of 1979, however, disrupted all of that. In particular,
Iran's diplomatic relations with Egypt were severed, and they have
never been restored.

The same dynamics drive the present Arab governments' fear of Iran,
which is why they are covertly opposed to the U.S.-Iran
rapprochement. Iran's strong influence on Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas
in the Palestinian territories, and the Shi'ite groups that are in
power in Iraq; the large Shi'ite populations of Kuwait, Bahrain, and
the UAE; and the fact that Saudi Arabia's Shi'ites (who make up about
10 percent of the population) reside in the oil region of the country
all worry the Arab nations of the Middle East.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recently told his ruling party that
"the Persians are trying to devour the Arab states." He has also said
that "most of the Shi'ites are loyal to Iran, not to the countries
they are living in." King Abdullah II of Jordan has warned about a
coming "Shi'ite crescent" from Iran to Lebanon. King Abdullah of Saudi
Arabia accused Iran of trying to convert the Sunnis to Shi'ites.

The Arab governments of the Middle East profess worries about Iran's
alleged attempts to spread its Islamic revolution to the entire Middle
East. But this fear has no basis in reality. As mentioned above, when
it comes to foreign policy, Iranian leaders long ago set aside their
ideological fervor. The only exception to this is Israel. In fact,
Iran's foreign policy has been very pragmatic for the past two
decades. To give an example, in the dispute between Armenia and the
Republic of Azerbaijan, Iran has sided with Christian Armenia, not
Shi'ite Azerbaijan. Iran's support of Hezbollah and Hamas are meant to
give it strategic depth against Israel and the U.S., since its armed
forces are relatively weak.

The Arab governments of the Middle East are also supposedly afraid of
Iran becoming a nuclear power and threatening them. Again, such fears
are baseless. It was the Arab governments that supported Saddam
Hussein in his invasion of Iran, providing him with $50 billion in aid
to keep fighting. Even then, Iran threatened almost none of the Middle
East's Arab governments. Moreover, Iran has no territorial claims
against any nation.

But even if Iran were to develop a small nuclear arsenal ` and there
is no evidence that it aims to do so ` it would only be a deterrent
against repeated Israeli and American threats. The aforementioned Arab
governments have been buying tens of billions of dollars' worth of
American, British, and French weapons, while Iran, under an arms
embargo by the West, has had to rely mostly on its own domestic arms
industry, which does not produce top-of-the-line weapons.

The fears of Iran expressed by the Middle East's Arab governments are
simply smoke screens. The real reason for their fears is threefold.

First, the Arab governments of the Middle East have proven impotent at
stopping Israel's siege of the Gaza Strip, which is nothing short of a
crime against humanity, or working with Israel on a reasonable
solution to its conflict with the Palestinians. On the other hand,
thanks to Iran's support of the Palestinians and Hezbollah's victory
over Israel in the summer 2006 war, Iran's leadership is very popular
among the Arab masses (certainly much more popular than among the
Iranian people). So the prospect of Iran negotiating with the
U.S. while also supporting the Palestinians frightens unpopular Arab

Second, Arab leaders are worried that if the U.S. and Iran can begin
to resolve their differences, then it will demonstrate to the Arab
masses that it is possible to resist U.S. pressure, negotiate with the
U.S. from a position of strength, and preserve political independence
from the U.S. instead of being totally dependent on the U.S., as most
governments in the Middle East are, which has generated deep anger in
their populations.

Third, the Arab governments believe that as long as Iran is under
strong U.S. pressure, the U.S. will not bother with them. While they
say they support U.S.-Iran negotiations, they do not wish such
negotiations to resolve the differences between the two nations. They
do not want the U.S. to attack Iran, because they will be forced to
get involved, but they also do not want normalization of relations
between the two nations.

It's not just the Israel lobby that is frightened by the possibility
of a thaw between Washington and Tehran.

On the other hand, Iran is ripe for fundamental changes. Its
democratic movement will be greatly aided if negotiations do begin and
result in a lessening of tension between the two nations. Once the
threat of U.S. attacks on Iran is removed, Iran's hardliners will find
themselves at a crossroads. They will either have to address the
aspirations ` economic, political, and social ` of the Iranian people,
or they will be removed from power one way or another. That will be in
the interest of the entire Middle East, including the Arab nations. 13976