Death to America Day: The Need for Iranian Diplomacy

Posted on November 5, 2013

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Seeing as I’m studying International Security and Conflict Resolution and heavily invested in it, I feel Monday’s significance to American foreign policy makes a more political post appropriate for my blogging. Most people probably didn’t know why Monday was significant off-hand, unless they’re personally invested in the topic or memorized the timeline of Ben Affleck’s Argo.

November 4th marked the 34th anniversary of the Iranian student takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran’s capital. The Iranian revolutionaries that toppled the Shah of Iran’s regime faulted America and the West for supporting the brutal dictator. In retaliation for the U.S. offering Shah Pahlavi asylum, Iranian students swarmed the Embassy compound in 1979 and took 52 Americans hostage, and released them after 444 days and a controversial arms deal. The situation more or less doomed the Carter administration and established a deep resentment toward Iran in the United States. The U.S. government stopped importing oil from Iran and cut all diplomatic ties, and every administration since has maintained a fairly staunch non-communicative stance toward the Islamic Republic.

Iranian students scaling the U.S. Embassy’s gate, 1979

Things have changed little, whether due to Iranian regime or to our own political situations. The Iranian Presidents elected since the Revolution have more or less fallen in line with what Ayatollahs (or Iran’s theological leadership) promote as Iran’s view on the West – America is the Great Satan, manipulative and evil and untrustworthy. Any attempts by the U.S. to rekindle a relationship would have been met with hostility; of course, there were no such attempts. The Reagan administration threw money at Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to fight Iran in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the Clinton administration labeled Iran a “rogue state,” and George W. Bush kept the trend going by including Iran in the “Axis of Evil” during his 2002 State of the Union address.

Yet isolating Iran on the international stage has been the right approach thus far. The rhetoric coming from Iran’s government has changed very little: crowds shouted “Marg bar Amrika!” ( ” !مرگ بر امریکا ” ) – Farsi for “Death to America!” – in the streets of Tehran to commemorate the Hostage Crisis, at rallies organized by the Iranian government. The conservative Islamist hardliners still insist on anti-American propaganda, putting up billboards and painting walls with hateful images. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad railed against the U.N. in his contempt for the United States, claiming that we created AIDS and that the Holocaust never happened and that it was all a scheme by the West to destroy Iran. The regime’s intense hatred for Israel hasn’t lessened, especially with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu threatening military strikes should Iran develop a nuclear weapons program.

While these things remain a standard for non-existent U.S.-Iran relations, the situation has recently changed in some important ways. For the first time in thirty years, both the American and Iranian presidents have expressed interest in renewing communications between the U.S. and Iran. President Obama sends Happy Noruz messages to the Iranian people via the Internet and U.S. Virtual Embassy. President Rouhani’s administration removed recently posted anti-American billboards in Tehran, causing controversy. Neither of them are doing it out of some desire for an American-Iranian friendship, of course; the U.S. government holds concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, with pressure from Israel and Saudi Arabia, while extended economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation slowly chip away at Iran’s economy and quality of life.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressing his boundaries on Iran’s nuclear program at the United Nations, 2013

And while any future relationship between America and Iran will be executed by our respective governments, more important are the general views of the people they represent. As with many Middle Eastern nations, the majority of Iran’s population are under the age of 35, and many of them (prepare yourself for the plot twist) don’t really hate America all that much. They grew up under an oppressive regime and had nothing to do with the Revolution themselves. When meeting Americans visiting Iran, most express interest in friendship. Many Iranians were even sympathetic with the U.S. after 9/11. Continuing strategies of isolating Iran and damaging it economically only really hurts these people, but it is necessary in order to put pressure on the Islamist regime. Definitely something worth keeping in mind, though, that Iranians generally prefer future diplomatic relations with the U.S. while dozens of American polls show that people are totally okay with bombing Iran. If there’s any way to kill all that good will, that’d be it.

My overall point? We have the opportunity for rapprochement with Iran, and we should seize it. Isolating Iran and laying down increasingly harsh sanctions hasn’t done much to stop the Iranian government from going ahead with its nuclear energy program, while at the same time alienating the Iranian people. Such methods are certainly necessary and have finally brought Iran to the table, but it won’t solve the issue of its nuclear program or its relations with its neighbors. There’s a long list of grievances that need addressing before the U.S. and Iran could ever get along amicably, and it’s entirely possible that they’ll never check everything off on that list and never really move forward. But with a Iranian leadership that wants to talk, an Iranian majority that wants to talk, we should do everything we can to get involved diplomatically. It might aggravate our allies – the Israelis and Saudis certainly don’t want any negotiations to happen – but it’s the first step to preventing much worse possible scenarios. If Iran does develop nuclear weapons (think Pakistan), the Middle East could see a Cold War or nuclear arms race start up, or even open warfare if Israel decides to act. We’d be dragged into it, and this opportunity would be lost for a very, very long time.

We can move forward and start talking before things get out of hand.