For the past few months, prospects of a rapprochement between the US and the Islamic Republic of Iran have captured the western media’s headlines, notwithstanding the fallout from subcontinental nuclear explosions. In a January 7 television interview with Cable News Network (CNN), Iranian president Seyyed Mohammad Khatami had called for a cultural and intellectual dialogue between the Iranian and American people to break what he described the ‘wall of mistrust.’
Seen through the western media’s ‘filters of reality,’ this call for a dialogue and subsequent developments appear as signals of a radical, seismic shift in the Islamic Republic. In fact, statements made by a bevy of American officials, reporters, columnists and editorial writers tend to portray a ‘moderate’ Khatami, who is determined to restore relations with Washington at any cost, as waging a tug-of-war with ‘conservative hard-liners’ over the issue.
Implied in the western media’s coverage is that the Iranian call for a dialogue is a reflection of the ‘tepid’ commitment of president Khatami to the ideological principles of the revolution. Proponents of this tendency cite mainly three examples to prove his ideological ‘tepidity’. First, that president Khatami had appointed women to top posts, including the vice-presidency; second, Tehran’s success in re-building bridges of trust with a number of Muslim capitals (such as Riyadh, Kuwait, and others); and third, Khatami’s writings and speeches in which he spoke in favour of freedom of expression and coexistence between discordant views and opinions.
This reading of the proposed Iran-US dialogue and the broader contemporary Iranian political scene is flawed. It is predicated on a fallacious understanding of Islam and the developments and changes introduced into the Iranian socio-political setting since the 1979 revolution.
At the heart of the media’s astonishment at president Khatami’s appointment of women to major posts is the erroneous western view of Islam as being oppressive to women. In light of the Qur’an’s strong emphasis on gender equality in both rights and status (see, for example, the noble Qur’an 2: 228; 3: 195; and 74: 38), nothing can be further from the truth. A steady and remarkable progress in the socio-political status and role of Iranian women within an Islamic framework has been evident ever since the triumph of the Islamic revolution. The appointment of women to top government posts in Iran points to the continuity of an existing process rather than a departure from earlier policies regarding the empowerment of women.
On the other hand, the genesis of the current thaw in Iran’s relations with its Arab neighbours precedes the election of president Khatami. It represents the culmination of a slow process of learning on the part of Iran’s Arab neighbours and Tehran’s assiduous cultivation of better regional relations that would ease tensions and enhance stability, thus contributing to its overall goal of post-war reconstruction (see Thaw in Iran-Saudi relations...)
Moreover, the triumph of the Islamic Revolution brought to power a new system of government that maintained solid linkages with the wider strata of society. Since the very beginning, the Islamic government has been committed to the participation of the wider strata and elite groups in the political process. Initially, freedom of association and to form political parties was guaranteed for all. However, subsequent restrictions on political freedoms came as a natural response to the wave of external and internal aggression which the infant Islamic State faced during the bloody episodes of the Iraq-Iran war and armed opposition spearheaded by the Iranian left. The ongoing process of the gradual elimination of these restrictions indicates the growing strength and consolidation of the Islamic system rather than the receding role of ideology or a change in the bases of regime legitimation.
Similarly, Iran’s current diplomatic offensive does not exhibit a change in the fundamental principles of the revolution nor a waning of its ideology. Rather, it reflects the growing international confidence of the Islamic system, especially after Iran’s remarkable successes in coming out of the effects of the Iraq-Iran war safe and strong and in breaking the diplomatic siege imposed by the US.
Despite the persistence of the United States in its drive to isolate Iran, the Islamic Republic has managed to establish a great deal of normalcy in its relations with the outside world. Indeed, there is evidence that the present ‘warm up’ in Washington-Tehran relations has more to do with the increasing realization of the futility of the Iranian pillar of the ‘dual containment’ policy on the part of American officials than with the ‘mellowing’ of the Islamic Republic.
The Clinton administration finds it increasingly difficult to convince its western and regional allies that Iran is the ‘rogue,’ ‘renegade’ power that menaces peace in the region Washington claims it to be. In this context, there are increasing signs of irritation on the part of several US allies who chafe at the imposition of Washington’s policies and will on them.
There has also been a rising concern on the part of America’s giant oil interests over the counterproductive effects of the existing US embargo on trade with Iran. American companies worry that the embargo acts to restrict their ability to conduct business in the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea regions while their non-American competitors have a free reign there.
It is this realization that led the Clinton administration to propose direct, face-to-face, government-to-government talks with Iran last summer, a few months before president Khatami’s call for a people-to-people dialogue. The American overture was reportedly conveyed in writing by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, Rudolf Weiersmueller. Until then, the Swiss diplomatic channel had been Washington’s favourite vehicle for conveying pointed threats and warnings since Switzerland is the ‘protecting power’ for American interests in Iran.
However, Washington’s agenda for talks with Tehran continues to suffer from the loathsome superpower hubris peculiar to American foreign policy. American officials have repeatedly emphasized three negative pre-conditions for such talks: a halt to Iran’s support for ‘terrorism,’ termination of its programmes of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and related delivery systems, and cessation of its opposition to the Middle East ‘peace process.’
Aside from the ambiguity of these conditions, it is interesting to note that American officials have minced no words about putting an end to US sanctions against investment and trade with Iran, about halting Washington’s efforts to curb exports and technical help from other countries to the Islamic Republic, or about returning Iranian assets seized since the hostage crisis. Obviously, no proud country, especially one like Iran, would agree to capitulate to an outside power. The likelihood for an immediate breakthrough, therefore, seems doubtful in light of Washington’s continued insistence on defining the agenda of the proposed talks in terms of a set of demands.
As president Khatami said during his CNN interview: ‘There is a grave mistrust between us. If negotiations are not based on mutual respect, they will never lead to positive results.’ People-to-people exchanges are healthy ways to build trust between wary States. Certainly, ‘Ping-Pong’ diplomacy opened closed doors between the US and China. ‘Wrestling’ diplomacy could serve a similar purpose in Iran-US relations. Change can come, but it requires a genuine willingness to shed pre-conditions and hubris, and an equally genuine interest in dialogue. Otherwise, any talks would degenerate into a vicious cycle recriminations leading to disappointments.
It is up to Washington to improve its manners.
Muslimedia: June 16-30, 1998