“Iran and the United States: Permanent Enemies or Potential Partners?”

Report of speech at the University of Oklahoma, Nov. 22, 2014:

Link to original article posting: http://www.normantranscript.com/news/iran-and-the-united-states-permanent-enemies-or-natural-partners/article_868ba5fa-71be-11e4-95af-af1120d6b4ae.html?mode=jqm

The scars of the past that both Iran and the United States share should not imprison the future, Stephen Kinzer suggested during a lecture, “Iran and the United States: Permanent Enemies or Natural Partners?” on Thursday.

Kinzer, former reporter and veteran correspondent for the New York Times, went through the history of Iran and the United States’ political relationship and focused on his book, “All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.”

Kinzer said that when he first traveled to Iran as a reporter for the New York Times, he was by no means an expert on Iran or the Middle East. In 1997, he was covering Istanbul, Turkey when he got a call asking him to cover elections in Iran. Kinzer explained that he quickly learned Iran has very deep traditions with tremendously rich culture in contrast to many countries of the Middle East whose constructs are modern demarcations made by British diplomats without rich, national history.

When traveling, Kinzer explained he would always questions how a country gets where it is today.

“Whenever I visited a foreign country, particularly a country I don’t know very much about, I always ask myself these questions, ‘How did the country get like this? Why is this country rich and powerful? Why is this country poor and miserable?’ I like to understand the historical processes that made the country like it is now,” he said.

Soon after arriving in Iran, Kinzer said he realized there was a huge disconnect in what Iran is and what it should be based on, its history, culture, size and influence.

“Why is Iran not where it should be in the world? I started asking this, what happened to you? Why weren’t you able to develop into a modern democracy?’,” Kinzer said. “I got a few eye rolls and some pulled me gently aside and said, ‘Oh, we did have a democracy until you showed up and took it away from us in 1953.”

Taken aback by this statement, Kinzer decided to research what happened in 1953; however, he couldn’t find any book on the subject and said he realized he would have to write a book himself, which developed into “All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.”

Kinzer said he discovered that Iran has been on the road to democracy for over 100 years and that Iran has had a constitution for over 100 years. In the 1940s, democracy began to flower and Iran made strides with the Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1951. Mossadegh set up a constitutional government, and nationalized the oil companies; oil refineries were previously run by the British government. Kinzer explained the British had a full monopoly on Iranian oil and the entire standard of living of Britian in the 1930-40s was based on Iranian oil while the people in Iran had no return on their natural resource.

Mossadegh was successful in taking back this natural resource from the British who responded by trying to force Mossadegh out of the Iranian government. Kinzer said the British tried bribes and wouldn’t train Iranians to run the refineries so that oil production halted, but they were not successful of getting rid of Mossadegh.

“They were out of cards. So what do they do? They decide to ask their friends in Washington for help,” Kinzer said and went on to explain that the British government asked the U.S. for help with overthrowing Mossadegh by framing the situation as a fight against communism.

Although, Mossadegh was not a communist, the British continued to skew the argument so that Mossadegh’s age and health could result in an upheaval and this instability could lead the country to communism. In 1953, U.S. officials arrived in Iran with the mission to overthrow the government. Within a few months, Iran’s entire democracy ended.

As a result of this coup, the next 25 years led to increasing repression in Iran with an explosion in the late 1970s.

“The Islamic Revolution resulted in the Shahs overthrow and the emergence in power of this militantly anti-American religious regime, the successor to that we are now living at this moment in Iran,” Kinzer said. “The revolution in 1979 was a delayed reaction to our overthrow of democracy in Iran in 1953. That revolution had profound results, such as Iraq’s attack on Iran in 1982, an eight year war.”

In 1979 Iranians took hostages at the American embassy, which were held for over a year.

“This had a hugely traumatic impact on the United States. It was deeply humiliating for us and left a deep scar on the American psyche.

“When Americans look at the U.S.-Iran relationship, essentially we date it all from the hostage crisis. For us, U.S.-Iran relations begins and ends with the hostage crisis. That’s the huge episode. Everything else is just background noise. But for Iranians, it looks very different. To them the hostage crisis was an unfortunate incident at a time of very unfortunate incidents. They were about to go into a war that shattered their own country, which was a trauma far greater than the hostage crisis. To them the decisive moment of Iran-U.S. relations was the 1953 coup, the crushing of Iranian democracy. So we have parallel narratives that never coincide,” Kinzer said.

These varying understanding of U.S.-Iran relations impedes reconciliation, Kinzer said. There have been a number of efforts to extend a hand of friendship from each side when the other side has not been ready.

But there are many lessons the U.S. could learn from Iran, Kinzer said, such as ‘no country rules forever’ or ‘change takes patience’, if each country could move past emotions tied to the past and become partners with similar objectives. The current nuclear weapons negotiations are an opportunity to put the past in the past and move forward.

“In the last year or so, we finally seem to be on the same page, reading the same words. The nuclear negotiations going on are highly promising. … I think this moment is of profound importance. It’s not just a question of two countries who are enemies to stop being enemies. There is a huge strategic benefit to both sides. … I’m all for the United States pursuing its own interests in the world, but my only caveat is this: ‘Let’s be careful to think about what really is in our interest in the long run and not just things that make us feel good for a few days, which is a trap we’ve fallen into too often.’ Here, we can reach some kind of decorum that not simply leads to the reduction of a nuclear threat, but great strategic plans for ourselves.”

Kinzer explained that several of U.S.-Iran interests align such as the fight against militants like Al-Qaeda and ISIS; Iran has the ability to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan; and social, political interests like fighting the increasing drug problem of Afghanistan as the biggest producer of heroine.

“Iran is a country that is full of possibilities. If allowed to develop freely, could become a democratic model for other countries in that region. You don’t bomb a country into democracy. You turn a country to democracy by enacting a model nearby that transfers its example. Iran has the assets that we need to advance our own American security interests, at the same time that we take steps that will help open up Iranian society and make Iran a better place for Iranians to live,” he said. “Why is it so difficult for us to grasp that? Emotion is always the enemy of wise decision making. American are still caught up in the emotions of the hostage crisis. This is what opens the minds of American politicians to anti-Iran propaganda.

“It’s true that these are two countries that have enacted grievous harm to each other. We’ve both hurt each other a lot. … But we shouldn’t be imprisoned by history. Be aware of our history. We can’t deny these are countries that have been hostile and caused each other harm, but we need to break out of that prison and realize that reconciliation with Iran is probably the single step that America could take in the world now that will most dramatically advance our own interests. Keep tuned, you might see a break through in the coming days. We are at the moment of decision, now!”

Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has covered more than 50 countries on five continents. His articles and books have led the Washington Post to place him “among the best in popular foreign policy storytelling.” Currently, he is Visiting Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. His lecture was sponsored by the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies Iranian Studies Program.

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