Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Post #137 - Sense and Sensibilities

A gathering of Iranian Americans in a Washington suburb
Finally, after nearly half-a-century of ignorance, stupidity and worse in the foreign affairs community on the subject of the country and people of Iran, some sense is being spoken. Media commentators such as David Ignatius, Farid Zakaria, Christine Amanpour, Robin Wright (now with the U.S. Institute of Peace) and Barbara Slavin (now a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council) have written and reported with a sense of historical context and political savvy and have shed some of the biases inherent in the Western perspective. A handful of political leaders such as Rep. Ron Paul (Libertarian/Republican), Sen. Chuck Hagel (moderate Republican) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (liberal Democrat) have managed to take a more clear-eyed look at US-Iran relations. Diasporan groups such as the National Iranian American Council and Iranian Alliances across Borders have brought balance and rationality to the discourse.

Nowhere is this welcome improvement more evident than in the book Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History. Its author, John W. Limbert, knows whereof he speaks. A former U.S. ambassador, Limbert began his familiarization with Iran some fifty years ago and has never stopped learning. Woodrow Wilson Center Middle East Program director Haleh Esfandiari said about his book, "Written by an author intimately familiar with the Persian language, history and customs, this unique work addresses and sets aside many false but widespread preconceptions about Iran...this study is very timely."

In the foreword to the book, best-selling author Mark Bowden (Guests of the Ayatollah) says: "Iranian true believers see the United States as The Great Satan, a "world-devouring," godless force bent on dismantling Islam and reducing their country to its former vassal status. Patriotic Americans see Iran as champion of the great backward movement of the twenty-first century, a powerful enemy of liberal western values, a sponsor of terror attacks, and increasingly as a direct mortal threat to Israel...Getting past these competing caricatures, both of which have elements of truth, will require skilled diplomacy."

It is this crying need -- for skilled and informed diplomacy -- that Limbert's book seeks to fill. His tone is utterly realistic (this is a man who was held captive for 444 days after the taking of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, while his wife and children languished incommunicado at another U.S. post in the middle east), but also hopeful. "I am not convinced," Limbert says, " that Americans and Iranians are condemned to be enemies for eternity. Each side realizes that the other is not going away soon and that its presence and policies affect conditions in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and other areas that matter to both Tehran and Washington."

Negotiating... examines the whole of Iranian history for lessons that might guide contemporary practitioners. It looks closely at a handful of incidents: The Azerbaijan Crisis of 1945-47 (in which several Western powers had a part), The Oil Nationalization Crisis of 1951-53 (which led to the ousting of Iranian leader Mohammad Mossadeq), The Embassy Hostage Crisis of 1979-81 (which Limbert viewed at point-blank range), and the Freeing of the Lebanon Hostages (which is tied up with what we know as the Iran-Contra affair).

This kind of retrospective is essential, given that "In the decades since 1980, the American government has lost its cadre of Iran expertise...leaving a gap that, with the best will in the world, will take at least a decade to fill." On the Iranian side, too, contact with the West -- especially the United States -- has been much less than it was before the 1979 revolution.

Bas relief at Persepolis, near Shiraz
Deep historical lessons include a recognition that "Iranians have almost never been able to choose their political system...Sultans, shahs, warlords, invaders, foreign governments, and others have usually made Iranians' political choices for them." "In Iran, political systems change quickly; cultural traditions change slowly if at all," Limbert notes; "the Iranian identity has remained intact in one form or another for more than 2,500 years...Throughout that long history...there has remained a core Iranian identity that new invaders, kings, imams, and prophets were able to influence but never to eliminate." It will be, for many of my readers, a revelation to note that "Iran has never demanded conformity in faith or culture as the price of being Iranian." Therefore, as one prominent Jewish leader in Tehran told me, the members of his congregation would "consider themselves Iranian, before they consider themselves Jews." Barely more than half of Iranians speak Persian as their first language. "The Iranian identity of both groups, Persian speakers and non-Persian speakers, is equally strong." Zoroastrians -- now a small minority in the land which spawned their faith -- "have preserved Iranian folkways and cultural traditions -- in music, language, and food, for example -- that the Muslim majority has long forgotten."

The first lesson for would-be negotiators, then, is that in the Iranian mind: "prosperity and stability never endure for long. Decline, chaos, turmoil, and anarchy (all roughly characterized as that great social evil 'fetneh') are always lurking in the wings." Limbert cites another contemporary scholar, Homa Katouzian: "Traditional Iranian revolts involved the active or passive support of all social classes to bring down an 'unjust' arbitrary ruler and replace him with a just one. Invariably, the result was chaos, until one of the contestants for power eliminated the rest and restored absolute and arbitrary government, much to the relief of the common people, who by then were desperately longing for basic peace and security."

(continued in my next post)

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