This past Wednesday, Iran and the P5 + 1 (United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany) concluded talks in Kazakhstan to discuss a possible deal to control Iran’s nuclear activity. A breakthrough did not occur, and was unlikely to occur, but there was a sense of "cautious optimism" as all parties departed. No one is in denial of the fact that there is a long road ahead before reaching any lasting agreement, no matter how promising the talks were. The P5+1 delegation did in fact present modest changes to ease international sanctions against Iran. In return, it hoped to incentivize more transparency and cooperation on the part of Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program which is believed to be part of Iran’s greater ambition for nuclear weapons. Another round of talks have been scheduled, and hopefully this will become a launching pad for more dialogue despite the fact that Iran just recently announced that it has further developed its nuclear program.
Coincidently (or maybe not), these talks took place on the heels of 85th Academy Awards on Sunday night wherein the film Argo took away the honor of “Best Picture.” The film, adapted from a book written by Antonio Mendez and Matt Baglio, recounts the high-stakes mission conducted by CIA and Canadian officials to rescue six Americans from Tehran in 1979. These American embassy workers had previously escaped from the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after Iranians stormed the compound, overtook it, and held its inhabitants hostage for the next 444 days. This episode has since become known as the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and the animosity it engendered between the United States and Iran has shaped relations to the present day. The movie unequivocally arouses a sense of American nationalism as we witness the embassy workers outwit aggressive, gun wielding, and Farsi-screaming Iranians. Unsurprisingly, the Iranian regime has condemned the movie, and there is already talk in Iran about producing a movie in response to Argo’s perceived fallacies.
It is obvious enough that U.S.-Iranian relations are anything but cordial. In fact, the United States and Iran have become strategic enemies in the Middle East and beyond—prompting some to consider the emergence of a new “Middle East cold war” between the two. So as United States met alongside other international bigwigs in Kazakhstan to talk with Iranian representatives about its alleged nuclear weapons program, Americans and Iranians traded blows on the primetime cultural stage. This is no coincidence. It is clear that there is more at play here between the countries than just a political issue or a concern about nuclear weapons—there exists a deep social mistrust.
Surely not all Americans and Iranians dislike each other, and there is a difference between official state policies and cross-cultural understanding. But the relations between the countries since 1979 have precluded any serious good will, and there’s no doubt Iranians share in the same sense of anti-Americanism that pervades much of the Middle East. A recent survey suggests most Iranians blame the U.S. for their present economic conditions as per international sanctions, despite the intransigence of their own leaders. And on the U.S. side, Iran was ranked as the most disliked country in America in 2012, and has consistently ranked among the top for the past couple decades.
Such perceptions are undeniably fueled by political events, such as Iran’s historic sponsorship of terrorism abroad, inflammatory anti-Israel and anti-American rhetoric, and an utter defiance of significant international norms. It is hard to believe, then, that Iran was one of America’s closest allies in the Middle East pre-1979.
Yet a second look at this mercurial swing in relations points towards a deep social divide. Such a schism doesn’t appear out of nowhere. In just this way, the United States was not actually “friends” with the Iranian people pre-1979. Rather it was friends with the Iranian despot, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. And this is just the problem: It reflects yet another example of a profound anti-Americanism stemming from the U.S. sponsorship of autocrats abroad as a method to pursue and uphold national strategic interests. Not only that, but the United States aided in the entrenchment of that authoritarian leadership by removing the man who, at the time in 1953, was a champion of Iranian national interests in opposition to imperial and Western encroachments—Mohammad Mossadeq. The 1953 CIA-engineered coup (with the aid of the British) of Mossadeq is seared into Iranian national memory. And to understand 1953 is to first study a long history whereby Iran was prey to foreign manipulation. “The Great Game” refers to the strategic rivalry in Central Asia (including Persia) between Russia and Great Britain throughout the 19th and into the first half of the 20th century. Iran continually fell victim to imperial machinations, and the United States finally involved its hand in 1953. Thus, the events leading up to the uprising in 1979, the overthrow of Reza Shah, and the Hostage Crises all in part demonstrate an expression of Iranian national consciousness against foreign influences. It is obviously reductive to paint such a broad stroke across centuries of history, and the Iranian Revolution was a complex phenomenon, but such history can’t be ignored when considering present circumstances.
With regards to the United States, innumerable books and articles have been written about its foreign policy in the Middle East that both support and challenge its tendency to enact some less than sensitive policies. From a purely nationalist and interest-based perspective, it is hard to argue with policies that have made the United States the most powerful country in the world. But from a more morally sensitive perspective, U.S. policies have been extremely suspect, and detrimental to its image across the world.
That being said, as the dance between Iran and the international powers-that-be rushes onward, we need to consider the viability of pursuing political agreements when social understanding is not only absent, but obstructive. To the Iranian regime, the United States of America is the “great Satan” of the world, and the puppet master of the international community. Some might indeed argue that the Iranians have a point. Regardless, we must be careful not to put the cart before the horse, especially since the U.S. will not be able to co-opt Iranian leadership. Lasting political agreements are hard to come by when the social will isn’t present. Anwar Sadat was able to pull it off in 1979 when he signed the peace accord between Egypt and Israel, and he paid for it with his life. Political agreements might be able to frame subsequent relations, but when a political understanding has been elusive for so long, its time to consider underlying social issues. If the Oscars can provoke such political upheaval, then the chances of ever resolving the major issues of Iran’s nuclear program are, well, slim at best.