THE U.S.A. SHOULD NOT OPEN AN INTERESTS SECTION IN TEHRAN
By Dr. Michael Rubin
Today is the 29th Anniversary of the Iranian seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Both reformists and hardliners continue to endorse the seizure. Few Americans remember the details of the embassy seizure. On November 1, 1979, Zbigniew Brzezinski, U.S. President Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, met with Iranian Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi in Algiers to discuss, among other issues, the restoration of the U.S.-Iran relationship. The Shah was gone, but the U.S. government wanted to cement its relationship with the new revolutionary regime. Photos of their handshake appeared in Iranian newspapers the next day. Students, with Ayatollah Ruhollah's blessing, stormed the Embassy the next day, holding 52 American diplomats for 444 days. What went wrong? In many ways, the U.S. diplomats were pawns in a struggle that had less to do with the United States and far more to do with Iran's domestic politics. The Islamic Revolution was popular: Fully ten percent of the Iranian population took part, not only Ayatollahs and seminary students, but also liberals, merchants, students, religious leftists, among others. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was a symbol, but, for months, it was uncertain he would be able to consolidate the power which history demonstrates he desired. His followers — Students Following the Line of the Imam — used the manufactured Embassy crisis to force Bazargan's resignation and consolidate the revolution. Khomeini came out of the Embassy seizure much stronger than his regime went into it. The Carter administration may have sought to engage moderates, but they inadvertently bolstered the hardliners.
The same pattern was repeated when, in what became the Iran-Contra Affair, U.S. officials sought to engage revolutionary authorities in Tehran. One week after former U.S. National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane's secret trip to Tehran, Mehdi Hashemi, the son-in-law of Khomeini's deputy Hossein Ali Montazeri, leaked word of secret talks in pamphlets distributed at the University of Tehran. Six months later, Montazeri or his immediate aides leaked word of McFarlane's meetings in the pro-Syrian Lebanese magazine Ash Shira‘a. Twenty-two years ago today, former President and Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani confirmed the meeting to the international press. Whatever one thinks of Reagan administration actions, the fact remains that Iranian officials betrayed U.S. confidence in secret talks and crippled the remainder of the Reagan Presidency. They did so, not out of spite for the United States, but rather for narrow domestic political reasons.
The list continues. After Mohammad Khatami's socalled Dialogue of Civilizations initiative, radical Iranian vigilantes attacked a busload of American businessmen. They did so to embarrass the Iranian government. The same day U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice waved the conditions outlined in her May 31, 2006, speech and sent Undersecretary of State William Burns to Geneva to join nuclear negotiations and offer the Iranian government a generous incentives package, Mohammad Jafar Assadi, Commander of the Revolutionary Guards' Ground Forces, declared that the concession proved that "America has no other choice but to leave the Middle East region beaten and humiliated." The problem is not diplomacy. Rather, it is inattention to timing. Poorly calibrated diplomacy can backfire, spark crisis, and benefit hardliners.
One day, it may be appropriate to send U.S. diplomats to Tehran. That day is not now nor will it come until there is broad consensus across the Iranian political spectrum about the direction in which Iranian leaders should take their country. The new U.S. President must think not only of U.S. desires, but also remain cognizant of the complex political scene in Tehran. While Iranians jockey for position ahead of their June, 2009, presidential election, and while vigilante groups continue to flex their muscles, any attempt to send U.S. diplomats prematurely may spark the crisis and test which Senator Joe Biden warned against.
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Dr. Michael Rubin, a Ph.D. in History (Yale University) and a specialist in Middle Eastern politics, Islamic culture and Islamist ideology, is Editor of the Middle East Quarterly, a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Dr Rubin is author of Into the Shadows: Radical Vigilantes in Khatami's Iran (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001) and is co-author, with Dr. Patrick Clawson, of Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). Dr. Rubin served as political advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad (2003-2004); staff advisor on Iran and Iraq in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense (2002-2004); visiting lecturer in the Departments of History and International Relations at Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2001-2002); visiting lecturer at the Universities of Sulaymani, Salahuddin, and Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan (2000-2001); Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (1999-2000); and visiting lecturer in the Department of History at Yale University (1999-2000). He has been a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Leonard Davis Institute at Hebrew University, and the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs.
The foregoing article by Dr. Rubin was originally published in the CFR Forum, November 4, 2008, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a foreign policy think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat. (Article URL: http://www.meforum.org/article/2003)
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