A New Era in U.S.-Iranian Relations?

Iran is in the middle of celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution that ousted Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and with him, the extraordinary influence the United States had on Iranian life. According to many right-wing pundits, the revolution was the start of an era of hostility between the United States and the Muslim world — an era that they see as still underway.

President Barack Obama, however, has inaugurated a new rhetoric on Iran. The United States doesn’t assume an automatically hostile posture toward Iran or the Muslim world but will base its actions and reactions on deeds rather than perceptions of ideology. That Obama’s mere willingness to talk to Iran comes across as earth-shattering in some quarters reveals the depths of our past mutual hostility.

After the Revolution

The Iranian Revolution wasn’t anti-American, but an anti-colonial revolution directed at all outside control of Iranian affairs. Americans forget one of the great slogans of the revolution: “Neither East nor West.” The United States unfortunately inherited the mantle of Great Britain and Russia, who oppressed the Iranian state for more than 150 years before Ayatollah Khomeini began to rail against the Shah. Iran was just as upset with those powers as with the United States, and still remains distrustful of all European influence in its affairs.

Even after 1979, Iran sought not simply to oppose the United States, but rather to chart its own course as a regional power, an industrial leader, an economic force in the region, and a diplomatic broker for its neighbors. Although its revolutionary ideals drove many of its early policies — such as the founding support for Hezbollah in Lebanon — these ideals soon proved to have little currency in an Islamic world that viewed the Iranian Shi’a with suspicion.

The original revolutionary ideals, initially hailed throughout the Islamic world, now have little practical force, and Iran has changed in turn. Today Iran’s politics are less ideological and religious than practical. It has good diplomatic relations with all of its neighbors, and despite the fiery pronouncements of its largely powerless president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, operates with caution in the region. It no longer has any effective control over Hezbollah and never had much direct influence over Hamas or other regional oppositionist groups.

Better Weather Ahead?

There are now many possibilities for building ties with the United States if Americans can only wake up to them. The United States has common cause with Iran on many fronts. In political terms, the United States and Iran both oppose Islamic extremists like al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Despite attempts by the Bush administration to tie Iran to these groups to frighten the American public, Iranians oppose these extremist groups because the latter utterly reject Shi’ism — even to the point of sanctioning the murder of Shi’a believers, such as the Hazara minority in Afghanistan.

Like the United States, Iran favors stability in the region. Contrary to the Bush-era accusations, Tehran’s leaders aren’t pleased with the militarism of individuals like Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq, and have worked to quiet his opposition groups in Iraq in the name of a more comprehensive stability for the Shi’a community, which will eventually rule Iraq. Tehran’s leaders also want stability in Afghanistan. Iran hosts millions of Afghan refugees. It would like most of them to go home, and that can’t happen until Afghanistan is quiet once again.

Other areas of potential cooperation include prevention of drug trafficking, environmental protection, health care, trade stabilization, and international transport. Iran also has a strong stake in culture and tourism. The whole world travels to Iran to see the astonishing historical and archaeological sites — except for Americans.

It’s no paradox that Iranians love Americans and American culture. Iranians prioritize independence and nationalist sentiment over opposition to the West. As long as the United States doesn’t try to dominate Iran, treating the Islamic Republic with “mutual respect” (to quote Obama), Iranians have no problem with Washington. Iran’s youthful population now has a majority of citizens who have no experience of the original revolution, or remembrance of Ayatollah Khomeini or other revolutionary leaders.

Washington won’t likely offer Iran congratulations on the anniversary of its revolution. But stopping the U.S. invective will be congratulations enough. It’s time to realize that a generation has passed since the hostile U.S. reception of the revolution. With a new generation comes a new opportunity. With luck we’ll see the mood of Washington change. It was always permissible to denigrate Iran in American politics. A good first step toward a “breakthrough with Iran” would be for the Obama administration to declare such cheap political rhetoric no longer acceptable.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor William O. Beeman is professor and chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. He is president of the Middle East Section of the American Anthropological Association and the author, most recently, of The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.