|Bam: American relief and the Future of the Iranian-American relationship
by Maaike Warnaar
On December 26 of last year the city of Bam, Iran and its surrounding areas were struck by a devastating earthquake which killed 26,271 people.1 The US responded the following day with the deployment of humanitarian assistance,2 and this aid was gratefully received by the Iranian government. For the first time since the hostage crisis in 1980, American airplanes entered Iranian airspace.3 Secretary of State Colin Powell’s comments on the deployment of American aid in Iran were remarkable: “This was a humanitarian issue. . . And in this case, to show them that we were serious and that we were seeing it as a humanitarian issue, [President Bush] had [Deputy Secretary of State] Rich Armitage call the Iranian Perm Rep directly [ignoring the diplomatic custom of relaying through third parties4], so he knew it was not just a routine, diplomatic exchange. What was surprising here, Robin, is that within a half an hour to an hour, Rich got an answer back from the Permanent Representative, who was in Tehran at that time, and within hours, we had started to assemble relief supplies, planes and rescue workers. Now all those things taken together show that there are things happening, and therefore we should keep open the possibility of dialogue at an appropriate point in the future.”5
Was Powell right? Does the American response to the Bam earthquake and the acceptance of the American aid by Iran herald a possible improvement of the relationship between the Iranian and American government?6 The Iranian president Mohammad Khatami responded sceptically to the developments. "Humanitarian issues should not be intertwined with deep and chronic political problems," he told the international press. "If we see change both in tone and behaviour of the U.S. administration, then a new situation will develop in our relations."7 Conversely, several Iranian officials were more optimistic. Khatami’s brother Mohammed Reza Khatami, the deputy speaker of Parliament, told Reuters that “goodwill will be answered with goodwill.’’ Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi8 as well as former President and current head of the Expediency Council Hashemi Rafsanjani also responded vaguely positively: “We must look at it more closely,” Rafsanjani said, “but they are in the process of sending positive signals for several months now.”9
This essay will analyze to what extent the hopes for reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries are, at this point, legitimate. I will argue that although recent developments signal an improvement of the American-Iranian relationship, this is merely a continuation of previous efforts to improve ties. It will take several more years of continuation along this line for complete diplomatic ties to be re-established. The American-Iranian relationship has experienced ups and downs throughout the past two and a half decades. This has everything to do with the internal struggle between Iranian politicians over ‘ideology’ and ‘realism’.10 Even though there have been – and will be – relapses in the American-Iranian relationship, overall it seems to be gradually improving. In the years to come I expect to see a continuation along the line of ‘two steps forward, one step back’.
The discussion on the improvement of Iranian-American relations is not necessarily recent. A diplomatic thaw between the Iranian and American governments had been cautiously anticipated for a few years prior to the Bam earthquake, mainly since Khatami's election. Khatami was elected in 1997 with 69% of the votes, and re-elected in 2001 with 77% of the vote.11 The pivotal role of Iranian youth in this election is colourfully described by Yaghmaian.12 Ramazani argues that the young voters, who have no memories of the time of the Shah and the Iranian Revolution, voted for Khatami because “they aspired to greater freedom at home and more cooperation with the rest of the world.”13 Khatami clearly showed his commitment to a foreign policy of democratic peace14 when he addressed the press on December 14 2001: "I declare my respects to the great people of the United States, and I hope that in the close future I would have a dialogue and talk with the people of America.”th In his address to the American people on CNN in January 1998, Khatami made clear what form this dialogue should take: “When I speak of dialogue, I intend dialogue between civilizations and cultures. Such discourse should be centered around thinkers and intellectuals.”
Despite these statements, important obstacles to better ties between Washington and Tehran remain. These are most importantly the powerful political forces in both countries that seem permanently opposed to any improvement in the relationship.15
This obstacle is especially hard to overcome for Khatami, whose influence on Iranian foreign policy is exceedingly limited. Three other offices are responsible for Iran’s foreign policy: those of Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi, Head of the Expediency Council Hashemi Rafsanjani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene’i.16 The Expediency Council designs the ‘Grand Strategy’ for the Iranian regime, and proposes guidelines for foreign policy. The Supreme Leader’s word is final in foreign policy decision making, and he has an active role in shaping foreign policy.17
On both the Iranian and the American sides, it will be extremely difficult for the proponent of rapprochement to convince the domestic opponents for additional reasons. First, proponents need to gain strength in both countries simultaneously for rapprochement to be successful. If the rapprochement is not reciprocated, that is: if the other party continues to pursue a hostile policy, the opponents’ view will be justified. Second, whereas the proponents need to convince the opponents in order to be able to change the policy, the opponents’ view requires only the maintenance the current policy.18
The Iranian debate over the possible rapprochement with the US has been quite colourful; the various internal factions in Iranian politics have resulted in mixed outcomes of the debate over the years. In analyzing the prospects of the Iranian-American relationship it is useful to look at how this debate developed in the last twenty-five years, and specifically after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. Rather than to look for dramatic changes in the Iranian-American relationship in the present or near future19, it is perhaps more realistic to expect continuity in the ambiguous Iranian stance towards the US.
Realism or Idealism
The American-Iranian relationship was damaged throughout the 1980s by several unpleasant encounters. It began with the hostage crisis20, an incident which is held responsible for the deterioration of American-Iranian relationship until today. In the mid-1980s a short “strategic opening” to Iran took place, known as the Iran-Contra affair. This collapsed and was publicized: a major embarrassment for both parties.21 In the last two years of the Gulf War which ended in 1988, the US increasingly took the side of the Iraqis, and an Iranian civilian aircraft was struck by an American missile, killing 290 people.22
Mohammad-Reza Dehshiri explains the ambiguity in the Iranian foreign policy throughout the 1980s and 1990s in terms of shifts between idealism and realism. “The first approach hinging on idealism would stress the support of similar ideologies and freedom movements while the second approach [realism] would result in an open-door policy, paving the way for access to the advanced technologies of industrialized countries and flexibility on regional and supra-regional levels.”23 During the 1980s the idealist approach had been prevailing, only interrupted by a period of realism between 1984 and 1986. However, after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 a wave of realism was spurred by a number of internal and external factors: the presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani, amendments in the Iranian constitution, the end of the war with Iraq and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.24 Hunter wrote in 1990: “Iran has not abandoned its revolutionary goals, but under internal and external pressures it has been pursuing them more cautiously. . . . [Iran] is gradually coming to resemble other revolutionary countries, where ideological objectives are basically subordinated to state interests.”25
Though this shift to rationality did not translate into de facto better ties between the US and Iran, it did result in, among other things, the release of $567 million of Iranian assets frozen by the US after the revolution; the acceptance by the American government to pay indemnities to the families of the victims on board the aircraft which the American military shot down; and the neutrality of Iran in the Second Gulf War.26 In the same period, however, the US pursued its policy of ‘dual containment’ of Iran and Iraq, and imposed sanctions on any foreign corporation that invested $40 million or more in the Iranian oil and gas sector.27 In other words, despite some shifts in Iranian foreign policy, Iran was still perceived as a threat by the US: “Rafsanjani’s systematic efforts to build constructive political as well as commercial ties with the West were sabotaged repeatedly by a policy that appeared to be driven by revolutionary vengeance and executed by shadowy forces. Tehran never publicly identified the perpetrators or publicly held them accountable, presumably because they enjoyed the protection of individuals at or near the top of the conservative power structure.”28
In 1996, when the US initiated a new wave of hostilities against Iran, the Iranian foreign policy balance shifted again from realism to idealism. This did not last long, as in 1997 Khatami was elected for president.29 After Khatami’s CNN address, the US took a number of steps in improving American-Iranian relations, including the alleviation of the sanctions and the reduction of the American naval presence in the Gulf.30 Although Khatami’s influence on foreign policy may be limited, his cooperative posture seems to have convinced the Americans of the good intentions of the Reformist government.
Khatami was among the first of the world leaders to condemn the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. Many other Iranian officials from all sides of the political spectrum denounced these acts of terrorism.31 The subsequent attack on neighbouring Afghanistan, however, found no support among Iranian officials. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei accused the US of taking advantage of the September 11th attacks. Khatami also responded with criticism, and denounced as ‘arrogant’ Bush’s statement that countries either stand with the US or with the terrorists.32 Despite these official statements, Iran quietly cooperated with the US. Iran gave humanitarian relief and, after the Taliban government was ousted, Iran participated with enthusiasm in the talks to establish an interim government. Iran pledged a total of $560 million for the reconstruction of Afghanistan; the largest donation of any developing country.33
Iran was praised by the US for its cooperation in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, but the old American rhetoric was soon reassumed. In his State of the Union of 2002 Bush named Iran as part of an ‘Axis of Evil’. In Bush’s words: “Iran aggressively pursues these weapons [of mass destruction] and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom. … They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred.”34 Iran condemned these accusations. “He [Bush] should know that the repetition of such allegations is not going to help him,” said Iranian Foreign Minster Karrazi.35 Despite the renewed hostilities, Iran generally supported regime change in Iraq, even one via an invasion by the US.36 Although Khamenei accused the Americans and British of having “their own satanic motives” and called the war in Iraq “unjust”,37 many Iranians shared the US believe that the Iraqi threat could only be disarmed by regime change.38
However, the relationship between Iran and the US during the last two years was more than one of quiet cooperation. Prior to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Iranian and American diplomats got together in third party based meetings to discuss war plans.39 Gary Sick explains that the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the subsequent American military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq have drawn the attention to the mutual interest of Iran and the US in regional stability.40 It seems that the pragmatists in the Iranian government, most importantly the former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, had an important role in the Iranian “charm offensive” towards the US.41 Why the religious leadership allows such a rapprochement is not entirely clear, but it seems that the Iranian government understands the advantages of a positive American-Iranian relationship, in particular after Bush’s Axis of Evil Speech.42
But there might be more than that. With the great popular support for the ideas of Khatami, and the need for economic improvement, the hardliners in the Iranian regime might ask themselves how long they can continue their ideological opposition.
Bam 2003 versus Gilan 1990
The Geneva talks between Iran and the US designed to discuss the future of Iraq43 were cut off in May 2003 after US intelligence suggested that al-Qaeda operatives in Iran had a role in the May 12, 2003 suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia.44 The Bam Earthquake, however, seems to have revived the contacts between the two countries. In fact, the US was one of the largest international donors to this disaster,45 and lifted the barriers to the transfer of aid money. So far, these efforts by the American government have not been reciprocated. Iran turned down the American offer of a high-level humanitarian delegation to deliver earthquake relief, because “the time was not right.”46 That the acceptance of aid from the US by the Iranian government is nevertheless a sign of Iranian-American rapprochement becomes clear when we compare the response to Bam to the response to a similar earthquake in 1990 in the province of Gilan.
The earthquake in Gilan in June 1990 killed 40,000 people47 and left ten cities in ruins48. Despite the seriousness of the situation, the Iranian government was reluctant to accept aid from Western governments and relief workers. Iranians turned down many offers of outside help, and officials denounced rescue dogs as ‘unclean’.49 Aid from the American government was not accepted, but American aid organizations like the American Red Cross and AmeriCare became active in Gilan two days after the disaster had taken place.50 This non-governmental American involvement made it possible for the American government to send in a relief flight with blankets, water and containers through the American Red Cross.51
Following the Bam earthquake, the Iranian government did not show comparable reservations: Khatami appealed for help from all save Israel, while rescue dogs in Bam saved many lives.52 This does not mean that the old feelings of distrust have disappeared: “Aid workers complain they are treated as spies and are constantly questioned and watched.” 53
Iran’s acceptance of American aid after the Bam earthquake clearly shows that something is changing in the relationship between Tehran and Washington. This statement should be tempered by the fact that a humanitarian disaster has put aside some political reservations. The cooperation between Iran and the US should therefore not be seen as a breakthrough in Iranian-American rapprochement. Rather, it should be seen as a continuation of a tendency of rapprochement that started after Khomeini’s death. This process has by no means been linear. The diversity in factions within Iranian political spheres has resulted in mixed foreign policy outcomes over the years. However, in a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ form, the Iranians seem to get closer to the Americans and vice versa.
The process has been catalyzed by a number of developments, one of which is the election of Khatami. Although Khatami has not been able to dramatically change Iranian policy towards the US, his promotion of a ‘dialogue among civilizations’ seems to have made the Americans believe that rapprochement is possible. Not the reformists, but the pragmatists seem to have taken the lead in materializing this rapprochement, when the September 11th attacks and the subsequent involvement of the US in the region made this possible. Though the threats of Taliban Afghanistan and Iraqi Saddam were not new, the events of September 11th seem to have drawn the attention of both the US and Iran to their common interest in stability in the region.54 Though this development is not comparable to a threat like “an increasingly nationalist post-Yeltsin Russia” or “an Islamic Fundamentalist revolution in Saudi Arabia”55, their mutual interest seemed to have been significant enough to catalyze a minimal improvement in their relationship. The recent deployment of American aid in Bam is merely an illustration of this improvement.
It is not to be expected that the relationship between the US and Iran will deteriorate after Khatami’s second term has ended. It is likely that the movement towards rapprochement that was started under Rafsanjani, and was continued by pragmatists under Khatami, will persist. Sarioghalam believes that “Iran’s geopolitics, energy resources, and even cosmopolitan aspects of its culture will eventually put the country solidly in the Western Camp.”56 However, the effort needs to come from both sides. Sarioghalam notices a “disparity between what Iran’s current leadership can deliver and the expectations of any U.S. Administration.”57 The American government needs to understand that Iranian politics is stratified and dynamic, and will therefore remain ambiguous.
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