Earthquake Narrows US-Iran Rift

A devastating earthquake in the city of Bam, Iran, may help to bring the United States and Iran closer together. Washington's offer to provide humanitarian aid to help over 40,000 quake victims marks the first open cooperation between the US and Iran in a quarter-century. According to this article in Egypt's Al-Ahram Weekly, however, Iran is skeptical about pursuing warmer relations in the shadow of the crisis. Tehran is worried that such cooperation would mix humanitarian issues with important political concerns. Iran wants the US to return more than $18 billion in frozen assets and issue a formal apology for ousting its Prime Minister in 1953 and for supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. For its part, the US wants Iran to end its support of terrorist organizations and help promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Washington has an additional incentive for improving ties with Iran, however – Tehran could help persuade the Shi-ite populations of both Iraq and Afghanistan to fall in line with American plans for those two countries. –YaleGlobal

Earthquake Narrows US-Iran Rift

After a quarter of a century of silence, both the US and Iran realise they have much to discuss. Tehran, however, is unwilling to leap into open negotiations that could fail.
Roshanak Taghavi
Friday, January 30, 2004

In the wake of the devastating earthquake that struck the area around Bam, Iran on 26 December 2003, leaving over 30,000 dead, the US promptly offered whatever aid was needed in responding to the catastrophe. For the first time in 25 years, the US and Iran were openly cooperating, with an American emergency response team soon reaching Bam.

However, an Iranian source with close government connections, who preferred anonymity, told Al- Ahram Weekly that Iran has rebuffed the US attempts at "earthquake diplomacy" because Iran wants to keep humanitarian issues separate from important political concerns. However, Iran is still very much open to renewed dialogue between the long-time foes.

Iran's unwillingness to seize the opportunity presented by the earthquake came out of its concern that hastily and openly conducting negotiations could backfire, if the pressure to reach an agreement left important points of contention unresolved. This is not to say that the quick American offer of aid after the earthquake was not sincerely appreciated or did not help bilateral relations. Although humanitarian relief and reconstruction efforts are currently top priorities for the Iranian government, Iran could not risk having many major issues it has long wanted to discuss with the US be overshadowed by the humanitarian aid aspect.

A successful rapprochement between Iran and the US will be difficult to achieve unless both sides begin to stop the process of vilifying one another, which has been taking place since the Iranian Revolution and the subsequent American hostage crisis. "The average American has been brainwashed for the last 25 years," the source stated, to the point where the idea of Iran being part of a fiendish "axis of evil" has become a part of the average American psyche. At the same time, the idea of the US as "great Satan" has been adopted by the majority of Iranian hard-liners.

In addition to the mutual suspicion resulting from a quarter century of hostility and the radicalising influence of powerful right-wing elements in both countries, Iran and the United States have various outstanding issues to resolve. Iran would first like the US to return the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) claims, which were frozen after the Iranian Revolution and are currently worth approximately $18 billion dollars. A settlement for the dispute, which is currently being discussed at the US-Iran tribunal at The Hague, is being delayed by the US, who is insisting that each claim be discussed separately despite Iranian calls for a holistic settlement.

Secondly, Iran is seeking a formal apology from the United States for its intervention in Iranian affairs throughout the 20th century, particularly for the CIA's role in overthrowing democratically elected Prime Minister Mohamed Mossadegh in 1953 and for the US support of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, which resulted in around one million Iranian casualties.

Finally, Iran has stated that sanctions imposed on it by the US must be fully lifted before any sort of negotiations can take place. The Weekly was informed, however, that this last claim is merely a bargaining chip because the US has made it clear that sanctions will not be completely removed before any sort of discussion takes place.

The United States, for its part, has stated that it does not want Iran to support or have any relations with Hizbullah, whom the US considers to be a terrorist organisation. Furthermore, the US does not want Iran to provide any sort of support for Hamas, and wants Iran to support the current "peace process" between Israel and the Palestinians.

Finally, the US wants Iran to abandon any programmes to develop weapons of mass destruction. The Weekly's source believed, however, that this last concern should no longer be relevant as Iran signed the Additional Protocol to the nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty in December 2003.

The Weekly's source believes that now is the perfect time for Iran and the US to pursue rapprochement because the US has been experiencing considerable difficulties in its occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Iran, with its close ties to Iraq's Shi'ite population and consistent support of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, has the capacity to make America's task in these two countries significantly easier or harder. Thus far, Iran has helped facilitate the US-led attempt to occupy and restore order to these two countries. With presidential elections approaching, the Bush administration is seeking to quickly bring about a lull in the violence wracking the Middle East, and can not afford Iran creating more problems in the region.

Rapprochement with the US would be in Iran's best interest, because with its own presidential elections approaching in 2005, Iranian hard-liners sorely need to appear more moderate in the eyes of the public. Their chief dilemma lies in the fact that the hard- liners need to make sure that they will arrive at an acceptable resolution before they publicly admit to having participated in any sort of discussions with the US. Iran has little faith that concrete results will come easily out of any discussions with the US, and therefore prefers to negotiate in secret for the time being. The US, on the other hand, will only participate in open talks with Iran because it believes that Iran may double-cross the superpower.

The majority of young Iranians and a growing number of ex-revolutionaries inside the country believe that improved relations with the US will ameliorate Iran's economic difficulties, and would like to see relations between the two countries normalised. Increasingly frustrated by the steady rise in inflation, widening income gap, fall in living standards, and rise in unemployment, young people, along with a number of reformists, welcomed America's temporary easing of sanctions. This was interpreted as a sign of hope that relations between the two countries are set to improve and economic ties can be restored.

The Weekly's source claims, however, that this notion is largely mistaken because sanctions have in fact had very little effect on Iran's oil exports, which now simply go to Western Europe instead of the US. As is the case with Libya, sanctions have primarily affected Iran's investment sector because American oil companies have been unable to invest in Iranian oil and gas fields. This fall in investment has not succeeded in preventing development in Iran, but has merely served to slow it down, while trade with foreign countries has decreased only marginally as a result of sanctions.

Although it is true that the average citizen will be affected by the loss in revenues Iran will experience because of American efforts to have routes transporting Caspian reserves bypass Iran, many believe that in the long run, Iran's economic woes have been and will continue to be a direct result of its government's economic policies.

Iran currently spends 11-15 per cent of GDP on petroleum subsidies, resulting in extremely low gasoline prices that have stimulated a rapid increase in oil consumption, cutting away at oil exports. The Iranian government also funds many inefficient and loss-incurring state enterprises. The Weekly was told that rather than focussing on the negative impact of sanctions, efforts must be made to privatise and get rid of government subsidies.

The timing is therefore perfect for Iran and the US to begin pursuing a rapprochement. The Weekly's source asserted that the US could either select an intermediary to contact Iran to begin discussions, or could send a signal to the Iranians indicating that it is in favour of a quick settlement. Iran would then be presented with an opportunity to meet with US representatives and would have the option to walk away if unsatisfied with the outcome of the discussions.

Certain members of the Iranian academic community believe, however, that the Iranian government should not enter into any negotiations with the US until sanctions are completely lifted.

Pirouz Mojtahed-Zadeh, professor of geopolitics at Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran and chairman of the Urosevic Research Foundation in London, told the Weekly that all sanctions must be lifted before Iran can begin negotiations with the US on an equal footing and in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

He maintains that Iran has done its best to cooperate with America and Europe in their fight against terrorism, and has worked hard to contain and remove Al-Qa'eda operatives in the region. Furthermore, Iran is committed to a policy of non- interference in the Middle East peace process, despite consistent American support of Mojahedin Khalq Organisation (MKO) activities in Iran, and signed the Additional Protocol to the NPT, which should have negated American fears of an Iranian WMD programme.

"These developments together should have resulted in the permanent lifting of sanctions," he said. He believes that an American decision to maintain sanctions will communicate to Iran and the rest of the world that the US still views the country as a terrorist nation. Iran will consider this label to be an insult, and will consequently be unable to pursue an evenhanded rapprochement with the US.

Many young students whose parents were revolutionaries are beginning to voice support for a cautious but open dialogue between Iran and the US, even if discussions begin while economic sanctions are still in place.

A 22-year-old student at Carleton University's MBA programme on the Iranian island of Geshm explained that she supports an Iranian-American détente because of the educational opportunities it would eventually bring for young Iranians.

"I do not believe, however, that the US wants to promote regime change in Iran for the good of the Iranian people, everything it does is for its own profit and well-being. So I support a rapprochement with America," she said, "but not if the US enters Iran as it entered Iraq and Afghanistan, using force and then manipulating the formation of the government to suit its own interests."

"Encourage and actively work with the Iranian people to develop for themselves at their own pace," she said, and the rapprochement will succeed. "A change will occur, but it cannot and will not be imposed by outside forces."

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. Reprinted from Al-Ahram Weekly Online: 29 January - 4 February 2004 (Issue No. 675)