In response to the recent triumph of Argo at the Academy Awards, the Iranian state television channel called the film an “advertisement for the CIA.” This brief exchange serves as a painful reminder of the nature of the U.S.-Iranian relationship, one that has been marked by mutual distrust and deep-rooted animosity.
Other historic lows include American participation in the 1953 Iranian coup d’état and the 1979-81 hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran which Argo depicts.
Since a massive and spontaneous revolution swept across Iran in 1979 and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became the head of the newly formed Islamic Republic, anti-American ideology has been one of the cornerstones of the leadership’s rhetoric. In April of 1980, diplomatic relations between the two nations were severed and remain so to this day.
Since then, optimistic moments and symbolic gestures by both sides have been overshadowed by further hostility. The durability and intensity of this estrangement has proved remarkable. The U.S. government has successfully normalized relations with past enemies such as Germany, Japan and Russia. But in this case, the possibility of reconciliation remains bleak.
During Mohammed Khatami’s tenure as the fifth president of Iran from 1997 to 2005, the tone of dialogue with the West improved. The progressive and open-minded Khatami emphasized a “dialogue among civilizations.” Yet, powerful conservative and clerical political forces at home severely limited Khatami’s ability to enact reform. In 2000, Khatami even turned down the chance to shake hands with President Clinton because he feared such a strong domestic reaction. After Bush formed a harsher post-9/11 Middle East policy, Iran was featured as a member of the “Axis of Evil” and considered a threat to world peace.
Following a disappointing conclusion to Khatami’s administration, the incomparable Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over. Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy has puzzled pundits and policy-makers alike, and has by no means been conducive to a warming of ties with America. Stateside, despite glimmers of hope, President Obama has changed little about America’s role in the Middle East in general and Iran specifically.
The U.S. strategy of solving the “Iran problem” has stayed fairly consistent in recent years, focusing on economic sanctions and attempting to isolate Iran from the international community. Members of congress, cabinet members and the head of state have consistently labeled Iran as a pariah state that sponsors terrorism and opposes American allies on the global battlefield.
This campaign has yielded mixed results. Iran’s standing has deteriorated significantly and the U.S. has rallied support from fellow anti-Iranian forces such as Israel and the Arab Gulf states.
But apart from drastically weakening the Iranian Rial and hampering the economic ambitions of the Iranian population, what has been accomplished?
Ahmadinejad, whose time in office is mercifully coming to a close, has only given ammunition to those who dismiss Iran as an unreasonable rogue nation. His speeches and antics have suggested little interest in negotiating with the U.S. or anyone else for that matter. It is essentially a mystery who will win the election in June of this year, but even the most reasonable candidate would have a limited impact on dealings with America.
The current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has absolute veto power and calls the shots when it comes to major foreign policy matters. Furthermore, the fact that Khamenei has never traveled abroad in an official capacity or conducted an interview with a Western media outlet is particularly disconcerting.
Despite immense pressure from the White House, the United Nations and countless other players, the Iranian regime appears determined to continue ahead with its nuclear program. While this is the largest issue in U.S.-Iranian relations, it is certainly not the only one worth mentioning. This conflict extends to the reconstruction of Iraq, the civil war in Syria, Hezbollah’s actions in Lebanon and beyond.
Considering the status quo, there seems to be no way to move forward. Neither party looks poised to make an adequate concession and the American Embassy in Tehran continues to be a chilling reminder of past mistakes and missed opportunities. Direct engagement is surely the best way to overcome this stalemate, but in this atmosphere even that is likely impossible.