There is no tougher nut to crack in the Middle East than Iran. It is ferocious in its Shia Islamic nationalism. It has a proud historical heritage going back 2500 years to Cyrus the Great and the fabled Persian empire.
It is not an Arab nation, but a multi-ethnic one. It has an army of nearly one million troops whose strategic goal is mainly deterrence. It is a resilient nation of 81,000,000 people. It is resentful of the US for good reasons going back to the 50s when the CIA helped orchestrate the overthrow of its government. It has enormous potential for economic success with the largest natural gas reserves in the world. It is a well educated country. Yet here it is today in a cauldron of chaos, thanks to yet another reckless US decision – to kill its most famous military commander for the most dubious of reasons and seemingly without regard of the consequences. Now it has to try to come to terms with a befuddled US foreign policy which changes on the day-to-day whims of President Trump, who for once has come to his senses and says ‘Iran can be a great country’.
A few days ago, Trump threatened to unleash missiles on military targets in Iran if the ayatollahs caused another US casualty. Now he has wisely decided that was not such a good idea after all, especially in an election year. Instead he has resorted to the standover tactic of imposing more sanctions on Iran which will punish the hapless citizens of the country than those who make the decisions. At the same time, Trump noted approvingly that ‘Iran appears to be standing down. Which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world’. Yet a few hours earlier, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was anything but softening his stance by reiterating his demand the US get out of the Mideast altogether.
Then Trump concluded that, as long as Iran does not opt for nuclear weapons, it must be allowed ‘to thrive and prosper and take advantage of its enormous untapped potential. Iran can be a great country’. Yet this was the gist of the 2015 nuclear deal which Trump decided was unacceptable and reneged on. He hoped the other parties would as well only to be rebuffed. Little wonder the ayatollahs are confused and tend to jeer at Trump’s threats, knowing his fear of a military confrontation and the emptiness of much of his bombast (as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un can testify).
If Iran and Iraq can co-habit successfully as they do today despite some religious tensions and having fought an eight-year war for no gain, as they did in the 80s, then why can’t Washington reach out to Tehran with the same objective in mind? The trouble is that the President Trump sees the world in terms of the old cowboys and Indians films. He stirred the ultimate hornets’ nest by ordering the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s military commander. It was an act the New Republic described as the ‘pinnacle of Trump’s foreign policy stupidity’.
I asked a friend in Iran who is hostile to the regime why his country seemingly was so difficult to deal with. ‘Dignity’, he said. Respecting dignity was an important part of its culture as had been handed down through generations in Persian literature. Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and leader of the Shia branch of Islam, advised followers: ‘Be a free man and have dignity even if you are not a believer’. He also advised them that ‘an honourable death was better than a miserable life’. These rallying cries are still felt deeply today.
Iran generally brings out the worst in US foreign policy. Australian-born journalist/author Geraldine Brooks, who covered the Mideast from 1987 to 1995, recalled in the New York Times when a US warship in the Gulf ‘accidentally’ shot down an Iranian airliner with the loss of 290 lives in 1988. The US’s ‘military prevarications came thick and fast’, she wrote, citing the lies in their cover-up. The warship’s commander, who had been behaving aggressively at the time inside Iranian waters, was later decorated for ‘exceptionally meritorious conduct’.
Trump signalled the killing Soleimani with an inflammatory gesture of his own – a single word tweet: a picture of the Stars and Stripes. He must have been taken aback when twice as many angry mourners turned out on the streets of Tehran than the number who attended his own presidential inauguration. He could learn from another American-made quagmire – Vietnam. Henry Kissinger talked to the North Vietnamese and achieved peace, though not democracy. At least, there were no more casualties.
Trump should also give thought to what happened 40 years ago when Iraq tried to seize oil fields in Iran. It provoked the eight-year war of attrition which ended in stalemate and the needless loss of half a million lives on both sides. The US threw its support behind Saddam Hussein’s Iraq on the basis that he was ‘a guy we can work with’. The war also featured the Iranian Shia cult of martyrdom, including human wave ground attacks. It was a reflection of the tenacity of Iranians and the lengths they would employ to resist any foe no matter how much stronger it might be.
It again begs the question of why doesn’t Washington reach out to Tehran today when it is willing to do so with the Taliban, which has killed hundreds of American troops, and North Korea, which has made rocket-rattling threats against the US. It is as if Washington has sentenced Iran to a life of solitary confinement with no parole for taking over its Tehran embassy more than 40 years ago. It is also as if it has allowed its foreign policy to be be heavily influenced by Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who is obsessed by what he sees as the Iranian threat, and America’s biggest arms customer and Iran nemesis, Saudi Arabia.
But even the Saudis are having second thoughts about their place in the world and US support when no action was forthcoming after last year’s attack on its oil installations which they and Washington blamed on Iran. The NYT reported that they had since engaged in indirect talks with Iran to ease tensions, particularly in Yemen. They had also made gestures to soften the blockade of Qatar because of its support for Iran.
If a nation as deeply conservative as Saudi Arabia has decided it is time to reach for an olive branch than rather its gun of recent years in the interests of Middle East relations, why cannot the US? By any cultural measure, Iran is indeed a great country as the offspring of the ancient Persian empire. If you actually allowed it to prosper again, so might regional stability. Don’t forget the matter of dignity. It helps.
FOOTNOTE. Cyrus the Great has been credited with the world’s first declaration of human rights. He guaranteed freedom for all those he ruled over, irrespective of their beliefs. He freed slaves and supported Jews who wanted to go to Jerusalem to help rebuild the city. Even today Jerusalem has a street named after Cyrus.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.