Impediments to Normalized U.S.-Iranian Relations

by Dr. Shireen Hunter

For nearly four decades after the 1940s, the United States and Iran were close allies and friends. This period of friendship turned to enmity following the Islamic Revolution in February of 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Since then, successive efforts, initiated by both Iran and the U.S., have failed to normalize relations between the two. The reasons for these failed attempts can be attributed to the dynamics of domestic politics in Iran and in America, the interests and influence of regional and international actors, and deep-seated psychological factors. Combined, these elements have been responsible for the continued hostility between Washington and Tehran.

After the Islamic Revolution, Iranian politics became highly ideological as the state and the ruling elites’ legitimacy became closely linked with a number of ideological principles. Paramount among these was the Islamic government’s commitment to the so-called “anti-imperialist struggle” and its opposition to Israeli policies in Palestine. As viewed from Tehran, any compromise on these principles could undermine the basis of the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy and thus could potentially endanger its survival as an Islamic state.

Similarly, the question of relations with the U.S. has become inextricably linked with intra-elite ideological differences and power struggles among Iran’s leaders. The beginning of this linkage dates back to the American hostage crisis in November of 1979. At the time, the more extreme elements of the new Islamic system engineered the hostage crisis both to eliminate the more moderate forces from the Iranian political scene and to prevent the continuation of normal diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States. This trend continues to the present day because once the crisis ended, competing factions continued to use the issue of relations with the U.S. as a means for undermining their political rivals. Thus any attempt at resuming normal ties or even talking to the U.S. has been portrayed as a betrayal of the ideals of the Islamic Revolution.

Further complicating the issue has been the paradoxical fact that main political factions in Iran have wanted to be the one to unlock the closed door of U.S.-Iran relations, if and when that should become possible. The end result has been continued diplomatic paralysis as competing factions have blocked each other’s efforts to achieve normalization.

In the U.S., the 1986 arms-for-hostages deal known as the Iran-Contra Affair made the question of normalized relations with Iran a subject of partisan politics. Additionally, after this event, key U.S. allies in the Middle East—notably Saudi Arabia, Egypt under Mubarak, some Persian Gulf Arab states, and Israel—began to oppose improved U.S.-Iranian relations and actively lobbied against such a policy. This opposition stemmed from the perception that Iran’s return to a position of power would undermine their own strategic importance in the region.

The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR in 1991 further reduced incentives for the U.S. to pursue improved relations with Iran as Washington no longer feared Soviet inroads into Tehran. Moreover, U.S. policy in the Middle East after its victory in the 1991 Gulf War became focused on changing the nature of those governments unfriendly towards Washington. This policy was reflected in the Dual Containment Strategy of the Clinton Administration in the 1990s and the more interventionist policy of the Bush presidency in the 2000s. In short, regime change has been the ultimate goal of U.S. diplomacy in Iran since 1993.

Psychological factors have also complicated U.S.-Iranian relations and so far have prevented any improvement in ties between the two countries. For Iran, the main psychological impediment has been how to come to terms with a power its leaders have characterized as “the Great Satan” without appearing to have compromised its principles. Iranian leaders, irrespective of their ideological tendencies and factional loyalties, have found it difficult to make concessions under U.S. pressure out of fear that this would undermine their legitimacy in addition to wounding national pride.

From the U.S. perspective, the wounds of the hostage crisis and the memory of what Washington saw as the humiliation of a superpower are still fresh. The U.S. has found it difficult to accept the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic without its leaders renouncing their past misdeeds and changing those policies deemed unacceptable by America. In short, neither the U.S. nor Iran have been willing to risk appearing as having been the loser or having succumbed to pressure by the other side.

Finally, Iranian and U.S. efforts at bridging differences and moving towards some kind of settlement have suffered from a lack of synchronicity. Put simply, this means that whenever Iran has felt the need to reach out to the U.S., America has felt that it does not need Iran and can wait for a regime change. This was the case in the mid-1990s, during the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and also during Muhammad Khatami’s presidency in 2001 and 2003. Meanwhile, when the U.S. has been willing to reach out to Iran, as was the case during the 1991 Gulf War and later as the second Gulf War dragged on, the Iranians were reluctant to deal with the U.S.

In order to end the current stalemate, which has served neither country’s interests, both sides must try to separate, to the extent possible, the question of mutual relations from their domestic politics. Moreover, the Iranian leadership must realize that, in light of the considerably negative fallout stemming from the lack of relations with the U.S., the current situation might entail more risk for the regime’s survival than would normalized relations. America, meanwhile, should not look at Iran through the prism of its regional allies, who have their own concerns and ambitions. In addition, the U.S. should not impose conditions on the Iranian government which would be politically impossible for the Ayatollah’s to accept. And both sides must overcome their psychological blind spots and recognize that both would benefit from improved relations. Finally, Washington and Tehran must realize that the status quo entails significant risks for them both, including the possibility of another cataclysmic war in the Persian Gulf. Such a realization might prompt them to put aside excessive pride and the desire to appear the winner, and instead settle for a solution which guarantees each other’s most important interests without humiliating the other. Only in this way could a return to the normal relations of pre-1979 be realized.

About the Author

Dr. Shireen Hunter is a Visiting Professor at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at the Edmund E. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Georgetown. Her latest is book is “Iran's Foreign Policy in the Post-Soviet Era: Resisting the New International Order.”

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