Washington, D.C., April 14, 2022 – After weeks of uncertainty over ongoing multilateral nuclear negotiations with Iran, it is still an open question whether they will actually produce a signed agreement and if so whether the deal can survive the formidable domestic political obstacles that are expected, especially in the United States and the Islamic Republic. The persistent difficulty all sides have faced in revising the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of 2015 has resurrected a lively public policy and historical debate over the nature of the problem and why the two principal protagonists, Washington and Tehran, still seem unable to bridge the rift that has divided them for more than four decades.
A new volume tackles this question from a novel perspective – arguing that along with the realities of differing interests and concrete grievances against each other, a major contributing factor to this tenacious enmity is how each nation views itself. Briefly put, the book suggests that this often-deadly confrontation – including the current gridlock over the nuclear talks – derives from the very different national narratives that continue to shape their politics, actions, and vision of their respective destinies in the world.
Written by Hussein Banai (Hamilton Lugar School, Indiana University), Malcolm Byrne (National Security Archive), and John Tirman (Center for International Studies, MIT), the new book, Republics of Myth: National Narratives and the US–Iran Conflict is being published this week by the Johns Hopkins University Press. It is the product of an ongoing multinational project exploring the complex U.S.-Iran relationship through archival research; “critical oral history” conferences involving veteran policymakers and government experts from the U.S., Iran, and Europe; and additional interviews with key practitioners. (More on the Iran-U.S. Relations Project is available here.)
Today’s posting consists of the book’s introduction, which spells out the theory and its application to U.S.-Iran relations; and a small selection of declassified documents that relate to matters of national perception and some of the key interactions between American and Iranian leaders over the years. (Readers interested in a fuller documentary record are invited to check the subscription-based Digital National Security Archive at many major libraries and the numerous publicly accessible postings on this web site.)
Documents and Book Introduction
Foreign Relations of the United States, 1943, Vol. IV, footnote 68, p. 420
Iran first fully appeared on U.S. strategic radar during World War II because of its oil resources and shared border with the USSR, which offered the allies a backdoor to supply the beleaguered Red Army. This was also a time when U.S. officials began to explore opportunities to fulfill their self-appointed role as uplifters of global civilization through the injection of not just U.S. economic aid but American values – when “altruism ... nicely coincided with self-interest,” in the words of historian Bruce Kuniholm. President Franklin Roosevelt, inspired by the principles that led to the Atlantic Charter, was particularly keen on the notion. In this memo to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, he cheerfully spelled out his hopes for Iran, calling it “definitely a very, very backward nation and pronouncing himself “rather thrilled with the idea of using Iran as an example of what we could do by an unselfish American policy.” This idea of transforming “backward nations” had been an important rationale for U.S. approaches to the developing world since the early 20th century, and became all the more prevalent with respect to Iran and other countries after World War II.
Tehran Domestic Service in Persian 1842 GMT 1 Apr 79, translated by FBIS
Two months after returning to Iran to lead the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini celebrated the formation of the world’s first Islamic republic. In this speech to the nation, he laid out some of his political vision, which he and his followers were still formulating under turbulent political conditions. He declared that the “fulfillment of the Almighty God’s promise is close” and foresaw a time when “we will witness the triumph of those deemed weak over the arrogant.” He called out the West for its hypocritical approach to democracy and human rights – pointing to the history of U.S. support for the “miserable Shah.” Reflecting an often-stated principle of “neither East nor West,” he was equally dismissive of the Communist world, which he only refers to indirectly here. He insisted that Iran’s new system based on justice would show that “Only Islamic democracy is correct,” that unlike East and West “there is no repression in Islam,” and that an “Islamic government does not do wrong.” Presciently, he declared that “everything that exists in Iran today must be changed.” These and other themes depicting Iran as historically a victim of foreign oppression and Islam as the answer – not just to the country’s difficulties but to the world’s ills – continue to form the core of the new leadership’s narrative, which is still invoked 40+ years later. Khomeini ended this speech with a call to other Islamic nations to “cut off the hands of satans from their countries.”
Digital National Security Archive, Iran: The Making of U.S. Policy, 1977-1980, Document No. IR03267
Nine months after the Shah fled into exile, paving the way for the rise of an Islamic state, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Bruce Laingen and his Embassy colleagues were still struggling to come to grips with the de facto leaders behind what was still the Provisional Government of Iran. Those figures, including future Foreign Minister Ibrahim Yazdi, the nominal subject of this cable from Laingen to the State Department, formed the political circle around Ayatollah Khomeini. For months, the Embassy had been trying to navigate the chaotic political scene in Tehran and find a channel to the new regime. But they had mostly interacted with the more moderate managers of the PGOI not the group surrounding Khomeini. This was partly by predisposition, since the moderates were technocrats whom the Americans could identify with and believed would inevitably end up running the country (since Islamic clerics were widely assumed to be incapable of doing so). But it was also because of the deep distrust that Khomeini’s circle had for the United States, which after all had been one of the targets of the revolution because of its long support for the Shah.
A key purpose of Laingen’s in sending this cable (and others he signed during this period) was to convey to Washington the Embassy’s assessment of both Yazdi and the rest of Khomeini’s “inner group” and the authenticity of some of their concerns. Yazdi was an “abrasive” character to the Americans, a trait Laingen guessed grew partly out of a need to prove his revolutionary credentials after having spent the last 18 years in Texas. But Laingen was anxious to make sure Washington did not dismiss his behavior entirely as posturing but also saw in it genuine trepidation over certain short-term and long-term goals. The former had to do with preserving power within the PGOI; the latter with defending the revolution against “foreign and particularly western cultural domination,” a recurring theme of the Khomeini camp.
Laingen follows his analysis with several specific recommendations for U.S. policy. But key to it all, he says, is the need to do more to persuade Yazdi and others that the United States sincerely accepts the revolution. This would remain a core point of distrust for Iranians in the coming years and successive U.S. administrations would themselves contribute to Iran’s dark view of U.S. aims as they grappled internally over that very question. Just three weeks after sending this cable, for example, Laingen and his Embassy colleagues were taken hostage, prompting President Carter to sign a Finding the following month authorizing covert steps “to encourage the establishment of a responsible and democratic regime in Iran.”
United Nations Archives
Along with the 1978-1979 revolution and the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, the eight-year Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) was one of the most critical events for understanding the gulf between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. From the IRI’s perspective, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of September 1980 met with deafening silence from world powers, implying their tacit acceptance if not approval of the attack. Throughout the conflict, France, the Soviet Union, and many other governments openly supplied Iraq with sophisticated weaponry that was often used against Iranian civilian targets. The United States, which treated Iran as the aggressor after it counter-invaded Iraq in 1982 and held Tehran responsible for numerous terrorist acts during the decade, made no bones about currying favor with Baghdad leading to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations in late 1984, while working consistently to isolate Iran. Far worse from Tehran’s standpoint was the documented fact that Saddam Hussein’s repeated resort to chemical weapons was not only known to the west but abetted in various ways by some governments and businesses. Finally, in July 1988, a U.S. guided missile cruiser shot down a civilian Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf, an act the Iranians assumed was deliberate.
In short, the war hardened Tehran’s attitudes toward the outside world, further ingraining its sense of victimization and isolation at the hands of hostile, not to say cruel, foreign powers. Some of this outlook shows through in this letter from Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati to U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar from about the midpoint of the war. Velayati voices several grievances relating to the war while also tying these into Iran’s view of its hugely disadvantaged position on the world stage, a sense that has always pervaded IRI foreign policy. As secretary-general, Perez de Cuellar was virtually the only major world leader who regularly took seriously Iran’s charges of chemical weapons use by Iraq and was therefore typically the addressee of Iran’s appeals, as opposed to the Security Council, most of whose permanent members, Tehran believed, were irretrievably antagonistic toward the Islamic Republic. This view helps to explain Iran’s abiding distrust of the UNSC when it comes to nuclear and other issues.
After close to three bitter decades since the revolution, a sea-change of sorts – sadly short-lived – appeared to be underway in Iranian politics with the surprise election of Mohammad Khatami as president in June 1997. A true believer in the Islamic Republic, Khatami had nevertheless shown signs of discontent with the direction of some of its policies, particularly the oppressive domestic behavior of hardline regime enforcers. Although his main focus was on internal political, economic, and cultural affairs, it was his unexpectedly genial, not to say sunny, outlook toward the west that caught the world’s attention. Utilizing the medium of television to maximize his audience, Khatami gave a major interview on CNN in early 1998 where he wowed American audiences with his well-informed and warm take on the United States and its history and his call for a “dialogue among civilizations.” A portion of that lengthy interview with Christiane Amanpour is reproduced here.
William J. Clinton Presidential Library
One of many avid viewers of President Khatami’s CNN interview in January 1998 was Bill Clinton. During his first term in the White House, Clinton harbored harsh views of Iran and approved various stern measures against the Islamic Republic, such as the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996. The low point came with the Khobar Towers bombing in June of that year, which prompted preparations for a major retaliatory strike in the event Tehran’s culpability could be proven. Reluctant to take drastic military action, especially after earlier disasters in Somalia and Kenya/Tanzania, Clinton got an unexpected reprieve with Khatami’s election in 1997. The new Iranian leader seemed to promise a new day in the relationship and was presumed to have had no involvement in the Khobar attack. Khatami’s election took place in the first year of Clinton’s second term, which featured a new secretary of state and secretary of defense who were far less ill-disposed toward Iran. Captivated by the idea of a diplomatic breakthrough with an old nemesis, Clinton set about finding ways to reach a rapprochement with the apparently like-minded Iranian leader.
Numerous failures followed, however, after which the White House decided to try a “Hail Mary” by reaching out directly to Khatami with a letter and an accompanying oral message of good wishes delivered by the Omani foreign minister. The problem was that domestic political pressures ensured that Iran’s role in the Khobar bombing could not be completely shunted aside, so the letter, primarily meant to serve as an outstretched hand, instead led with a blunt accusation of terrorism on the part of key Iranian players and a demand that they be brought to justice. The idea to sugarcoat the message via the Omanis blew up when the letter made its way to others in the collective leadership in Tehran. Predictably, the response was one of outrage, vividly expressed in the second document provided here. Together, the two messages embody the respective governments’ impressive inability to read each other and the depths of mutual suspicion and acrimony weighing down both sides.
Bill Clinton’s largely fruitless attempts to work with Iran only deepened President George W. Bush’s view of the Islamic Republic as an enemy. Regime change was the desired, if unofficial, end of administration policy during his first term, despite signs after the September 11 attacks that Tehran was open to cooperating in places like Afghanistan, where the Iranians facilitated the U.S.-led occupation and worked with American envoys to build a new government there. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address captured, and intensified, mutual animosities thanks to its now-famous labeling of Iran as part of an “axis of evil” with Iraq and North Korea. The phrase was reportedly a speech writer’s glib invention but neither Bush nor his foreign policy tutor, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, objected to it and both were shocked by the harsh reaction it produced. Among other effects it seriously damaged ongoing behind-the-scenes deliberations over Afghanistan and Iraq, approaches the senior U.S. diplomats involved believed were critical. Veteran Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who was part of the backchannel talks, later lamented, “one word in one speech changed history.”
“The Archive”: Collection of documents released in tandem with William J. Burns, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal (New York: Random House, paperback, 2020), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, https://carnegieendowment.org/publications/interactive/back-channel/.
Career diplomat William Burns, currently director of the CIA, was a senior State Department official and a key formulator of U.S. policy on Iran at the end of the second term of Bush-43 and for much of the Obama administration. His record, as reflected in declassified documents – some of which he himself caused to be made public – was somewhat unusual to the extent that he managed to bridge the gulf that often divides staff-level experts and policymakers. Not an Iran specialist by training, he nonetheless avoided the pitfalls of traditional national narratives, showing a nuanced understanding of Iranian objectives, motivations, and tactics. His memos and emails to superiors, like this one to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are models of careful advocacy on a toxic issue – relations with a country on the U.S. terrorism list – where proposing cooperation with that government invited bureaucratic blowback.
Here, Burns straightforwardly calls for long-term coexistence and normalized relations, invoking the opening to China in the early 1970s as a parallel. He takes pains to acknowledge the IRI’s “conspiratorial and suspicious” nature and its penchant for “false starts and deceit.” But he adds that while Iran “is a formidable adversary ... it is not ten feet tall.” Being aware of intangibles like respect is key, as is the need to show “enormous patience, persistence, and determination.” In the end, he warns, “direct engagement could turn out to be a deadend.”
A few years later, Burns would lead the U.S. side in secret talks with Iranian diplomats under President Hassan Rouhani who were themselves highly conversant with western politics and culture. Held in Oman, outside the glare of politics, starting in 2013, those negotiations would help bring about the groundbreaking Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015.
President Donald Trump made the Obama-sponsored JCPOA the posterchild for attacks on real or supposed accommodationism toward Iran. During the 2016 presidential campaign he railed against it as “terrible” and “the worst deal ever.” Still, it took almost 18 months before he figuratively tore it up, in part because Iran had regularly demonstrated to international inspectors that it was adhering to the terms of the accord. Trump’s remarks in announcing the decision are notable for the return to images of the Islamic Republic as an implacable adversary and one-dimensional perpetrator of barbaric acts. While few Americans would deny Tehran’s abominable track record in those areas, the harkening back to narratives from the darkest days of the bilateral relationship marked a return to square one after four decades. Yet, Trump could not resist claiming he could strike a better deal and stood ready to do so. In its way this was a twist on the outlook of every president before him, each of whom found a reason to seek an arrangement of some kind with the IRI.
 See Presidential Finding, December 27, 1979, attached to “Record of a Special Coordination Committee (Intelligence) Meeting, undated, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1977-1980, Vol. XI, Part I, Document 110, pp. 292-294. As with so much about U.S.-Iran relations, the circumstances, actual intent, and final result of this move by Carter are all matters of debate.