A diplomatic rapprochement

ENGLAND has no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests". Lord Acton, the Victorian statesman's observation not only captures the essence of realpolitik, the DNA of modern international relations, but can help soften the rigid Manichean ideological prism with which the United States and Iran view each other.

By Matein Khalid

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Published: Tue 29 Aug 2006, 10:31 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 1:26 PM

A visceral hatred of America, the fabled Great Satan in the lexicon of the Ayatollahs, has defined revolutionary Iran's diplomatic worldview ever since the Shah lost his Peacock Throne to Khomeni in 1979.

The American experience with revolutionary Iran was pathological from the moment its diplomats were held hostage for 444 days in Teheran, a symbol of Uncle Sam's post-Vietnam impotence and a superpower's humiliation that helped Ronald Reagan drive out Jimmy Carter from White House in the 1980 Presidential election. Moreover, Teheran under Ayotullah Khomeni lost no opportunity to attack America's strategic interests in the Middle East.

In 1983, Iran financed and armed the Hezbollah truck bombers who slaughtered the 241 Marines peacekeepers in Beirut and gutted the US Embassy where the top spooks from the CIA's Middle East Division were injudiciously assembled. Iranian agents fomented subversion in the Gulf oil sheikhdoms, including an assassination attempt against the Amir of Kuwait, bombings in Al Khobar and an abortive coup d' etat in Bahrain. The nadir of US-Iran relations was in 1988, when the USS Vincennes shot down an Iran Air civilian Airbus headed from Bander Abbas to Dubai.

Iran's fear and hatred for Washington stems from the 1953 CIA coup that overthrew nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and installed the Shah's repressive dictatorship, enforced by the agency's trained SAVAK secret police, as America's gendarme in the Middle East.

The overthrow of Mossadegh because he dared to nationalise Iran's oilfields and challenge the power of the Seven Sisters, the corporate colossi who ran the black gold empires of Big Oil, was a traumatic moment in Iranian history. The traditional xenophobia of the Persian elite was reinforced as America imposed Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as its puppet satrap in Teheran. The Shah was the son of an illiterate Cossack Brigade sergeant who had usurped the throne of the Qajar Shahs, who now styled himself King of Kings, Light of the Aryans, heir to Cyrus, Darius and Xerxes and the reflected glories of the ancient Persian Empire. Since the US identified its interests in Iran with Pahlavi rule, the mullahs and students who revolted against the Shah were sworn enemies of the United States.

History has made Iran's rulers hypersensitive to foreign conspiracies but ,as Dr Kissinger once observed, even paranoiacs sometimes have real enemies. After all, modern Persia under the last Qajar Shahs and Reza Khan was a geopolitical sandwich between the British Empire and Tsarist/Soviet Russia, which annexed vast swathes of formerly Persian ruled Turkestan and Azerbaijan. In fact, Stalin was only deterred from invading Iran by the Truman Doctrine and the threat of an American nuclear response in the opening moments of the Cold War in 1946.

Iran believes, with good reason, that Saddam Hussein's invasion in September 1980 was applauded and approved in Washington. Baathist Iraq was armed, financed and provided secret intelligence by the United Sates, the pro-West Arab states, Britain and France. The Iranians know they are encircled by pro-American states —Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf sheikdoms, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Iraq and various CIS satellites. To George Bush, the Axis of Evil's epicentre is Iran.

The Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon was Iran and America's latest fatal collision on a proxy battlefield as the UN Security Council reaches its endgame on economic sanctions over Iran's uranium enrichment programme. A regional war in the Middle East is inevitable if Iran and the US do not engage in a diplomatic dialogue, if not outright rapprochement.

The Katyusha rockets that rained over Israel's cities and kibbutzes could well be the prelude to Iranian ballistic missiles sinking oil tankers in the Straits of Hormuz if US Stealth bombers and Tomahawk cruise missiles target Iran's nuclear assets in Bushire. It is dangerous to make predictions about the vagaries of Middle East geopolitics but, contrary to neo-con bombast, an American attack on Iran will definitely not be a cakewalk. Ehud Olmert's assault on Hezbollah has gravely imperiled America's troops in Iraq —after all, even Bush's own Iraqi PM Nouri Al Maliki's Daiwa Party was the progenitor of the same Hezbollah that ordered the slaughter of the Marines in Beirut. Shia Lebanon was the target of Israel just as Shia Iraq is the target of Sunni insurgents and the American alliance of convenience with Ayatullah Sistani and the Najaf clerical establishment cannot last.

There is no honorable exit from the Iraqi quagmire for the US without Iran. There is no hope for Lebanon's future as a parliamentary democracy without Iran. There is no security for the Gulf's tanker shipping sea lanes without Iran. There is no safety for Israeli cities from Hezbollah's missile arsenal without Iran. There is no hope of averting a Sunni-Shia civil war that could plunge pro-American states from Lebanon to Pakistan in a cataclysm of blood without Iran.

George Bush and Mahmud Ahmedinijad are both rigid, even messianic ideologues. Yet, for all their rhetorical venom and mutual hatred, both leaders have a vested interest in a stable Gulf, a panic free international oil market, economic reconstruction and hope in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and a Middle East free from the poison gas, ballistic missiles and chemical bombs that Saddam once used against the Kurds and Iran's own cities. In 1997, Khatami and Clinton almost rewrote the history of our region with a geopolitical grand gesture on the scale of Nixon's epic trip to China or Anwer Sadat's address to the Knesset in Jerusalem. There is no reason why Iran and America should not defuse the current geopolitical time bomb with a diplomatic rapprochement based on the premise that great powers have no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai-based investment banker. He can be reached at matein@emirates.net.ae

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