TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) — As I sat down recently with a senior Iranian government official, he urgently waved a column by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times in my face, one about how the United States and Iran need to engage each other.
“Natural allies,” this official said.
It was a surprising choice of words considering the barbs Washington and Tehran have been trading of late.
“We are not after conflict. We are not after crisis. We are not after war,” said this official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But we don’t know whether the same is true in the U.S. or not. If the same is true on the U.S. side, the first step must be to end this vicious cycle that can lead to dangerous action—war.”
That’s certainly what we thought until the antecedents of the present regime seized our Iranian embassy, held the people there hostage for a year, killing some of them. The regime then used their oil revenues to organize groups of thugs in other areas of the Middle East to spread Khomeinism (one of those groups organized an attack that killed a number of our soldiers), impeded traffic in the Gulf during the war with Iraq, publicly announced that they were at war with the U. S., continually over a period of a generation right up to the present day convened rent-a-mobs screaming “Death to America”, threatened a neighboring state with which they had no quarrel with destruction, and conducted a clandestine nuclear weapons development program.
Right up to the seizing of that embassy we had cultivated relationships with two of the Gulf’s major powers: Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We bolstered their military capability to enable them to keep the peace in the region and, otherwise, maintained a pretty “hands-off” policy with respect to the region (unlike the Soviet Union which had inveigled its operatives into the very highest levels of nearly every government in the region). The policy was called the “Twin Pillar of Defense” policy and is now referred to as “support of repressive regimes”.
So, yes, Iran as the region’s major power is our natural ally. Unfortunately, it’s ruled by an intolerable regime.
Kevin Drum is of mixed minds on this. While acknowledging that the Iranian regime is really reprehensible he dismisses the last 30 years as ancient history and notes that Iran has cooperated with the United States in dealing with Taliban:
But the weird thing is that this senior official is right: there really aren’t any fundamental geopolitical reasons that Iran and the United States need to be enemies. Iran isn’t territorial, they’re happy to sell their oil to the highest bidder, and they really do hate al-Qaeda.
Let’s consider these claims one-by-one.
Is Iran territorial? Well, there are nationalists in Iran who long for a Greater Persia which, in its full extent, stretched from the Dardanelles to the Indus. I’m not sure they’re to be taken seriously. However, that the Iranian regime is spreading Khomeinism, a version of Shi’a Islam in which clerics take a much more active role in politics than has traditionally been the case, is undeniable. Hezbollah and Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army are clearly Khomeinist and, equally clearly, are creatures of the Iranian regime. There are probably similar if less prominent Iranian-funded groups all over the Middle East.
I agree that they’re happy to sell their oil to the highest bidder. It’s practically their government’s only source of revenue and, particularly, foreign exchange.
Do they hate Al-Qaeda? It would be easier to tell if they’d stop harboring the members of the Al-Qaeda leadership they’ve been playing host to for the last 5 years. I think they’re fully capable of identifying the greater threat and making common cause with a putative enemy to oppose that greater threat. Right now the United States is the greater threat.
Still, I have no argument with holding talks. I’ve heard Madeleine Albright say that the Iranian regime repeatedly snubbed the advances of the Clinton Administration. I guess that’s ancient history, too.
Talks are good. They don’t necessarily mean that you’re willing to surrender anything nor does it mean that they will be allowed to be used as a stalling tactic.