US-Iran Relations: Can Pragmatism and Dialogue Triumph? (Part 1/2)

Despite antagonistic identity politics, US-Iran relations have a history of pragmatic dialogue. This is first of a two part series.

Relations between the US and Iran have been compellingly described as a “Sisyphus act.” Sisyphus was a king in Greek mythology. As punishment for his transgression against the Gods, he was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill and watch it fall back for eternity. Within the narrative of US-Iranian relations, the argument goes that the two states are destined to continue this endless cycle of antagonism — both tragic and absurd in its repetition of history. 

Marshaled by Ayatollah Khomeini, the 1979 Iranian Revolution signaled the end Richard Nixon’s twin pillar norm, when Pahlavi Iran had been a close ally of the West against the Arab "other." This rupture has demonstrated, on both an ideational and material level, the antagonistic dialectic that has defined the intervening years.

Since then, both states have constructed repertoires of difference, lexicons from which policy makers have drawn from to justify policies. These “norms, institutions and other cultural artifacts which are socially engineered” are essential to understanding the discursive bedrock of "other-ing" — so prevalent on both sides.

Indeed, one could build a strong argument that the 1953 coup; the US support for the Shah and then Iraq in the 1980s; the embassy hostage crisis from 1979-1981; the Axis of Evil speech; and the current nuclear impasse — all point to rigid politics of identity in relations between the two states.

Indeed, “neither side has been willing to recognize a cultural and ideological dimension to the construction of interest, or to see their positions as anything but real and rational.” However, not only does discourse create, reproduce and extend our reality — defining “us” and “them” — it is never total; and identity politics does not confer the only narrative in US-Iranian relations.

There are always openings, moments from which the quagmire of hostility can be breached. The representative practices that pit the mad mullah against the decadent imperialist are potent imaginative symbols. But that does not mean they cannot be lifted.

Can Hassan Rouhani’s electoral victory prove to be such a moment? Current relations would, on the face of it, suggest a continuation of the politics of mistrust. But there is also optimism.

One year ago, Israeli and US hawks both pushed for strikes on Iran, whilst the Islamic Republic maintained a belligerent international stance. Twelve months on, and Barack Obama and President Rouhani have signaled that, despite the deeply stagnant narratives of the "Great Satan" and the "Axis of Evil," they are willing to cast aside the hardliners and seek dialogue.

Antipathy or Pragmatism?

Identity certainly forms a marker upon which US-Iran relations have been built. But is this monolithic? Can we conceive of an "identity politics" without emphasizing the temporal, fluid nature of identity as a signifier? Critical reflection upon the very notion of identity can prove fruitful to establish its importance, but also its limits, regarding US-Iranian relations — instances where pragmatic policies have trumped ideology.

Evidently, the architecture of representation was wholly unrecognizable when the Shah was depicted as a western-styled modernizer, and Iranians as cultured people in western media. Historical context can, therefore, convey how powerful interests maintain representative constructions. 

These instances rupture the paradigm that identity politics can fall into; that of blindly accepting constructed norms as they manifest in political reality without analyzing their context. This epistemological dilemma can be viewed in instances where US-Iranian antagonisms have been ruptured by diverse and pragmatic politics from within.

Iranian diplomatic backing for the US invasion of Afghanistan and tacit support of the 2003 occupation of Iraq are certainly markers of more pragmatic politics, not imbued with the residue of ideological fervor of earlier discourse.

Tehran’s offer of more direct assistance in Afghanistan was a crucial move that was spurned by the US. George Bush condemned Iran as a part of the Axis of Evil, and arrogantly ignored the diversity implied in the reform movement of the late 1990s. Indeed, a vital opportunity was missed.

An even more striking example, however, were the arms deals struck between Iran, Israel and the US during the Iran-Contra affair. Here, all aggressive posturing was suspended for political gain, as the US needed capital to fund the Nicaraguan contras and its hostages. Iran desperately needed their weapons restocked for their war against Iraq. Identity politics was not on the agenda here — as it was during the height of revolutionary fervor in 1979.

Pragmatic diplomacy indicated something different in the revolutionary discourse, a moment where both the US and Iran’s “grand strategic preferences” superseded identity politics. Ostensibly, US-Iranian relations have not remained at the same intensity, but have thawed at moments due to changes in personnel, the exhaustion of ideas, sociopolitical forces, and a desire to reestablish relations. 

Obama’s 2013 Nowruz message to the people and government of Iran reopened the possibility of dialogue. Although he spoke about the difficulty of overcoming years of mistrust, there was an obvious acknowledgment of Iranian history and culture.

The onus was on the Iranians (who may indeed disagree), yet this marked a distinct departure from the Bush-years. Despite the obvious self-interest game, it was a move towards potential compromise with Iran.

In their syntax and tone, these speeches have marked a departure from the severity of the past. Similarly, and in more concrete terms, the 1997 (and later 2009) Iranian reform movement, led by then-President Mohammed Khatami, sought an epistemological plurality for Iran. The 1997 movement placed no qualifications on democracy, and held democratic tenants as central to re-imagining a more pragmatic and open Iran.

Ali Ansari points to the sympathy of the Iranian people and reformist politicians towards the US after 9/11, and its unvoiced approval of the toppling of the Ba’athist regime in Iraq. Iranian writers and public intellectuals, he argues, unlike their ideological counterparts, faced a barrier with communicating to the fiery American idealism of US scholars in the political horizon of the post-9/11 world.

Rupture of a Hostile Discourse

This suggests that, far from being monolithic, relations have been marked with pluralistic strains that rupture the view of hostile discourse. Indeed, Khatami’s 1997 "dialogue among civilizations" represented the most significant overture by any Iranian leader towards the West, since the rule of the Shah.

Responding to Samuel Huntington’s "Clash of Civilizations" thesis, Khatami, stated that "a basic change in political ethics is required for the realization of the proposal; the dialogue among civilizations." 

This was welcomed by US historian AJ Dennis: "Dear President Khatami… I welcome your call for a dialogue between Islamic and Judeo-Christian civilizations because I believe that tensions between these two great world civilizations represent the most significant foreign policy challenge for the world community as we enter the twenty-first century.” This foray was an important moment in US-Iran relations and should not be overlooked.

Whereas ideological crusaders in the US, such as Huntington and Francis Fukuyama, made assertions that Westernization is the desired evolutionary trajectory of global political affairs, Khatami’s overture represents something else.

It represents a critical reflection upon these ethnocentric assumptions, presenting a perspective that recognizes plurality and diversity; not an easy task for an embattled president beset by the toxic mix of socioeconomic malaise, and the reactionary ideology of his rivals in the Iranian political elite.

Hence, this discursive sphere has led to the imagining of a different possibility in US-Iran relations, one based on dialogue rather than reaffirming the implied inflexibility of "identity politics."

*[Read the final part on October 15.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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