US-Iran relations: why Uncle Sam is so eager to talk

Developing Just Leadership

Zafar Bangash

Ramadan 21, 1438 1998-01-16


by Zafar Bangash (World, Crescent International Vol. 26, No. 22, Ramadan, 1438)

Change in relations between the US and Iran may be characterised by a supertanker on the high seas. Changing its direction takes a long time and it needs a lot of space.

Relations between the two have been in the deep freeze for so long that talk about a quick thaw must be discounted as premature. This is not to suggest that it is not possible. In fact, some kind of behind-the-scenes informal discussions may already be underway.

Karl Inderfurth, US assistant secretary of State for South Asia, has admitted to meeting Iranian officials under UN auspices in New York to discuss peace proposals for Afghanistan. He further revealed that the US was working on the Six-plus-Two formula for Afghanistan.

Beyond contacts over Afghanistan, the US is more interested in getting out of its self-inflicted log-jam in what is euphemistically called ‘dual containment.’ American academics, often a front for US government or even the CIA, are usually the first to make contact in such situations.

The US also uses its various think-tanks as sounding boards. They float a proposal to test public reaction. These think-tanks, though closely related to government, still maintain the fiction of independence. The advantage of floating a policy through these bodies is that the government can immediately disown it if there is negative reaction. In the case of Iran, some overtures have been made through such bodies since at least mid-1995.

There has been a renewed flurry of statements about US-Iran relations since the eighth Islamic summit of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Tehran last month. Who made the first move is still being debated. The Americans were clearly left out in the cold and their first reaction was a desperate attempt to try and paper over their embarrassment.

Coming on the heels of the US-sponsored summit in Doha, Qatar, the contrast in attendance at the two summits was glaringly obvious. In a pointed snub, America’s client regimes in the Arab world stayed away from Doha but came in droves to Tehran.

Desperately looking for straws, American officials immediately clutched the one offered by president Mohammad Khatami on December 14 when he said he would soon send a message to the ‘great American people.’ The Iranian president also called for a dialogue between civilizations. He had made a similar proposal last June at the Imam Khomeini Memorial Conference. Then he had proposed a dialogue between religions.

This time, however, the Americans jumped at the opportunity. US president Bill Clinton responded two days later and made a number of conciliatory remarks while parroting American ‘concerns’ about Iranian policy and behaviour. He also quickly added that he did not want any pre-conditions although he listed a number of conditions that he wanted Iran to fulfil. When reminded that he was actually putting forward pre-conditions, he sheepishly said that the Iranians could list their own concerns for a dialogue.

What is one to make of all this? Are there any behind-the-scenes discussions going on and if so, how far have they advanced? Are we about to witness soccer diplomacy in the manner of the ping pong diplomacy of the seventies between the US and China?

While we seek answers to these questions - and they will not be forthcoming from officials of either country for obvious reasons - it may not be out of order to speculate. First, let us examine why Americans feel the need for a dialogue with Iran at this time - a country they have placed on their list of ‘rogue States’ and which they tried to isolate through ‘dual containment’?

Far from isolating Iran, the US has isolated itself from friends and allies. Neither Canada (in North America) nor the Europeans are prepared to accept America’s extraterritorial laws. European officials took strong exception to grandstanding by US congressmen - not a very bright lot anyway - who are beholden to narrow vested interests. The D’Amato law (passed in August 1996 which limits investments in Iran and Libya to $40 million), left the US especially isolated. The Europeans publicly rebuffed Washington.

This was compounded by insults heaped by America’s Arab allies. One should not read too much into the Arab rulers’ posturing. They were, however, so humiliated by the ass-like stubbornness and insults of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that they had to find a counterbalance. Washington refused to offer any solace. They could only turn to Tehran.

Beyond political manouvres lies another American dilemma: access to oil and gas in Central Asia. Ever since these republics became independent, the US has been trying to keep Iran out, hoping to corner the market for itself. It first tried to use Turkey; that did not work. Later, it opted for building a pipeline through Azerbaijan and later still through Afghanistan. The Azeri proposal fell victim to conflict with Armenia over Karabakh. In Afghanistan, the US has been frustrated by the simplemindedness of the Taliban. Tehran could hardly sit idly by and allow the US to encircle it.

Washington has had to admit that it cannot access the riches of Central Asia without making a deal with Iran. The alternative is to let Russia regain its influence in the region, a nightmare that Washington wishes to avoid. As Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, one of the Afghan leaders, said, ‘in the seventies America wanted to prevent Russia from reaching the warn waters. Today it is Russia blocking America’s access to Central Asia.’ In both cases, Afghanistan is being used as the battleground.

What is America’s purpose in building a pipeline from Turkmenstan? It is not only the pipeline but where it ends that interests the US. The pipeline’s ultimately destination is India, America’s longstanding, albeit secret friend and new-found ally which has been assigned the role of a regional gendarme. US interest in India has to do with developments both in Southeast Asia and China.

The currency crisis that has gripped much of Southeast Asia is not only the result of corruption, real as it is; these countries have been deliberately undermined to bring them under control of the international monetary fund (IMF). They had priced US goods out of the region. Japan was especially targeted but others, too, were becoming a threat to US economic hegemony. Japan has already been dealt a massive economic blow. According to the IMF, its growth rate for 1998 will be a mere 1.1 percent, a far cry from rates witnessed in the region only a few months earlier.

America wants to compete with Japan and China for regional markets. As an unabashed advocate of free market, Washington could hardly demand preferential treatment. Besides, people in South Asia do not have the purchasing power for high-priced American goods. The Japanese had realised this in the sixties. They invested heavily in neighbouring Southeast Asian countries and virtually cornered the entire market using its own technical ingenuity and their cheap labour.

America wants to repeat this experiment by using cheap Indian labour for industries it wants to set up there. These will be fuelled by oil and gas from Central Asia. Washington also realises that its client Arab regimes may not last beyond the next five to 10 years. Should there be one or more political changes in the region, America would be in great difficulty, hence the scramble to find new markets and resources.

This emerging scenario has forced Uncle Sam to knock at Iran’s door. While there is nothing inherently wrong with establishing relations with other governments, the leadership in Tehran needs to be clear in its perception of US designs. When American officials talk about dialogue, they do not come without their political, military and economic baggage. Western civilization is nothing without its power-equation. The west in general and the US in particular, talks only from this perspective.

Muslims have often made this fatal error. As early as the sixteenth century, when the British first arrived in India, it was the Mughal emperor Jahangir who allowed them to establish base there. He assumed that the Mughal empire was powerful and the British were no threat to him or to his successors. History teaches a very different lesson.

One of the guiding principles of western civilization is that it thrives on conflict. Western philisophers have argued that their civilization can only advance if there is perpetual conflict. Even their overtures of peace are designed to pave the way for the next conflict.

This also explains US policy vis-a-vis China. Since the second world war, this was the case with the Soviet Union. The US fears China’s potential military power. In fact, some American commentators - Samuel Huntington, for one - have already started ringing alarm bells over the yellow peril. While China will not be able to compete with the US in weapons production, it will outlast Uncle Sam’s staying power. American soldiers are cowards. Their threshold is about 18 dead. This was demonstrated in Somalia when the marines fled after suffering 18 casualties.

The US is now grooming India to take on China. It is always better to have someone else fight your battle. In the eighties, the Afghans fought the Russians on behalf of America although they had their own interests as well. Would the Indians do Uncle Sam’s bidding? Hardly. Yet the US keeps trying.

One has yet to find a better definition for America than what the late Imam Khomeini had said: The Great Satan!

Muslimedia: January 16-31, 1998

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