US and Iran must let go of suspicion to take action on Iraq
Co-operation on Isis would represent a major leap in global relations
A mural on a building at Karim Khan Avenue in central Tehran depicts skulls in place of the stars and falling bombs at the end of the stripes on a US flag. A few years ago Iranian reformists wanted to paint over the mural. Conservatives objected and it stayed. Photograph: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images
Sunlight shot through the overhead canopy, dappling the white-and-pastel coloured chadors that are considered cleaner and thus more appropriate for Friday payers. Brightly coloured banners fluttered above us, in honour of the birthday of Imam Mehdi. The preacher sang the call to prayer in a richly timbred tenor.
Across the rows of women, an apple-cheeked granny beamed warmly at me and raised two fingers in a “V” for victory sign. Then she mouthed the words “Marg bar Amrika.” Death to America. Perhaps she guessed I carried a US passport. When I told an Iranian friend about it later, she laughed: “The British talk about the weather. We Iranians say ‘Marg bar Amrika’.”
Behind the Armenian church is a mural of a giant US flag on which the stars are skulls and the vertical stripes morph into missiles as they descend the wall. “Marg bar Amrika,” says the text at the bottom. A few years ago, Iranian reformists wanted to paint out the flag mural. Conservatives objected, and it stayed.
A man from Iranian military intelligence agreed to talk to me about Iran’s perspective on Iraq. He arrived late, then gave me a 10-minute lecture. “We know Americans better than they know us,” he began. “They are arrogant people who look down on others. They are ill-mannered. They behave arbitrarily. They don’t treat other people like human beings.”
My mind flashed to the US passport in my handbag. Unlike 2,000 year-old Iran, he concluded, Americans do not comprise a civilisation, since their people emigrated from Europe.
Some of the revolutionary students who overran the US embassy in 1979, then held US diplomatic staff hostage for 444 days, are now modernising reformists, eager to improve relations with the US. Among them is Massoumeh Ebtekar, one of President Hassan Rouhani’s eight vice-presidents. She acted as spokeswoman for the hostage-takers in 1979, when she was known as “Sister Mary” to journalists.
Is it not ironic that a participant in the crisis that embittered Americans and brought down the Carter presidency now seeks good relations with America? “Yes,” Ebtekar admits with a smile. “It’s a matter of time. You can’t get stuck in the past. We need to readdress our relations with the US in today’s context.”
In April, the White House refused a visa to Iran’s chosen UN envoy, Hamid Aboutalebi, because he participated in the hostage-taking. Iran is pursuing legal channels in the hope of forcing Washington to accept Aboutalebi. In the meantime, he is a senior adviser to Rouhani.
“I feel the US made a mistake in not accepting Aboutalebi,” Ebtekar says. “It would have been a positive signal. If he goes to New York, he’ll be asked about the embassy takeover. It will be a way of revisiting the past and mending relations.”
In Tehran, a liberal university professor, Sadegh Ziba Kalan, and Hamid Rassaaei, a well-known hardliner, debated Aboutalebi’s visa rejection in a now famous radio broadcast. “You’ve been saying ‘Death to America’ for 35 years. What has it accomplished?” Ziba Kalan challenged Rassaaei.
Sending Aboutalebi to New York was the equivalent of the US sending a CIA agent who’d participated in the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mossadegh to Tehran, Ziba Kalan continued. “It’s an insult to the American people.” Though Aboutalebi acted as an interpreter, in the minds of 350 million Americans, he was a kidnapper. “The 1979 hostage-taking was against all international treaties,” Ziba Kalan noted. A few years ago, such words would have been tantamount to treason.
On my previous visit to Iran, under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, I was alarmed to be pulled out of the immigration queue and kept waiting without explanation until my fingers were drenched in black ink and rolled onto a piece of cardboard by a female official. It was, I later learned, a question of reciprocity. The US fingerprints all Iranian citizens entering America.
If Iran has really opened up to the West under Rouhani, I thought on landing at Imam Khomeini Airport last week, I’ll be spared the fingerprinting. In the event, the wait was shorter, and I simply touched my digits to a laser screen. The procedure has become more civilised, but it continues.
‘Death to America’ . . . still?
Isn’t it time to drop “Marg bar Amrika”? I asked Prof Sayed Mohammad Marandi at Tehran University. Marandi holds dual US and Iranian citizenship because his family emigrated to the US after his father was held as a political prisoner by the Shah. The family returned to Iran after the revolution. Marandi survived two gas attacks in the 1980-1988 Gulf War.
“When people are dying because of sanctions?” Marandi asked rhetorically. “Go to the hospital and see the men who’re still suffering from the chemical weapons the US and Europe gave Saddam Hussein,” he chided. “Then the US tried to blame [Saddam’s chemical attack on] Halabja on Iran. This is a scar that people like me will die with.”
America’s problem, Marandi continued, is it never learns from the past. “It never rethinks fundamental issues, like: Why did Iran happen? Why did Iraq happen? Why did Syria happen?”
Meanwhile, Washington and Tehran send mixed signals over a possible rapprochement. Secretary of state John Kerry says the US is willing to talk to Iran about combating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis). The Republican senator Lindsey Graham likened the US dealing with Iran to a preference for Stalin over Hitler during the second World War. US deputy secretary of state William Burns and Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are probably talking about Iraq as well as Iran’s nuclear programme in negotiations in Geneva and Vienna this week.
Barack Obama could redeem his failure in Iraq by restoring relations with Iran, just as Richard Nixon compensated for the US disaster in Vietnam by opening up to China, US historian and professor Andrew Bacevich suggests.
It would be a historical event of epic proportions, a transformation of the modern Middle East.