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

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

Wed, Jun 18, 2014, 01:00

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’.”

Mural

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.

Hostage memories

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.

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