Oxford (Special to Informed Comment) – Sunday 20th March is the vernal equinox, which has been traditionally celebrated by Iranians as Now Ruz (New Day), the Iranian New Year. It is also celebrated in many countries in the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia. The first recorded mention of Now Ruz dates back to 538 BC under Cyrus the Great, but the festival is older and goes back to early Zoroastrian times. According to Ferdowsi’s epic poem Shah Nameh (completed in 1010), Now Ruz was instituted by the mythical Iranian King Jamshid who defeated the demon of darkness and ushered in light and warmth with the start of the Spring. Iranians see Now Ruz as the time for renewal, regeneration, the end of hostilities and turning a new page in their lives.
Iran-US relations have gone through many ups and downs, and have moved from extreme friendship to extreme hostility. Maybe this year’s Now Ruz is a good opportunity for both nations to start anew. What are the main causes of the current conflict between the two countries, and is there any way to bridge that gap and establish at least cordial if not friendly relations between the two? The following bullet points refer to some of the headlines of this long and complex relationship.
1- One of the problems with these relations has been the fact that they have often been based on emotions and sentimentality, rather than on pragmatism and rationality. Henry John Temple who served twice as the British prime minister in the mid-19th century has a famous saying: “Nations do not have permanent friends or enemies, only interests”. The first requirement for better relations between Iranians and Americans is that they should separate their personal feelings from political relations between the two states and nations.
2- The ancient Iranian prophet Mani (216-274) believed in a dualistic cosmology according to which the world is ruled by two opposing forces of good and evil, light and darkness, day and night. He believed that these two forces are in constant struggle until one of them triumphs over the other. In English, the term “Manichaeism” has come to mean duality and the struggle between good and evil.
Unfortunately, this philosophy seems to have had a lasting effect on the Iranian psyche, right up to the present time. Iranians are often accused of “efrat va tafrit”, namely going to an extreme in one direction or the other. What is so strange is that many Americans also share this trait and often see things in black and white, with little awareness of all the shades of grey in between. When Americans befriend a government, as they did with the late Shah’s government or the current Israeli government, they see no evil and hear no evil, but when they turn against a government they take their hostility to extremes as they have been doing with Iran since the Iranian Revolution. In other words, their relations with many countries are based on a zero-sum game.
3- Relations between individuals are very different from relations between nations. We may form a friendship with someone who shares our views and characteristics. On the other hand, nations are large and complex organisms that contain many different and sometimes contradictory interests and policies.
In some ways, there are many similarities between Iran and the United States. The United States is a nation composed of people from all over the world. According to figures produced in 2020, American society was divided into the following groups:
Population 330 million
According to the figures provided by the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2021, there are also more than 1.5 million people of Iranian descent living and working in the United States.
Iranian society is equally diverse. According to figures published in 2019, Iran has the following ethnic divisions:
Population 85 million
4- Relations between nations are not static, but vary depending on who is in power at different times. Clearly, Iranian relations with the United States under Mohammad Reza Shah were quite different from those under Ayatollah Khomeini, and in recent times the policies of President Obama towards Iran were very different from those of President Trump.
5- Relations based on friendship are different from economic and political relations between governments. Most countries manage to separate their political relations with other countries from their economic interests. India is a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation led by China. At the same time, she is also a member of the so-called Quad, comprising the United States, India, Japan and Australia, with the aim of confronting China. India has extensive commercial relations with both sides.
China has signed a 25-year economic agreement with Iran to invest some $400 billion into the Iranian economy, but she also has equally large agreements for economic cooperation with the GCC states and Israel that are regarded as Iran’s rivals if not opponents.
Iran’s neighbour Turkey is a member of NATO, yet has friendly relations with Russia and China. Turkey bought the Russian S-400 missile defence system in 2019, much to USA’s annoyance, and she has also signed an agreement under which Russia will build a nuclear reactor in Turkey. At the same time, she has major differences with Russia over Syria, Libya and even Ukraine to which she has sold high-precision weapons that have been used against Russia. Nevertheless, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Turkey has remained fairly neutral and has even tried to mediate between them. Having an agreement with one side does not prevent agreements with other players.
Friends turned into enemies:
As far as political relations between Iran and the United States are concerned, they have gone through many changes over the past two centuries. The early phases of those relations were very cordial and even friendly. In 1907, Howard Baskerville, a recent graduate from Princeton University, went to Iran and started teaching English and American history to mixed classes of boys and girls at the American Presbyterian-run Memorial School in Tabriz, the capital of Iranian Azerbaijan.
In 1909, when the Constitutional Revolution was facing opposition from the Qajar ruler Mohammad Ali Shah who wanted to reverse the revolution, Baskerville was so impressed by the people fighting for their freedom that he joined the revolutionaries. On April 19, 1909, Baskerville was killed by a sniper’s bullet and was buried in the Christian Armenian cemetery in Tabriz, while over 1,000 mourners took part in his funeral. He was 24 years and 9 days old.
He was eulogised as a patriot and martyr of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution. Right up to the present time, a bronze bust of Howard Baskerville is on display in the Tabriz Constitutional House. Aref Ghazvini, one of Iran’s leading poets, travelled to Tabriz to pay tribute to Baskerville in 1923 and wrote an ode in his honour.
In 1909, after the Constitutional Revolution triumphed, Iran’s Constitutionalists turned to the United States for assistance to reform its finances. When President William Taft took the oath of office in 1909, his inaugural address expressed optimism about the possibility of improved trade relations with Iran. In 1910, the newly-minted Iranian Parliament recruited a 35-year-old American lawyer, Morgan Shuster, to be ‘Treasurer-General’, and gave him broad powers to restructure the country’s finances. Morgan Shuster devised a new taxation system and planned to set up a tax-collecting gendarmerie.
His active support for the Constitutional Movement and his attempts to improve Iran’s financial affairs displeased the two colonial powers of the time, Russia and Britain, forcing the Iranian vice-regent to expel him in 1911. Back in America, he authored a remarkable book, The Strangling of Persia, which still remains one of the best accounts of the designs of foreign imperial powers to suppress the Iranian constitution. In his book, he wrote: “It was obvious that the people of Persia deserve much better than they are getting, that they wanted us to succeed but it was the British and the Russians who were determined not to let us succeed.”
After the First World War, again Iran turned to another American, Dr Arthur Millspaugh, to continue the work that had been started by Shuster. He was a former advisor to the U.S. State Department’s Office of Foreign Trade. He was hired by Iran’s Finance Ministry and served in Iran from 1922-27 and again from 1942-45. He helped Iran become independent of foreign loans, and he was seen by the Iranian public and government as a liberator from foreign dominance.
Back in the United States, he tried to influence the State Department’s policies towards Iran. Following Morgan Shuster’s example, in 1925 Millspaugh published a book about his first assignment in Iran, The American Task in Persia. After his second assignment, he wrote another book, Americans in Persia.
Six main events in Iran-US relations:
In the recent history of Iran-U.S. relations, five events have shaped those relations:
1- The first event was the 1953 US-UK-orchestrated coup that overthrew the popular government of Mohammad Mosaddeq. That event marked a turning point in the popular perceptions of the United States in Iran, and has poisoned bilateral relations ever since.
2- The Islamic Revolution turned Iran from one of the closest US allies in the Middle East to one of its fiercest enemies. The occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran on 4 November 1979, followed by the aborted US attempt to attack the embassy and release the hostages by force, exacerbated the hostilities that have continued right to the present time.
3- While most Americans still hold a strong grudge against Iran due to the hostage crisis, many Iranians hold similar feelings of betrayal and hurt as the result of US support for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran on 22 September 1979, which killed and wounded more than a million Iranians. Saddam Hussein’s aggressive war against Iran was supported by the whole world—from the United States to the former Soviet Union, Europe and many regional countries. On the other hand, Iran was isolated and had to fight the war almost single-handedly.
4- The fourth source of Iranian complaint has been the example of double standards regarding nuclear programmes. The West knowingly ignores Israel’s nuclear arsenal amassed initially by even deceiving its closest ally, the United States. Far from imposing sanctions on Israel and demanding that she gets rid of her weapons of mass destruction, the United States has prevented the IAEA from inspecting Israel’s nuclear facilities and has even blocked calls for setting up a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. In contrast to its treatment of Israel’s illegal weapons, the United States has imposed a wave of extraterritorial sanctions on Iran on the basis of Iran’s nuclear programme which Iran insists is for peaceful purposes.
5- The fifth event was the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, which was backed unanimously by the Security Council Resolution 2231 that lifted all sanctions on Iran. The nuclear deal was also endorsed unanimously by the EU Council.
After years of hostility, President Obama finally decided to recognize Iran’s right to have a peaceful nuclear programme under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency to which she was entitled as an NPT member. According to the deal, Iran destroyed most of her nuclear material in return for the lifting of US and UN sanctions.
After the signing of the deal, there were nationwide celebrations in Iran and a widespread feeling of a new dawn in relations between Iran and the West. Iran signed some massive oil and gas deals with European and American companies and Iran put in big orders for US aircraft. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that once the deal was implemented, it could prove to be the floor and not the ceiling of many more ambitious agreements in different fields. Unfortunately, President Trump’s violation of the deal further undermined Iranians’ view of the United States and persuaded them never to trust US governments again.
6- The sixth factor has been the slow pace of return to the JCPOA under President Biden. Despite Mr Biden’s promises during his presidential campaign that he would reverse President Trump’s executive order to withdraw from the JCPOA, and despite the fact that he cancelled a large number of his predecessor’s executive orders, he has dragged his feet regarding the JCPOA. More than a year after taking office, he has not re-joined the deal and has demanded that Iran should return to full compliance with the JCPOA before the United States lifts Trump’s sanctions, despite the fact that it was the U.S. president who violated the deal not Iran.
Six U.S accusations against Iran:
1- Iran is building a nuclear weapon. This claim is manifestly false. Even 14 U.S. intelligence organisations in a joint statement stated that prior to 2003 Iran had made some studies regarding the manufacturing of a nuclear weapon, but she had given up those attempts under President Mohammad Khatami and had not repeated those efforts again. In any case, in its various inspections of different sites, the IAEA had reported that there had been no diversion of nuclear activities towards the manufacturing of weapons.
Furthermore, the nuclear deal blocked all paths to Iran’s access to nuclear weapons. The agreement reduced Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile by 98 percent and restricted the level of enrichment to 3.67 percent. Given that an enrichment level of more than 90 percent is needed to build a single nuclear bomb, the deal makes it impossible for Iran’s uranium to be weaponized. Under the deal, Iran also reduced the number of its centrifuges from 20,000 to a little over 5,000, far below the number that would be needed for manufacturing a single bomb, even if she wanted to do so. Iran closed the Arak reactor, which was capable of producing plutonium, and agreed to severe restrictions on research and development activities in other facilities. In short, the agreement made it virtually impossible for Iran to build a single bomb.
2- Iran has violated the nuclear deal. The IAEA which is in charge of inspecting Iran’s nuclear programme in 15 separate reports has stressed that Iran abided by the terms of the deal until more than a year after President Trump had violated that deal. In response to the illegal sanctions imposed by the United States, Iran went beyond some of the limits for enrichment set out in the JCPOA, but all those activities have also been under IAEA supervision, and there has been no attempt at enriching uranium beyond 60 degrees of purity which is too low for making a bomb.
3- Iran is the leading state sponsor of terrorism. The charge of terrorism has been levelled at many countries, but it all depends on what one means by terrorism. Iran has assassinated a few active opposition leaders abroad, but sadly this is a nefarious practice carried out by many countries, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, to name only two.
Iran helped to establish the Lebanese Hezbollah after the Israeli invasion of that country, but that movement has become a part of the Lebanese government and sees itself as a champion of the Shi’is in Lebanon, rather than as a terrorist organisation. In most of its actions, it seems to act independently rather than taking orders from Tehran.
4- Iran is working with Al Qaeda. The charge of Iran’s collaboration with Al Qaeda is as false as the same charge made against Saddam Hussein. During the lead-up to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration levelled two false accusations at Saddam Hussein’s regime. First, that it possessed weapons of mass destruction, and second that it had close relations with Al Qaeda. Those lies paved the way for the devastating war against Iraq. Fast forward nearly two decades and the former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who was intensely hostile towards Iran made exactly the same allegations regarding Al Qaeda’s ties with Iran as a parting shot before he left office. Naturally, Pompeo did not provide any evidence in support of his claim, but he knew that this was a highly effective and dangerous charge because the 2001 Authorization for Use of Force passed by Congress in the wake of 9/11 allows the president to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations.”
5- Iran is intent on destroying Israel. Certainly, the relations between Iran and Israel have gone from correct, if not friendly, relations under the late Shah’s government to extreme hostility. Both sides use very ugly and hateful speech against each other, which only serves to intensify their mutual hostility. Both sides exaggerate the other side’s actions taken against them and refuse to respond to signals of friendship from the other side. While even some Arab regimes that have been implacably hostile to Israel have established relations (under US pressure), there is no reason why Iran which has had a unique relationship with the Jews throughout history cannot move towards friendly relations with Israel. After all, Iranians cannot be more Palestinian than the Palestinians. The best policy for Iran and all Middle Eastern countries is to join the global consensus to help the Palestinians either to acquire their own state alongside Israel or to live in a single state minus the apartheid laws.
6- Hostility with Iran serves US interests in the region. American policy in the Middle East, with non-stop wars with Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, etc. has been a very sorry chapter in American foreign policy. The United States has sold a huge quantity of weapons to some dictatorial Arab regimes, but as the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown most of them have been unreliable allies. Most of them refused to condemn the Russian aggression and have turned to both Russia and China for purchasing weapons and even nuclear reactors. Persian Gulf regimes have also started mending fences not only with Iran but even with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is visiting the UAE this week-end.
What needs to be done?
1- As the talks in Vienna are reaching their final phase, both countries should draw a line under the Trump era and should move towards closer political and economic relations. Unfortunately, as there is some sign of progress in Iran-US relations, the Israelis have moved beyond acts of sabotage and killing of Iranian scientists to direct attacks on Iranian military installations. There was an attack on an Iranian military base in Kermanshah on 14 February and the Israeli media boasted that six Israeli drones had attacked the base destroying hundreds of Iranian drones. Iran retaliated by hitting an alleged Mossad training base in the Kurdistan region of Iraq near a new US consulate in Erbil.
Meanwhile, in an astonishing move, all Republican Senators, with the notable exception of Senator Rand Paul, in a letter to President Biden, warned him against reviving the nuclear deal with Iran.
2- As the result of a new agreement, Iran should be encouraged to resume her oil exports that were halted following Trump’s sanctions and maximum pressure policy. At a time when oil and gas prices are rising and creating many problems for the European and global economy, Iran’s plentiful oil and gas reserves can make up for the loss of Russian fossil fuel. Iran has tens of millions of barrels of oil in storage which she can release almost immediately, and within a few months can return to exporting more than 2.5 million barrels of oil.
Unhappy about the prospect of Iran competing with Russian exports, during the final phases of the nuclear talks Russia dropped a spanner in the works by demanding that her trade with Iran should not be subject to US sanctions. This threatened to derail the agreement, but after the visit of Iranian foreign minister to Moscow and talks with his Russian counterpart, Lavrov agreed to drop his objections to the deal.
3- After the original nuclear agreement reached in 2015 under President Obama, both sides acted timidly and did not make full use of the agreement. The US Treasury failed to lift all the sanctions that had been agreed and hardliners in Iran also criticised Rouhani’s government alleging that Iran had given up too much in return for too little. This time, both sides should make use of the opportunity and must move fast to expand political and economic relations. The sad history of the past four decades has shown that both sides have lost a great deal as the result of mutual demonization, while their enemies have benefited from Iran’s full participation in regional and international developments.
4- One way to draw a line under the past is for both sides to apologise for past behaviour. In 2,000 when Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami was calling for closer relations with the United States, the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acknowledged the United States’ role in overthrowing Mosaddeq’s government and called US policy towards Iran as “regrettably short-sighted.” President Biden may not be able to tie the hands of a future US president not to renege on a new nuclear deal as Iran has demanded, but it would be gracious if he could apologise for Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and the imposition of illegal sanctions on Iran. Equally, many Iranian officials have publicly acknowledged that taking US diplomats hostage was against international law and even against Islamic teachings. Their public apology for that illegal act would go a long way to heal the wounds of the hostage crisis.
After more than four decades of hostility, there is a conjunction of different factors that can bring the two nations together and usher in a new springtime of hope and renewal in their relations. Both sides should seize this opportunity.
 For a brief biography of Baskerville see Fereshteh Sabetian: “The American Hero in Iran: The True Story of Thomas Baskerville”, SurfIran, July 17, 2018. https://medium.com/@surfiran/an-american-hero-in-iran-the-true-story-of-howard-baskerville-3953ae752f27
 Morgan W. Shuster, The Strangling of Persia: A Personal Narrative, (Mage Publishing, Washington D. C., 1912).
 Arthur Millspaugh, The American Task in Persia (New York, Arno Press, 1925)
 Arthur Millspaugh, Americans in Persia (Washington D.C., The Brookings Institution, 1946)
 “Iran nuclear deal: EU statement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action”, European Council https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2017/10/16/iran-nuclear-deal-eu-jcpoa/
 “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities”, November 2007. https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Reports%20and%20Pubs/20071203_release.pdf
 Public Law 107-40, 107th Congress. https://www.congress.gov/107/plaws/publ40/PLAW-107publ40.pdf
 “Hundreds of Iranian Drones Destroyed in Israel-attributed Attack Last Month.” Haaretz, March 15, 2022. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.HIGHLIGHT-israel-destroyed-hundreds-of-iranian-drones-in-massive-strike-1.10674930
 “Deep Dive: Did Iranian missile strike follow ‘unheeded’ warnings?” Amwaj, March 18, 2022. https://amwaj.media/article/erbil-iraq-kurdistan-masrour-barzani-attack-irgc-iran-israel
 “GOP senators ramp up pressure on Biden to scrap Iran talks”, The Hill, March 14, 2022. https://thehill.com/policy/international/598117-gop-senators-ramp-up-pressure-on-biden-to-scrap-iran-talks
 Trita Parsi, “Already fragile JCPOA talks ‘paused’ over Russian demands”, March 11, 2022 https://responsiblestatecraft.org/2022/03/11/already-fragile-jcpoa-talks-paused-over-russian-demands/
 “Amir Abdollahian: Russia to cooperate with Vienna talks until agreement reached”, March 16, 2022. https://www.tehrantimes.com/news/471134/Amir-Abdollahian-Russia-to-cooperate-with-Vienna-talks-until
 “Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Remarks before the American-Iranian Council,” March 17, 2000. https://web.archive.org/web/20150707013627/http:/fas.org/news/iran/2000/000317.htm