Cover of book: Iran and the United States

Seyed Hossein Mousavian
Iran and the United States

Sometimes you need to re-read Moby-Dick or watch some classic westerns to understand the psychology that has driven American policy towards Iraq ever since revolutionary students seized the US embassy in Tehran and held its diplomats hostage for 444 days over 1979-81.

An obsession to exact violent revenge and roll back the Islamic revolution that toppled the American client Shah Reza Pahlavi – and showed up the impotence of the superpower – has stood in the way of accommodation with this key Middle Eastern power time and time again.

Now Iran and the West are on the brink of finding a pathway of coexistence and perhaps co-operation, with the July 20 deadline for moving to a more permanent pact on the Iranian uranium enrichment program, but at risk once again of hardliners in the US congress and the Iranian nezam (Islamic establishment) sabotaging agreement by inserting unacceptable conditions.

What’s been missing until now has been a comprehensive and frank account from the Iranian side of Tehran’s policymaking towards the US, and the West in general, and the motives behind its drive for what is self-evidently nuclear capability (though not, as yet, actual production of nuclear weapons).

Mousavian’s book goes a long way to filling this gap. The son of an affluent carpet trader, he was completing an engineering degree in California when Ayatollah Khomeini’s movement toppled the Shah’s in 1979, and returned to take part. He found himself editor of Tehran’s main English-language newspaper, from where he moved into key diplomatic roles, including ambassador in Germany and then heading the nuclear negotiating team during the 1997-2005 presidency of the moderate cleric Mohammad Khatami.

His book is a saga of misunderstandings, deliberate disruption, recalcitrance and missed opportunities. The embassy seizure started as a stunt meant to last only two days, and didn’t have Khomeini’s approval, but snowballed endlessly. One Washington insider, Gary Sick, has elsewhere written that Ronald Reagan’s team persuaded the Iranians not to release the diplomats until after the 1980 presidential election, thereby sinking any hope of Jimmy Carter getting re-elected. After the release, the Iranians were rewarded by US support for Saddam Hussein in his nine-year effort to seize Iranian territory, in a war that killed a million and saw Saddam’s use of chemical weapons.

It set a pattern. Beginnings to help the Americans − to release hostages held by Hezbollah in Beirut, to expel the Taliban from Afghanistan − were followed by rebuffs. In the latter case it was George W. Bush listing Iran as a member of the “Axis of Evil”, a step that drove the Iranian state to step up its nuclear program.

As ambassador in Germany, Mousavian led negotiations with the Europeans and through them the US, and lists a succession of dark operations designed to derail talks either by a “rogue cell” on his own side or US and Israeli intelligence agencies. These incidents caused the Europeans to pull back and the Americans to tighten sanctions, while in Iran they reinforced the view of Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that Washington’s deep-seated objective was “regime change” to destroy the nezam.

The story of Iranian politics over the past 35 years has been the see-sawing of the balance of influence with the supreme cleric. On one side are hardliners – so-called Principlists – who either believe in an unbridgeable cultural-religious gap with the US or see an American drive for economic and strategic mastery. On the other are those variously called centrist, moderate or pragmatic, who think a modus vivendi can be reached.

After the pragmatists Ali Rafsanjani and Khatami found every overture leading nowhere, including an offer to help stabilise Iraq after Bush’s invasion in 2003, the former shock-troop chief Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president in 2005. His speeches denying the Holocaust and vowing to drive out Israel’s “Zionist regime” were a gift to US neocons.

There followed a spiral of intensive nuclear activity, sanctions, the Stuxnet cyber attack, the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists, and threats of pre-emptive military strikes.

Moderates such as Mousavian were pushed to the perimeter in Tehran. He was arrested and interrogated in 2007 before taking the opportunity to write at Princeton University. This group regained power under Hassan Rouhani in June 2013 and talked Khamenei into negotiations with the UN Security Council permanent members, plus Germany, that led to the interim agreement.

If firmed up, it will see Iran limit uranium enrichment to the 5 per cent level needed for civil reactors, tighten inspections and block reprocessing of spent fuel to extract plutonium, in return for lifting of sanctions. This is the deal that Mousavian insists has been there to take for the past 20 years. It would keep the “breakout” time (time it would take to produce material for a bomb) to three or four months. In his foreword, the veteran US diplomat Thomas Pickering suggests this is the best the West and Israel can expect.

Mousavian’s account is a fascinating insight into Iran’s policymaking. Yet it reveals no deep secrets. His explanation for the enrichment program – to obtain fuel rods denied by sanction – is unconvincing. Likewise his insistence that US “coercive diplomacy” and sanctions haven’t worked, only making the Iranians, fiercely proud of their ancient culture, more stubborn. Khomeini’s agreement in 1988 to a truce with Saddam, after a US message via Japan that Iran would not be allowed to win, and the current talks following crippling economic sanctions, still suggest otherwise.

The nezam is revealed as rational and motivated by regime survival, though not without its obsessions. With Bush’s policy in the Middle East scattered like the flotsam of the Pequod, Iran may have to be trusted warily with a few month’s breakout capability.  JF

Bloomsbury, 368pp, $45

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 18, 2014 as "Seyed Hossein Mousavian, Iran and the United States".

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