Americans and Iranians look at their shared history through different lenses, focusing on different events and accentuating different grievances. For many Iranians, the 1953 overthrow of their elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, is the defining moment in the relationship. That coup d’etat, which was engineered by U.S. officials, led to the installation of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whose government was brutal in its repression of political opposition and generally unresponsive to human development among its subjects, even as it was seen to be modernizing by the West. America’s support for the Shah over more than a quarter of a century is, in turn, often cited by Iranians of a wide-range of ideologies as proof that U.S. aims are not in the interest of Iran. Furthering this mistrust, American backing for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war still resonates among young Iranians and the Ahmadinejad generation of government officials. Finally, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq keeps these grievances alive among young and old alike.
By contrast, many Americans look at Iran against the backdrop of the 1979 storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the subsequent 444-day captivity of 66 American diplomats and supporting staff. For many Americans that ordeal marked their first awareness of religiously justified anti-American politics in the Muslim world.
The symmetry of countervailing grievance between Americans and Iranians is repeated at the level of foreign policy: U.S. support for Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main power rivals in the region, is seen as hostile by the Iranian state, while Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and for Hamas in the Palestinian territories is viewed by the American state as a significant threat to vital U.S. interests in Israel. With the U.S. buildup of naval forces in the Persian Gulf and the recent detention of members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in northern Iraq, tensions have mounted further. The standoff between the two countries threatens both U.S. national interests and global peace and security.
As U.S. influence in the Middle East is challenged violently in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Levant, Iran’s influence has grown, sometimes as a stabilizing force, as in its development aid to western Afghanistan, and sometimes as a destabilizing one, as in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories and, the U.S. government increasingly asserts, Iraq. But allowing deepening security disagreements to preclude any further dialogue between the two countries is a mistake. The political differences between the two countries need to be addressed, and a framework for negotiation that both countries can live with needs to be constructed.
This is not an impossible task. Paradoxically, the United States and Iran have been growing closer to each other in several areas: Iranian trade with the U.S. via third parties has increased steadily since the revolution; after a major drop in student visas in 2001 and 2002, the number of Iranian students going to America to study has gone back up; and, significantly, the United States has maintained steady, mediated contacts with Iranian government officials, which were instrumental in coordinating U.S. contacts with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance prior to the defeat of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime in late 2001.
In order to formulate a serious and successful foreign policy toward Iran, Americans need information about what Iranians think, believe, and feel about their own society and how it fits into the international system. This report is an attempt to outline from recent on-the-ground interviews and discussions how Iranians view U.S.-Iranian relations and what their aims and goals are, both as individuals and for their country. Our findings are based largely on interviews conducted in Iran, with additional information coming from e-mail exchanges and off-the-record meetings in the U.S., Canada, and Europe with scholars, diplomats, NGOs, international organizations, businesspeople, and journalists, many of whom visit Iran regularly. We have generally not named our interviewees in this report because of concern that publication of their remarks could, in some cases and in unpredictable ways, affect them adversely.