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Historical perspective: Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies

19 May 2009 12:45No Comments

During the previous U.S. administration, there were many impediments to a U.S.-Iran rapprochement, as outlined by Barbara Slavin below. Barack Obama has now at least changed the tone in Washington. Will Iran take advantage of this opening? Or will Obama prove to be Iran's missed opportunity? The following is an excerpt from Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation.



It was a gorgeous day for a demonstration.

The mild February air, unusually clear of smog, made the mood more like that of a picnic than a protest. Hundreds of people walked in long columns toward Tehran's Freedom Square, where a towering, arched, white concrete monument erected by Iran's deposed leader, the shah, commemorated twenty-five hundred years of Iran's existence as a unified nation. Peddlers hawked candy and red balloons, while organizers from the government passed out anti-American posters and green headbands proclaiming Iran's "obvious right" to nuclear energy. On the periphery of the square, buses disgorged workers from factories and students from local schools who had been given the day off but were obliged to spend half of it at the demonstration.

An annual ritual for more than two decades, Revolution Day (February 11) is the Islamic Republic of Iran's Fourth of July, marking the fall of the shah's last government. But instead of the fireworks most Americans look forward to on that holiday, Iranians are accustomed to verbal pyrotechnics: slogans burned into their brains since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the beetle-browed leader of the revolution, returned to Iran from exile on February 1, 1979. "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" are perennial favorites, with calls to bring down some other government occasionally added for variety. On this particular holiday there was a new attraction: a new president, a blacksmith's son named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Clad in his customary antielitist attire (a cheap black sports coat over a black shirt, beige sweater vest, and gray pants), Ahmadinejad delivered an hour long harangue about Iran's mistreatment by the United States.

A small man on a large stage, he sought to benefit from a confluence of events: the twenty-seventh anniversary of the downfall of the shah; an escalating confrontation with the West over Iran's nuclear program; protests throughout the Muslim world at the publication of Danish cartoons lampooning the prophet Mohammed; and just concluded celebrations of Ashura, the most important holiday for Shiite Muslims, commemorating the death in the Iraqi desert in a.d. 680 of the prophet's grandson, Hossein, at the hands of the army of a brutal ruler. Ahmadinejad tried to stir all these elements into a superpatriotic stew to exhort the crowd into renewed passion for Iran's Islamic government and to support for its controversial development of nuclear power. The Islamic revolution, the president declared, mirrored the valiant struggle of Hossein and his followers against those who would oppress true Islamic faith. In the same way, the president vowed, Iran would stand up to Western "bullies" who challenged Iran's "inalienable and undisputed right to produce and use nuclear energy."

"Western governments and the Great Satan [the United States] can accept insults to the prophets but it's not legal to talk about the Holocaust," Ahmadinejad continued, hammering what for him was becoming a favorite theme: the denial of the Nazi murder of six million Jews. "They use this [the Holocaust] to justify what they do to the Palestinians," he said. "They are the hostages of Zionism."

The crowd, which overflowed the square, dutifully sang patriotic songs and chanted "Death to America" and "Death to Israel" on cue. Many carried crude signs insulting Israeli and American leaders. Hey Bosh, Shut Up declared a poster that showed a caricature of President Bush standing on a globe wearing underpants made from a U.S. flag. Nuclear Technology Is Our Legitimate Right read another. The Holocaust Is a Big Lie said a third. And, as is de rigueur on such occasions, demonstrators burned U.S. and Israeli flags and crude effigies of Uncle Sam.

Some of the signs looked handmade, but most were props handed out by government officials. Much of the fervor seemed feigned, and the crowd's attention wandered. Near a wooden scaffold where I stood with several other reporters and cameramen filming the rally, hundreds of schoolgirls bused in for the event milled about as though on a field trip to an amusement park. Over their requisite black scarves, they wore green headbands proclaiming allegiance to Hossein and support for Iran's right to nuclear energy. On their backs, over enveloping black cloaks called chadors, they wore signboards also declaring that Nuclear Energy Is Our Legitimate Right. But they fidgeted and gossiped with each other other during Ahmadinejad's maiden Revolution Day speech, barely paying attention to him. And when they spied me on the platform with the other journalists, and found out I was American, they started calling out in English, "What's your name?" and "We love you!" Then dozens of the girls began passing me small scraps of paper asking for my autograph. Azam Zamani, thirteen, apologized as the "Death to America" chants rose around her. "I'm sorry," she said. "We love Americans."

Outside and inside the Iranian regime there is tremendous ambivalence about America. No other country is so fixated on the United States. No other foreign government so aspires to and fears a U.S. embrace. No other nation has provoked such a complicated response in return. Iran has been dubbed "the Bermuda triangle" of American diplomacy for swallowing up good-faith U.S. efforts to end the hostility. Iranian officials have struggled to understand domestic U.S. political pressures, while U.S. officials have tried to decipher the motives of Iranian leaders who have decried the Great Satan and funded anti-U.S. terrorists while reaching out to Washington for dialogue and respect. A few American officials have understood that Iran's harsh rhetoric, support for Middle Eastern militants, and quest for nuclear technology are predicated as much on a sense of insecurity as on a desire to dominate the Middle East. But few have been willing to try bold approaches to deal with that insecurity, for fear of bolstering a repressive government and risking political opposition in the United States.

Iranians are at least equally to blame for the long estrangement between the two countries. Hatred for the United States was a central tenet of the revolution against the U.S.-backed shah and became a habit that was difficult to break. There has been a constant fear among Iranian politicians that they would reach out to America only to be humiliated, or that rivals in Iran's complex political system would use such overtures against them. "Suppose we sit in dialogue with the United States, and they reject oil pipelines from the Caspian Sea through Iran," Abbas Maleki, a former deputy foreign minister, said in a 2001 interview, referring to U.S. pressures on Central Asian nations to send their oil west out to Turkey rather than using the shortest route, south through Iran to the Persian Gulf. "We would lose the image of Iran in the Islamic world," he said. Conservative political forces repeatedly sabotaged attempts by Iran to improve relations with the United States when the reformist Mohammad Khatami was in power. That would make him too popular, they feared, and doom their own chances for a comeback. Once in power, some of these same conservatives seemed to fear reconciliation with the United States as much or more than a U.S. military strike, which could consolidate support for the regime.

Iranian efforts to drum up hatred of the United States have waxed and waned over the years, and the lobby of the Homa Hotel was a good barometer of prevailing official sentiment. On my first visit, in November 1996, there were large gold letters over the elevator bank: Down with USA (although the spacing between the letters was off so it actually read: down withu sa). By my next visit, in 1998, after Khatami's election, the slogan was gone at his command. In 2001, it was replaced by a discreet placard downstairs from the lobby on a bulletin board near the men's room. Attributed to the "Islamic association of Homa hotel," it said in small letters: Down with Israel. Down with USA. It was put up in honor of Jerusalem Day, a pro-Palestinian event celebrated yearly by the Iranian regime on the last Friday of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, in which the Koran was revealed to the prophet Mohammed. Two days after the holiday, the sign had vanished.

The bellmen, desk clerks, and waiters in the hotel, many of whom had worked there when it was a Sheraton, welcomed me back each time I returned to Iran like a long-lost relative. On my first visit a doorman said, "America very good" and put his two pinkies together, signaling his desire for better ties. Ten years later a bellman pulled out his old identity card from the 1970s with his name in English and his photo with long hair and sideburns. "Those were the good days," he sighed.

A poll taken in 2002 showed that more than 70 percent of Iranians wanted relations restored with the United States. The pollster--ironically a ringleader of the 1979-81 seizure of the U.S. Embassy--was jailed, and no such survey has been taken since. Opportunities for reconciliation have come and gone repeatedly over the past twenty eight years, especially since the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda terrorists. From Iran's perspective, those attacks were both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the Bush administration declared war on Iran's two greatest regional foes: the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban regime in Afghanistan that harbored al-Qaeda and also had murdered Farsi-speaking Afghan Shiites and Iranian diplomats; and the secular Baathist dictatorship of Iraq's Saddam Hussein, which had invaded Iran in 1980 and was responsible for the deaths of three hundred thousand Iranians. A curse because those two wars brought U.S. troops to Iran's borders and briefly raised the hopes of some Iranians that a similar act of "liberation" would rid them of a repressive clerical government.

The public response in Iran to the September 11 attacks showed how different Iran, a non-Arab country, is from much of the rest of the Muslim world. While many Arabs celebrated what they saw as a long deserved blow against the prime supporter of Israel, many Iranians held spontaneous candlelit demonstrations in sympathy with the U.S. victims. With links to a diaspora of nearly a million people in the United States, little regard for Arabs, and a cultural appreciation for innocent victims of violence, Iranians instinctively felt a connection with those who died at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.

When I visited Iran a few months after the attacks, warm emotions toward the United States were running strong. Young people were sporting Gap jeans and washing down their shish kebab with "the real thing": Coca-Cola, produced for the first time since the Islamic revolution under license in the eastern Iranian shrine city of Mashhad. The drink had come to symbolize America, and consuming it in public was a political statement in favor of U.S.-Iran reconciliation. Iranian parliamentarians, previously fearful of praising Americans on the record to foreign journalists, openly advocated restoring relations with the United States. "The equation has changed since September 11," said one of them, Gholamheidar Ebrahimby-Salami, then a representative from a town near the Afghan border. Iran should "definitely" have formal diplomatic ties with the United States, he said. Mahmoud Kashani, an independent presidential candidate in the 2001 elections, said that had he been elected, "that day would have been the beginning of direct negotiations" with the United States. Even Ali Khamenei, who became Iran's supreme religious leader after the death in 1989 of Ayatollah Khomeini, suspended the ritual chant of "Death to America" at Friday prayers at Tehran University out of deference to American feelings. When they resumed, some Iranians jokingly changed the slogan to "Margh bar Amrika-ye aziz": Death to the dear America.

The Bush administration focused not on what Iran had done to help the United States but on Iranian interference in Afghanistan that American officials said ran counter to U.S. interests. Most damaging of all, on January 3, 2002, Israeli commandos seized a ship, the Karine A, alleged to be carrying Iranian weapons for Yasser Arafat's Palestininian Authority via the Red Sea. A speechwriter, David Frum, had suggested the word "axis" to refer to America's enemies in a draft for Bush's State of the Union address later that month. Another speechwriter, Michael Gerson, turned the word into the phrase "axis of evil," and Bush filled in the blanks with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, North Korea, and Iran.

The Bush administration appeared to have no idea what impact its words would have. Condoleezza Rice, at the time of the speech Bush's national security advisor, told me four years later that "what is funny about it is that [the phrase] didn't really catch my eye." For many Iranians, however, the remark was devastating. Those who had worked for an end to enmity with the United States and for reform in their own country said they felt like jilted lovers. Khamenei and Iranian hard-liners "used Bush's words against us," said Mohsen Kadivar, a reformist cleric. It became unpatriotic, he told me, to advocate relations with the United States. Conservatives used the speech to justify new efforts to exclude reformers from office. A clerical council that vetted candidates barred most of the reformist parliament from running for re-election in 2004 and disqualified many others who sought the presidency in 2005. Despite this draconian culling, all but one of the eight candidates permitted to run for president put forward platforms suggesting that they would reach out to the United States, understanding that would have broad popular appeal. "The mere fact that I am sitting here with you means we have no differences with the American people," Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the wily cleric who had previously served two presidential terms, told me in an interview in 2005 that kicked off his new campaign.

The exception was Ahmadinejad, who defeated Rafsanjani in a runoff in June, profiting from a protest vote against one of Iran's richest men. "Our nation has no significant need for the United States," Ahmadinejad said in his first press conference as president. Seven months later he expanded on his anti-American views in an interview with me, his first with a U.S. newspaper. "We have in this world six billion people," he said. "It's not an American club." The United States thinks "that no one can live without them and this is a wrong notion. We have proved we can live without them."

For all its incendiary rhetoric, Iran is the Rodney Dangerfield of Middle Eastern nations, a country that believes it deserves but has invariably been denied sufficient respect. Iranians have long felt that they were owed special attention because of Iran's location on the Persian Gulf, large oil resources, and ancient history. Even as they have confronted the United States and called for the downfall of American governments, they have watched with poorly concealed envy the growing U.S. alliance with neighboring nations India and Pakistan and the U.S. and Western investment poured into tiny Arab sheikdoms across the Persian Gulf.

Unlike Iraq, which was cobbled together by the British after World War I from the ruins of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Iran has been a unified nation for more than two thousand years. More than five hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ, a Persian king, Cyrus the Great, built an empire that stretched from present-day Turkey to Afghanistan. The empire crumbled, but Iranian civilization triumphed. It absorbed waves of invaders from Greeks to Mongols to Turks and Arabs, changing the invaders more than it was itself transformed.

Even Islam took on a unique form when it came in contact with Iran. In pre-Islamic times, Iran--or Persia, as it was known until the twentieth century--gave rise to a religion, Zoroastrianism, that had a single supreme God and a well-developed concept of right and wrong. Iranians still celebrate the Zoroastrian new year by jumping over fires and other pre-Islamic behavior.

Most Iranians today are Shiites, a minority among the world's 1.3 billion Muslims, who initially broke away in a dispute over who should succeed the prophet Mohammed. Shiites believe it should have been Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law, Ali, followed by other blood relatives, including Ali's son, Hossein. Shah Ismail, who ruled from 1501 to 1526, made Shiite Islam Iran's state religion, but the form the faith took--with many European and pre-Islamic characteristics--has more in common with Catholicism and evangelical Christianity than it does with the austere Sunni Islam that predominates in the Arab nations across the Persian Gulf. For example, the most important Shiite holiday, Ashura, in Iran and other Shiite centers feels like Good Friday, with passion plays about Hossein's death and parades of men and boys carrying heavy cross-shaped metal platforms, called alamat, adorned with symbols of the twelve most important Shiite religious figures, or imams. Most Shiites, known as Twelver Shiites for their reverence for these religious figures, believe that the twelfth imam, a young boy who went into hiding for his own protection in the ninth century, will return as a mahdi, or messiah, to bring justice to the world. The concept is similar to the fundamentalist Christian belief in the return of Christ and the Day of Judgment. Indeed, Christ is supposed to accompany the mahdi on his return to Earth.

The Shiite theme of resistance to oppression figures deeply in the Iranian psyche. In modern-day Iran, Yazid, the evil caliph whose forces massacred Hossein and his followers in the desert in the seventh century, has been compared to both President Bush and Saddam Hussein. Iranian propaganda has portrayed U.S. economic sanctions against Iran and efforts to deny it nuclear technology as part of a conspiracy against Muslims and citizens of developing nations in general. In his speeches Ahmadinejad casts the Israelis and Palestinians in a similar passion play. Injustice is to be resisted now, the Iranian leader says, just as it was by Hossein fourteen centuries ago.

Iran's history of empire and invasion has made its people welcoming and at the same time distrustful and prone to conspiracy theories about perceived foreign plots. Iranians still nurse grudges against Britain and Russia, which took advantage of Iranian weakness in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to wrest concessions from a failing Turkic dynasty, the Qajars. The Qajars financed a lavish and decadent court by selling off land, economic monopolies, and exclusive rights to Iran's natural resources. The sale of a tobacco monopoly to a British company headed by an army major in 1891 led to Iran's first mass protests and foreshadowed a 1906 revolt that led to the creation of a short-lived parliament.

In the twentieth century, a more disciplined monarch arose--a Russian-trained army officer named Reza Khan. He seized power in 1925 and sought to drag Iran from feudalism to modernity in the space of only a few decades. He decreed that Iranians must wear Western dress and that women must not wear the veil outside their homes, a hugely controversial edict that boomeranged a half century later when the chador became a rallying symbol in the Islamic revolution. Reza Shah, as he became known after seizing power, limited the traditional powers of the clergy by requiring that judges hold university law degrees and depriving clerics of the authority to notarize documents, a major source of income. He also established a network of secular schools and universities that undermined the clergy's previous monopoly over education and tried to modernize the curriculum taught to seminary students.2 All this engendered hostility that became a foundation for clerical opposition to the shah's son.

In foreign policy Reza Shah reached out to the United States, seeking a counterweight to Russian and British influence, but also sought an alliance with Nazi Germany. Allied powers forced him to abdicate in 1941 and placed his son, Mohammad Reza, upon the throne. A weaker and more conflicted figure, the new shah continued Iran's march toward economic development and modernization, and he strengthened Iran's ties to the world's rising superpower, the United States.

He faced his first great challenge when Mohammed Mossadegh, a wildly popular and eccentric prime minister who had supported the 1906 revolution, persuaded the Iranian parliament to pass legislation in 1951 that nationalized Iran's British-run oil company. In an appeal that was a precursor to that used by Ahmadinejad to justify Iran's nuclear program, Mossadegh sought to put Iran's action in the context of postwar struggles by developing countries for a more equitable international system. He said his "movement served as inspiration to national risings of other peoples" in the Third World. The Eisenhower administration, encouraged by Britain, ordered the CIA to organize a coup in 1953 that overthrew Mossadegh and put the shah back on the throne. The coup is still a source of grievance in Iran every bit as bitter as the 1979-81 seizure of U.S. Embassy hostages remains for most Americans.

The shah repaid his U.S. benefactors for rescuing his reign by acting as an American surrogate in the Persian Gulf, managing to be a close ally to both Israel and Saudi Arabia. He went on a shopping spree, buying an expensive arsenal of U.S. weapons, wasting Iranian resources in a way that aroused considerable domestic opposition. Prodded by President Kennedy, the Iranian leader also sought to show he could be a modern monarch by introducing new social reforms, including voting and other rights for women. However, the shah went too far for religious conservatives, and in 1964, he exiled their most prominent leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, after Khomeini protested a law granting immunity from prosecution to U.S. diplomats, military advisers, and their families in Iran.


Opposition to the shah's policies grew, and his dreaded secret police, Savak, responded with arrests and torture, fueling protests from an increasingly broad spectrum of Iranian society, including students, leftist supporters of Mossadegh, and pro-Soviet communists, as well as Islamic socialists and fundamentalists. When the monarch's soldiers began mowing down unarmed demonstrators in 1978, the regime of the shah, who was by then dying of cancer, had begun its final descent. This time, no CIA came to his rescue. He left the country, and his last government collapsed eleven days after Khomeini landed in Tehran from Paris on a flight filled with supporters and foreign journalists.

That is the day Iran's Islamic rulers now celebrate in Freedom Square, the culmination of what they call the "ten days of dawn." Old footage of Khomeini's triumphant return and slow motorcade through Tehran amid adoring crowds plays on television over and over during the commemoration of this anniversary. The young men, with their long hair and bushy sideburns, recall the era when Iran held U.S. hostages. Americans who were politically conscious at the time of the revolution will never forget the seizure of the U.S. Embassy on November 4, 1979, and the images of blindfolded U.S. diplomats displayed like trophies by their Iranian captors. Iranian students broke into the compound through a basement window and initially held 61 Americans captive there. They eventually freed the women and minorities but kept 52 U.S. citizens hostage for 444 days.

For many Americans, the hostage crisis remains the defining event of U.S.-Iran relations, and they see no justification for this outrage. Yet the Iranian participants saw it differently. On October 22, 1979, the Carter administration allowed the shah and his family to enter the United States so that he could receive medical treatment for his cancer. Popular sentiment in Iran boiled over a week later, when Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, met in Algeria with then Iranian prime minister Mehdi Bazargan. Remembering the events of 1953, Iranian revolutionaries feared a new U.S. plot to intervene and thwart their aspirations for independence. Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, one of the leaders of the takeover, told me twenty years later that the tactic was inspired in part by U.S. student protests during the Vietnam War, and that the Iranian demonstrators intended to stay for only forty-eight hours. Khomeini and his top advisers prolonged the crisis to destroy any possibility of rapprochement with the United States and to undercut moderate supporters of the revolution. The provisional prime minister, Bazargan, resigned two days after the hostages were seized. The following spring, a new Islamic constitution enshrining Khomeini as the supreme leader of the country was overwhelmingly approved in a referendum.

The captive embassy became a sort of revolutionary tourist attraction, its value increased by nonstop U.S. media coverage and President Carter's obsession with freeing the hapless diplomats. Carter's--and America's--humiliation deepened when the United States mounted a rescue mission in April 1980 that not only failed to free the hostages but cost the lives of eight American servicemen and left behind the wreckage of half a dozen U.S. military aircraft. Khomeini agreed to the hostages' release only after the shah had died and Carter had lost the 1980 election, thereby paying for his "crime" of supporting the shah. In a final act of vengeance the Iranians did not free the hostages until a few hours after President Reagan's inauguration. Yet Iranian leaders seek to minimize the act and spin themselves as the victims. In 2005, former president Rafsanjani told me that the hostages "left Iran in a relaxed mood" and that the fault lay with the United States, which had admitted the shah for medical treatment.

Like old women comparing surgical scars, Iranian officials compete to prove whose suffering was greater. "This is where I was tortured by agents of the United States in the shah's time," said Habibolah Asgaroladi, a conservative politician, pointing to his head, where he said he was beaten by the shah's secret police in the 1970s. Americans, of course, place the blame for the breakdown in relations primarily on Iran. The United States broke diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980, and other Western nations scaled back their ties because of the embassy seizure, leaving Iran isolated when Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, thinking Iran would collapse easily, decided to invade the country in

September 1980.

Officially, the United States declared a policy of neutrality--former secretary of state Henry Kissinger famously said at the time that it was a pity that the countries couldn't both lose. However, Washington soon tilted in the direction of Baghdad, providing intelligence and weapons, including the components for the biological and chemical arms U.S. forces sought in vain after attacking Iraq in 2003. Some Iranians believe the United States instigated Iraq's invasion to avenge the seizure of the U.S. Embassy. In an interview, Iranian national security adviser Ali Larijani pointed to a visit he said President Reagan's envoy, Donald Rumsfeld, paid to Baghdad before the war. "Americans started a war in the region, provoking Saddam Hussein, and we lost two hundred thousand lives," Larijani told me. "Mr. Rumsfeld one week before the Iraqi invasion met Saddam Hussein and provoked this." In fact, Reagan did not take office until 1981, five months after the war started, and Rumsfeld didn't visit Baghdad until 1983.

In many respects, the United States and Iran have been in a state of undeclared war for most of the last three decades. While they have rarely fought face-to-face, they have exchanged bitter insults and threats and attacked each other indirectly. Iraq, it can be argued, served as a U.S. and Arab proxy in containing the spread of Iran's Islamic revolution in the 1980s. While the United States aided Saddam's Iraq, Iran created surrogates of its own to carry out asymmetrical warfare against its superpower foe. Hezbollah is the prime example. Iran organized this Lebanese Shiite militant group, whose name means "the party of God," after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. Besides Israelis, Hezbollah murdered 241 Americans in a truck bombing at a U.S. Marines barracks in 1983, carried out skyjackings, and seized U.S. journalists and academics as hostages in Beirut in the 1980s.

Iran also backed militants in Shiite communities in Arab nations along the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Shiites who, according to a U.S. indictment, exploded a truck bomb in front of a U.S. Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996, killing nineteen U.S. airmen. Iran built relationships with Shiite groups opposed to the Sunni Muslim regimes of its neighbors, Afghanistan and Iraq, and had close ties with the Northern Alliance, an Afghan militia that the Bush administration relied on heavily to defeat the Taliban in 2001. And Iran organized the Badr Brigades, an Iraqi Shiite force, during Saddam's long reign, when thousands of Iraq Shiites fled to Iran to escape persecution and service in Saddam's military. One of the great ironies of Bush administration Iraq policy is that when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it was obliged to work closely with Shiite politicians who owed their very survival to Iran. As events in Iraq spiraled quickly out of U.S. control, thinly spread U.S. forces could do little but watch while Iranian-trained and -equipped Shiite militias filled power vacuums in southern Iraq and Shiite areas of Baghdad.

The conflict between the Bush administration's prodemocracy rhetoric and its need for tactical alliances with Iran to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan and Sunni insurgents in Iraq made it hard for American officials to put together a coherent policy to deal with Iran's growing regional power and mounting evidence that it was close to developing the ability to make nuclear weapons. It took the Bush administration until 2006 to unveil a national security strategy (its first since 2002) in which it declared that the United States "may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran." Yet Washington was hard pressed to do much about this challenge, despite its bellicose rhetoric. In Bush's second term American officials worked closely with Europeans to try to increase diplomatic and economic pressure on Tehran to suspend its nuclear program, but the deepening U.S. predicament in Iraq diminished Iranian fears of possible punishment.

Iranian officials responded to American pressure with a mixture of counter threats and overtures. "The United States has the power to cause harm and pain," Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran's delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog, said. "But the United States is also susceptible to harm and pain. So if that is the path that the U.S. wishes to choose, let the ball roll."

At the same time that they were issuing threats, Iranian officials put out new feelers to Washington in hopes of using their leverage in Iraq to strike a broader deal. Iranian officials agreed to one-on-one talks with American officials about Iraq, asserting that they were doing so at the behest of their Iraqi Shiite allies, but first the Iranians, then the Americans, got cold feet. The two sides finally met in May 2007 in Baghdad in an atmosphere of acrimony that held out little prospect for progress. Mostly, the Iranians sought what the Bush administration had always refused to give: recognition that after nearly three decades, Iran's system of government, however unappealing, was not about to disappear.

"We see ourselves as equal nations," said Fuad Sadeghi, a young journalist and founder of a conservative Iranian Web site called Baztab (Reflections). "You shouldn't expect in Iran what you saw in Libya or Iraq. If the United States enters talks as an equal partner with Iran, then it would get a good response. Iran and the States should solve their problems together."

A senior adviser to Iran's national security council, Mohammad Javad Jaffari, put it this way in an interview in the winter of 2006: "The United States in the past twenty-seven years has never needed Iran's help until now. Today, a very small group of Sunni Arabs is in conflict with the United States. Today, the government of Iraq is an ally of Iran and in Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, and Palestine, the United States needs Iran. Iran needs the United States, too. We can come to an understanding, but do you think there are eyes to see or ears to listen in Washington?"

Out in the provinces ordinary Iranians showed mixed emotions as tensions escalated over Iran's nuclear program. In the town of Garmsar, near Ahmadinejad's home village of Aradan, a three-hour drive east of Tehran along the old silk road to China, Zolfali Jurabloo was treating me, his first American guest, to a traditional Persian lunch. Sitting cross-legged on a carpet, dishes spread out before him on a plastic tablecloth, the sixty-three-year-old farmer served up equal portions of lamb stew and Iranian pride. "Tell Mister Bush he should not attack our homes," my host told me, referring to U.S. threats over Iran's nuclear program. More economic sanctions or a military strike did worry him. "Even a small glass of my water is worth more than anything in the United States," he said.

After continuing in this combative vein for several minutes, the farmer, his face creased by wrinkles from years of exposure to the Persian sun, cast a hopeful and somewhat appraising eye at me as he plied me with pickled cherries. "Perhaps you can find me an American wife?" he asked.

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Photo/David Yaghoobi

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