At the beginning of “Turmoil in Iran: Passion and Protest in the Islamic Republic,” part of the Center on Law and Security's Open Forum Series, moderator Gary Sick, who served on the National Security Council during three presidential administrations and as principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, rattled off a number of pressing questions regarding U.S. relations with Iran: By holding talks with Iran after its brutal crackdown on protesters following the contested presidential election in June, is the U.S. legitimizing the current regime and its conduct? Is Iran stronger or weaker post-election? Is the recent revelation of Iran’s secret uranium enrichment plant at Qom clear-cut evidence that Iran can’t be trusted? Is its government dragging out talks in order to buy more time to develop nuclear capabilities? Should human rights be part of our negotiations with Iran? How do Israel’s concerns figure in?

Tackling some of these weighty issues were Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American writer who has covered Iran for many top publications, and Trita Parsi, president and founder of the National Iranian American Council. Majd echoed Sick’s opinion that the June election was a crucial event in the history of the Islamic Republic, because up until that time the Iranian people generally believed in the fairness of election results, if not the process of getting on the ballot: “I think most Iranians don’t feel that the election was 100 percent fair, and this is a huge, huge insult to the Iranian people who have tolerated a semi-democratic system for 30 years.”

Parsi pointed out that Israel, one of Iran’s most prominent rivals, had longstanding positive relations with Iran, even after the Islamic Revolution at the end of the 1970s. Only with Saddam Hussein’s defeat in Iraq in 1991, he said, did the Iran-Israel relationship undergo a fundamental shift as Iran ratcheted up its anti-Israeli rhetoric to create common ground with its Arab neighbors. Now, Parsi said, “the entire Middle East has become a big board on which these two states are playing out their rivalry, and it is more often than not creating unnecessary headaches for everyone else.”

Both Majd and Parsi agreed that an actual attack by either Iran or Israel was not highly likely. Parsi observed that Israel had continually changed its “red line” for initiating an attack when Iran crossed it. He added that a “psychological line” would be crossed if Israel launched its first true conflict with a non-Arab state in the Middle East.

Iran’s already strained relationship with the U.S. worsened when, after Iran reached out to the U.S. after 9/11 to help fight the Taliban and rebuild Afghanistan, George W. Bush declared Iran part of the “axis of evil”: “The lesson they apparently have learned from that is that they’re not going to collaborate with the United States tactically to reduce tensions, even if it could also be helpful to them, unless there is a strategic agreement on where things are going to go afterwards.” Majd added that, when then-President Mohammad Khatami learned of Bush’s choice of words, Khatami privately declared attempts to persuade Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and others of the wisdom of more positive relations with the U.S. “dead.”

Parsi spoke about the need to bring real incentives to the table in negotiations with Iran, rather than simply threats, as well as the importance of including human rights issues in addition to national security matters. With its regional leadership aspirations, he said, Iran was vulnerable to pressure regarding its human rights record. Sick, now a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute as well as an adjunct professor of international and public affairs, said that Iran is viewed as a rapidly rising power in the region, given that the U.S. has eliminated its two main enemies: the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. He observed, tongue-in-cheek, “I think we tend to forget the debt of gratitude they owe us.”

Posted on October 19, 2009