- - Monday, March 1, 2021

President Joseph Biden’s decision on Feb. 25 to order airstrikes against targets in Syria, as a warning to Iran against backing militias in Iraq, served Americans an important reminder: The situation in the Middle East, so often overshadowed by the endless partisan bickering at home, remains unstable and dangerous, and relations between the U.S. and Iran remain at a low point.

Days after the airstrikes, Iran’s leaders rejected an invitation from the Biden administration and European powers to restart negotiations about potentially returning to the landmark 2015 nuclear accord. Tehran is insisting the U.S. ease sanctions first; the U.S. wants Iran to return to compliance on uranium enrichment before any sanctions relief may occur. Further complicating matters are calls by Republican senators who want Mr. Biden to keep the U.S. out of the nuclear deal.

The diplomatic impasse comes on the heels of an exclusive report by the Washington Times that revealed Iranian diplomats, during the Trump presidency, sought to maintain a dialogue with former Obama administration officials, namely John Kerry and Robert Malley, who are now members of the Biden administration.

While the exact details of what was discussed during at least five meetings remain unclear, the Times’ reporting raised concerns among Republican lawmakers that the back-channel talks may have been intended to undermine the Trump team’s hard-line approach toward Tehran.

These recent developments exemplify the Gordian complexities of U.S. policy in the Middle East and its strained relationship with the Islamic Republic. But there is still room for diplomacy and peace, according to John Ghazvinian, the director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania, in an interview for the latest episode of History As It Happens podcast.

“I may sound idealistic, but that’s where I stand. I am not optimistic at all about the immediate future of U.S-Iran relations, but I am idealistic about it. When you look at the history it’s hard not to be,” said Ghazvinian, the author of America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present.

Ghazvinian’s idealism is based on the mutual admiration between the societies during the 18th and 19th centuries. For instance, in the early days of the American republic Persian culture was idealized.

The reason Ghazvinian lacks optimism is, in his view, the Biden administration is following the same “limited and unimaginative” approach as the U.S. foreign policy establishment has for the better part of the past 25 years, with the 2015 nuclear accord a rare exception.

Ghazvinian sees no significant difference in the end goal of, on the one hand, Republicans who want to bring about total victory over or regime change in Iran through maximum pressure, and, on the other, Democrats who are interested in “containment and managing Iran’s activities, or finding more sophisticated multilateral tools to work with allies and partners, to basically defeat Iran.”

“Neither party’s foreign policy brain trust really ever thinks more broadly or imaginatively about what is possible with Iran,” Ghazvinian added. “The one time that was tried was under Obama with the nuclear negotiations, and it proved to actually succeed.”

The U.S.-Iranian relationship has been mired in hostility since the ayatollahs seized power in 1979, but U.S. administrations have occasionally tried to effect a rapprochement with minimal results.

In the mid-1980s, the Reagan administration sold arms through Israel to Iran in the hope of freeing American hostages, a key aspect of the Iran-Contra scandal that damaged Reagan’s second term. In a televised address in late 1986, Reagan explained his “secret diplomatic initiative” was “undertaken for the simplest and best of reasons, to renew a relationship with the nation of Iran, to being an honorable end to the bloody six-year war between Iran and Iraq, to eliminate state-sponsored terrorism and subversion, and to effect the safe return of all hostages.”

If Reagan’s aims were pragmatic, based on the reality that the ayatollahs were not going anywhere, Republican attitudes toward Iran today are ideological and self-defeating, Ghazvinian said.

“There is a tendency to underestimate the fundamental unity Iranians have around certain issues of foreign policy. For example, the country’s right to enrich uranium and to have a peaceful nuclear program,” he said.

For more on Ghazvinian’s thoughts on key moments in U.S.-Iranian history, as well as a conversation with The Washington Times’ Pentagon reporter Ben Wolfgang about his exclusive report on recent back-channel diplomacy, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.

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