Despite dealing with Iran for over 40 years, I have too often been wrong about events there. For example, in August 1979 -- six months after the revolution -- I went to Tehran as a U.S. diplomat with the hope that we could deal with the new reality there and rebuild a relationship with whatever form of government replaced the monarchy. After all, I argued, Iran -- even a revolutionary Iran -- still had to sell its oil, maintain a military, and keep some orderly relations with the rest of the world. In my mind, our mission was to repair the imbalances of what had been a most unhealthy and misguided U.S. relationship with the shah's Iran -- a relationship that sometimes seemed to be run by arms dealers and hustlers of every description.
Was I stupid, naive, or both to think we could build something better on the ruins of our previous relationship? I was certainly wrong. But I still take some comfort in the fact that in my illusions I had a lot of company -- both Iranian and American. After all, many of my well-educated and enlightened Iranian friends had marched and shouted for an Islamic republic that would end up rejecting them and their values.
Of course, we had all misread reality. Many of the Iranians we knew were too much like us. They could talk politics late into the night and write brilliant analyses. But they lacked the quality that wins revolutions. They lacked the cruelty and ruthlessness to throw acid at women, organize street gangs, or murder an opposition newspaper editor. And when the political fighting got serious, our open-minded and tolerant friends -- who hoped for something better from the revolution -- were ground under by those much tougher and much more brutal.
Whatever else we did in Iran, we never did build that new relationship with the Islamic republic. Instead of new and healthy dealings based on mutual respect and mutual interests, we now have an Islamic republic where anti-Americanism is woven into the state's ideological fabric and where few can state the simple truth that Iran might accomplish more through dialogue than by mindless repetition of slogans.
We also have a popular American view of Iran as a center of misrule, fanaticism, and terrorism. Iranian travelers are routinely harassed and mistrusted, and are the target of every bureaucratic barrier that our fertile minds can devise.
On the positive side (for the United States, at least), there is now a large, prosperous, and well-educated community of Iranian-Americans. For their presence we ought to thank the authorities of the Islamic republic, whose policies have sent us their best doctors, scientists, and businesspeople.
So how did we Americans contribute to this outcome? Let me suggest four ways.
- First, we refused to acknowledge the Iranian view that Americans were the real power behind the throne in Tehran. According to eyewitness accounts, the late shah felt that the foreigners could get rid of him any time he displeased them. After all, they had brought him back to power in 1953; and they had brought his father to power in 1921 and had then thrown him out in 1941. Then in 1973 we confirmed Iranians' worst suspicions and rubbed their noses in our domination by sending the head of the CIA to Iran as ambassador.
- Second, we underestimated the power of religious fervor in a society where religiosity -- usually of an unorthodox sort -- mingles and competes with both anti-clericalism and hedonism. We spoke to our well-educated, secularized Iranian friends, who were as distant from the realities of their own society as we were. We could not believe that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's powerful images, his refusal to keep silent, and his incorruptibility could exercise such a hold over millions of Iranians.
- Third, we allowed ourselves to believe the shah was popular and was turning Iran into some sort of modern industrial economy. When I went to Iran in the 1960s, I was surprised at how many educated middle-class Iranians -- who owed much of their prosperity and status to the shah's policies -- were indifferent, if not actually hostile, to the monarchy.
- Finally, some of our own actions were shortsighted and tacky. One American ambassador (from an eyewitnesses account) apparently collected money from the shah for Richard Nixon's 1972 campaign. Another reappeared in Iran shortly after his departure at the head of a group of businessmen. And our own Foreign Service never developed a cadre of expertise similar to what we had in Japan, the Soviet Union, or the Arab world. Young Persian-speaking Foreign Service officers would serve a tour in Iran and never come back.
Thirty years ago, in the turmoil that followed the February revolution, the coalition that drove the shah from power quickly fell apart. Religious ideologues turned on their more open-minded compatriots and drove them into the political wilderness. As result, the Islamic republic would spend years as the black sheep of the international family. For most Iranians, the triumph of the extremists had appalling consequences. When Iraq attacked Iran in September 1980, for example, who stood up for the Islamic republic, which had already alienated those who should have been its friends? A few years later, when Saddam Hussein used poison gas against Iranian forces, who protested?
The events of those first months -- including the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in November 1979 -- put the United States and Iran into a 30-year downward spiral of mistrust, suspicion, and hostility that continues today. Every action and statement, whatever its real motive, is now twisted into a move of hostile intent, which in turn justifies reciprocal hostility. In such as spiral, an Iranian passenger plane taking off from Bandar Abbas became an F-4 attacking a U.S. warship. In this spiral, goons in Tehran beat to death a Canadian photojournalist for taking pictures of students demonstrating. Other goons have harassed and imprisoned intellectuals for talking with U.S. counterparts about HIV/AIDS or filmmaking. At the end of the day, how easy it is to say, "We had to murder this writer/poet/translator to protect our revolution against the Americans."
The Iranians have had to put up with bad government for a long time. Over six centuries ago in the city of Shiraz, as the poet Hafez composed verses that remain some of the world's most beautiful lyric poetry, brutal incompetent fanatics ruled the town and imposed their harsh restrictions on Hafez and his fellow Shirazis.
Today, like at that time, the Iranian people deserve better than what they have. These creative, artistic, and humane people should have the opportunity to fulfill their talents and their dreams in peace, freedom, and security without worrying that someone will put them in jail for expressing the wrong opinion or wearing the wrong clothes. Thirty years ago I -- like many of my Iranian friends -- hoped the revolution would bring such an opportunity. Today I am still waiting.John Limbert is a former U.S. diplomat who spent more than a year as a hostage in Iran in 1979-81. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL