Iran's 40 years of strife
In 1971, world leaders as varied as Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew and Soviet statesman Nikolai Podgorny gathered in the Iranian city of Persepolis, the ancient capital of the First Persian Empire. They were there to attend a sumptuous party, hosted by Shah Reza Pahlavi, to mark 2,500 years since the founding of the Imperial State of Iran. But less than eight years later, Iran had a new leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who referred to this gathering as "the devilʹs festival".
Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Khomeini had been living in exile (in Turkey, Iraq, and finally in Paris), owing to his denunciation of Iranʹs westernisation and dependence on the United States under Shah Pahlavi. In 1953, the U.S. and the United Kingdom had propped up Pahlavi by ousting the country's democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, who had nationalised Iranʹs oil industry and had sought to reduce the Shahʹs powers.
That fateful episode – imbued with the logic of the Cold War – marked the first U.S. operation to depose a foreign leader during peacetime. But it certainly wasnʹt the last. Ever since, U.S. foreign policy has been characterised by a steady procession of "regime changes", which have poisoned Washingtonʹs relations with key regions of the world – perhaps most notably with the Middle East.
In the case of Iran, the 1953 coup eroded the Shahʹs domestic legitimacy and, along with his repressive temperament and insensitivity to demands for greater social justice, planted the seeds of the 1979 Revolution. Throughout the ensuing 40 years, Iran and the West have been estranged, to say the least.
The revolutionary turns conservative
The philosopher Hannah Arendt once quipped that "the most radical revolutionary will become a conservative on the day after the revolution." That was certainly true of Khomeini. After taking power by uniting forces adhering to vastly different ideologies, Khomeiniʹs flexibility suddenly evaporated.
He distanced himself completely from leftist movements, accused his opponents of subversion and repressed liberal voices with abandon, triggering four decades of tension between the Islamic Republicʹs theocratic and democratic elements.
In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, U.S.-Iranian diplomatic relations imploded. After laying siege to the U.S. embassy in Tehran, a group of Iranian students, with Khomeiniʹs connivance, held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. They demanded that U.S. President Jimmy Carterʹs administration extradite the Shah, who was in New York for cancer treatment.
In the end, the hostages were not released until minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as successor to Carter, who had been severely weakened politically by the crisis. By then, Pahlavi had died in Egypt, and Khomeini had consolidated the power of hardline theocrats over the revolutionʹs more secular factions.
To top it all, Saddam Husseinʹs Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, unleashing a bloody eight-year war. The conflict, in which the U.S. and even the Soviet Union aided Saddam, ended in a stalemate. Around a half-million Iranians and Iraqis died, but Iran, having been subjected to Iraqi chemical-weapons attacks, bore most of the long-term physical and psychological consequences.
It was during these years that Iran began exploring the possibility of developing nuclear weapons, by building on the nuclear-energy technology that the U.S. had previously furnished to the Shah as part of the Eisenhower administrationʹs "Atoms for Peace" initiative.
Introducing the "axis of evil"
Iranʹs clandestine nuclear programme did not come to light until 2002. By then, the current Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, was already in charge and the geopolitical chessboard had changed dramatically. The U.S. had not only turned its back on Saddam, but was preparing to invade Iraq.
Ironically, that ruinous decision would end up yielding significant strategic benefits for Iran, despite the countryʹs inclusion in U.S. President George W. Bushʹs notorious "axis of evil".
At this point, it fell to me as the EUʹs High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy to initiate nuclear negotiations with Iran. My first interlocutor was Hassan Rouhani, who now serves as Iranʹs president and with whom we reached a preliminary understanding.
But Mahmoud Ahmadinejadʹs election to the presidency in 2005 set the process back by years and the chasm widened further when Saeed Jalili took the reins of the negotiations. Jalili would consistently begin our meetings by reminding me that he had lost part of his leg during the Iran-Iraq War, for which he blamed the West.
When Rouhani returned to the scene as Iranʹs newly elected president in 2013, the international community demonstrated the cohesion and skill needed to take advantage of the opportunity. The result was the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a diplomatic milestone that ushered in a respite from decades of unproductive hostility.
And then came the election of President Donald Trump, who decided unilaterally last year to cease implementing the JCPOA. The Trump administration has imposed new sanctions on Iran and is abusing the U.S. dollarʹs dominant position in global trade by threatening foreign companies with secondary sanctions if they continue to do business with the Islamic Republic.
For a more inclusive formula
As a result of these actions, the U.S. has squandered any chance of forming a united front with Europe to push back against Iranʹs human rights violations, as well as its destabilising behaviour in the Middle East and beyond. The European Union has had to turn its focus to the noble cause of saving the JCPOA through an innovative payment-clearing instrument, which is about to become operational.
At a recent U.S.-sponsored conference in Warsaw, the Trump administration fruitlessly sought to divide Europe and to expand the anti-Iran coalition that it leads together with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Yet, for all of the domestic difficulties faced by the Iranian regime, precipitating its collapse is no more realistic now than it was at any other point during the past 40 years.
Instead of antagonising Iran and lending credibility to its hardliners, the West should be seeking a more inclusive formula for addressing regional threats. Whereas decades of hostility with Iran yielded nothing, the recent period of engagement and negotiation resulted in a historic nuclear accord. It should be obvious which approach is more effective.