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History’s Lessons on Cooperation

Iranian Elections and American Enemies

by TED SNIDER

To the surprise of the Western media, Hassan Rouhani, considered a reformer by the West, and not one of the slate of apparently identical Supreme Leader selected conservatives, has won the Iranian election. So now that Ahmadinejad is gone and a moderate is in office, what will that change for the West? What will Rouhani do?

Rouhani is a protégé of former moderate President Rafsanjani and served as the secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator under reformist President Khatami. During their combined four terms as President of Iran, Rafsanjani and Khatami both advocated for improving relations with America by reaching out to the U.S. in a posture of cooperation. Both received no cooperation in return: a failure that led to a feeling of despair in Iran and an increasing skepticism on the part of Supreme Leader Khamenei that America is actually interested in improved relations or cooperation with Iran.

Hashemi Rafsanjani was first elected President of Iran in 1989. He wanted to recast Iran’s position in the world and break out of her international isolation. So, Rafsanjani set out to improve relations with the United States by demonstrating Iran’s friendship while demanding nothing in return except respect, equal treatment and no assumptions of American hegemony. President George H.W. Bush had promised Iran that if she used her leverage in Lebanon to help with the American hostages being held in that country, it would “be long remembered” and that “Goodwill begets goodwill”. Rafsanjani successfully intervened and won the release of the American hostages. Bush did nothing in return: Iran’s goodwill brought no reciprocal American goodwill. Instead, America informed Rafsanjani that he should expect no American reciprocation for the freeing of the American hostages. Iran had cooperated with America; America had betrayed Iran.

Rafsanjani tried again. And again his cooperation—this time helping Clinton to deliver arms to Bosnia—was returned with betrayal.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Iran stayed neutral. But Iran made it clear that neutrality should be interpreted as siding with America. Mahmoud Baezi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister at the time, said that Iran spurned Iraq’s pleas for help on the grounds of that neutrality, meaning the neutrality was, in fact, against Iraq. Reinforcing his claim that Iranian neutrality was really Iran siding with America are the facts that Iran allowed the United States to use Iranian airspace and refused to return the jets that Iraq had flown into Iran. This latest effort changed nothing. When the U.S. convened the Israeli-Palestinian Madrid Conference, she invited nearly every affected nation while snubbing Iran, closing the door on her face, and once more isolating her internationally, putting an end to Rafsanjani’s efforts at Iranian-American cooperation.

After Rafsanjani completed his maximum two terms, elections brought the reformist President Seyyed Mohammad Khatami to power in 1997. Like his predecessor, Khatami wanted to improve Iran’s relations with the outside world and America. He began by condemning terrorism of any sort and by expressing a willingness to accept a two state solution if that’s what the Palestinians wanted, implicitly recognizing the State of Israel.

Then came 9/11. And, again, Iran sided with America, cooperating with the U.S. against Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban. The Northern Alliance, who provided many of the anti-Taliban fighters once the Americans and her allies invaded Afghanistan, was, at least in part, put together by Iran, who placed it in the hands of the Americans. Iran also offered her air bases to the U.S. and permitted the U.S to carry out search and rescue missions for downed U.S. planes. The Iranians also gave the U.S. intelligence on Taliban and Al-Qa’ida targets. Iran was also crucial in setting up Afghanistan’s post-Taliban government and offered her help in rebuilding Afghanistan’s army. President George W. Bush offered Iran nothing in return. Instead, in return for Iran’s goodwill and substantial assistance, in January 2002, President Bush included Iran in his Axis of Evil speech. Khatami was stunned. And the hardliners who opposed his efforts used this speech of Bush’s to argue that you can never offer the United States open ended cooperation without knowing what you will get in return and what the end goal is.

Rouhani enters office after serving in the administrations that learned these painful lessons. History’s lesson on cooperation for President Rouhani is that you can’t trust the Americans.

The lesson that Iran and her new President have learned from history is the same lesson that their ally, the embattled President of Syria, has learned from Syria’s history. For the past several years prior to the West’s clear desire to remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria, Syria, like Rafsanjani and Khatami, has been anxious to do what the West wants her to do in order to move closer to both America and Israel.

Efforts to move closer to America and Israel included coming very close to a peace agreement with Israel in 2000, according to Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco. When Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father, he sought the resumption of those peace talks, but the Israelis and the Americans shut the door.

Later, in 2005, the Israelis and Syrians actually did begin drafting a peace treaty. Two years later, after the Israeli-Lebanese war, Israel asked America about resuming those talks only for America to say no. Syria continued to solicit cooperation with the United States. But, according to Zunes, as late as 2007, the Bush administration continued to spurn those solicitations by continuing to bar Israel from resuming peace negotiations with Syria. Syria, Zunes says, eager for international legitimacy, was willing to give security guarantees and full diplomatic relations to Israel in exchange for a peace agreement. But, as was the case for Iran, the Americans returned Syria’s advances with silence. Bush, Zunes says, was more interested in regime change in Syria than in dealing with the regime in Syria.

According to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, prior to the war in Gaza, with the help of Turkey, Syria and Israel “had been engaged for almost a year in negotiations”. He says that many matters had been resolved and the two enemies had reached “agreements in principle on the normalization of diplomatic relations”. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the ruler of Qatar, told Hersh that “Syria is eager to engage with the West”. Hersh quotes then chair of the Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry, who met with Assad on several occasions, as saying that Assad “wants to engage with the West . . . . Assad is willing to do the things he needs to do in order to change his relationship with the United States.” Unlike Bush before him, Obama was willing to pursue this proposal. According to Hersh, informal exchanges between Washington and Syria did take place under the Obama administration. But the talks, as is now apparent, failed. When I asked Stephen Zunes why those talks failed, he did not blame the Syrians but “[t]he new hard-right Israeli government that consolidated power in 2009”. Nothing could happen, Zunes said, “without the return of the Golan, which Netanyahu refuses to do”.

So, like Iran, Syria was knocking on America’s door and courting her with promises of cooperation, but America refused to answer the door.

Other enemies of America have learned the same historical lesson: attempts at cooperation with America are returned with silence at best and betrayal at worst. North Korea, too, has had her attempts at cooperation returned with American perfidy. North Korea’s attempts at cooperation began in 1994, during the Clinton administration, when Jimmy Carter’s intervention opened the door to the Framework Agreement. In accordance with the agreement, North Korea had stopped testing long range missiles and was not making any more bombs. But then, in violation of the agreement, Bush threatened North Korea by naming it a member of the Axis of Evil and by listing it in the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review as a country the US should be prepared to drop a nuclear bomb on. The States also only came through on 15% of the fuel she promised in the agreement. The US then cancelled the agreement, and North Korea pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

In 2005, North Korea again agreed to completely eliminate its nuclear weapons program and allow inspectors in exchange for American assurance that she would stop threatening attacks, begin planning for a light water reactor—which can’t be used for weapons—and begin exploring normalizing relations with North Korea. But, according to Noam Chomsky, Bush promptly took up the threats again, cancelled the light water reactor and froze North Korean funds in foreign banks, isolating her instead of normalizing relations with her. With America returning cooperation with betrayal once more, the North Koreans returned to their weapons program and tested a weapon.

And if Hassan Rouhani needs any more history lessons on what cooperation with the U.S. gets you, he can just ask Muammar Qaddafi what he got in return for cooperating with the Americans on extraordinary renditions at least eight times, cooperating with the Americans extensively on intelligence, cooperating with the Americans and British on the elimination of her chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs (part of which were fabricated in order to cooperate further with the British in the entrapment of Pakistani nuclear arms merchant A.Q. Khan). Oh ya. No he can’t!

So, while America waits for Iran and her other enemies to bring in reformist regimes who are willing to cooperate with America, Iran and much of the world are awaiting a reformist American President who is truly willing to cooperate with them.

Ted Snider writes for Rabble.ca and Znet.