Influenced by the ancient faith of Persia, the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions see reality in terms of light and dark—Ahura Mazda versus Angra Mainyu. Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize lecture in 2009 put the view directly: “Evil exists,” he stated, and he—as a U.S. president—had to cope with it. Obama was following the “political realism” school of international relations. Individual men and women may strive to contribute to a world of law and morality, but political leaders cannot count on the forces of good. The role of material power is greater than any ideal. This is the wisdom of prudence. Its downside is that, if all governments assume that the others cannot be trusted, it will be difficult to do advance the common good or even their own particular good. They may protect what they already possess but will be unable to profit from shared creativity. This is the “logic of collective action.”
For more than half a century, this logic has kept the United States and Iran from enhancing their shared interests. Things were not always this way. Both before and after World War I, the U.S. government encouraged American financial experts to help Iran free itself from debts to Russia and Europe. In 1946 the United States mobilized the United Nations to press Soviet forces to leave northern Iran. Having intervened in 1953 to remove a nationalist leader, the United States backed the Shah and his white revolution. Over time, however, Washington ignored the increasingly dictatorial policies of the Shah and was shocked that many Iranians blamed the United States for the Shah’s despotism. Relations got worse when Washington helped Iraq in its war against Iran and when a U.S. ship shot down an Iranian Airbus (probably by mistake).
Besides needing to deal with the United States, Iranian leaders believe they are threatened by Israel and by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states. For now, Israel is the only nuclear-armed power in the region. Israel points out that it needs nuclear weapons to keep its hostile neighbors at bay. Some Iranian leaders have pledged to destroy Israel. Some believe that Iran is also entitled to possess the most advanced weapons.
Despite these problems, the United States and five other concerned states in 2015 signed an agreement with Iran to freeze its capacity to make nuclear arms. In return for Iranian restraint, the other powers pledged to remove sanctions and help modernize Iran’s economy. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action benefited from the shared language and mindset of a U.S. and an Iranian expert, both of whom had studied at MIT.
This honeymoon ended in 2018 when the new U.S. president, Donald Trump, withdrew the United States from the deal and began to tighten sanctions. He rejected everything done by the Obama administration. Trump was egged on by a few generals who blamed Iran for the bombs that killed 307 U.S. Marines and French troops in Lebanon in 1983. He was also supported by Israel and by the millions of American “Evangelicals” who back Israel and who see Iran as “evil.”
President-elect Joe Biden wants to return the United States to the JCPA and reduce tensions everywhere in the Middle East. “I will offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy,” Mr. Biden wrote in September 2020. “If Iran returns to strict compliance with the nuclear deal, the United States would rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations.” After Biden’s election victory, President Hassan Rouhani welcomed the initiative, calling it “an opportunity” for the United States “to compensate for its previous mistakes and return to the path of adherence to international commitments.”
But both leaders must avoid signs that they are weak and naïve. Hard-line critics and Evangelicals in the United States will not go away. They argue that Iran has departed from some of its JCPA obligations and continues to improve its missiles and to abuse human rights. Iran says it is merely responding to Washington’s withdrawal and tightening sanctions. The fact remains that Iran has poked holes in the JCPA structure. For Tehran to undo what it has done will antagonize hard-liners who, in an election year, will attack any politician who seems to bow to U.S. pressure.
The reality is that neither the U.S. nor the Iranian government is good or evil. If they put aside past hurts, they may be able to rebuild the JCPA. This move could help Iran to fully rejoin the world and take part in international commerce. There are many opportunities for mutual gain, some of which I saw in 1998 as a participant in a conference arranged by President Mohammad’s Khatami’s Foreign Ministry.
Relations between Iran and the United States have moved up and own since Khatami’s calls for dialogue between civilizations, The Biden presidency creates a renewed opening for détente and cooperation, but this will require positive steps in Tehran as well as Washington. Both sides must sheathe the hard feelings accumulated in recent decades and consider what might be good for each side. They need to recover both empathy and vision.