Iran is the land of my birth and the University of Virginia has been my intellectual home for 60 years. In all these decades at my beloved institution, I have tried to help advance a better understanding of Iran's foreign policy, especially its relations with the United States.
In retrospect, this commitment of mine must have been shaped in part by having watched how Iran coped with the invasion and occupation of the country by Britain and Russia in World War II. I also witnessed the wartime arrival of U.S. forces in Iran, although they came not as invaders but as transporters of arms and ammunitions to the Soviet Union in its fight against Nazi Germany. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called Iran "a bridge to victory." Victory for the Allied Powers, however, looked like tragedy to the Iranian people. It reminded them of historical waves of invasion, occupation and destruction of their country by foreign powers: Greek, Arab, Mongol, Turkish, Russian and British.
Five-year-old Ruhi Ramazani (left), photographed with his sister Mehri and his nephew Mostafa, in Tehran in 1933. “We are wearing hats with brims,” says Ramazani, “because Reza Shah wanted to westernize Iran. The brims prevented men from performing the prostrations required in Muslim prayer.” The Arab invasion, which brought Islam to Iran, did not diminish the loyalty of the Iranian people to their pre-Islamic Persian identity. On the contrary, it deepened that loyalty. Unlike Egypt, Iran rejected Arab identity, but, like Egypt, it accepted Islam. Thus, the Iranians have inherited a dual Persian-Islamic identity.
This identity underpins the fierce sense of independence of the Iranian people. It has helped them survive foreign domination. The Iranian people have overcome two aggressive wars by tsarist Russia, in 1804 and 1812, resisting economic and political domination by Britain and Russia—countries that attempted to divide the country into spheres of influence in 1907—and maintained political independence and territorial integrity despite the British and Russian invasion and occupation during World War I and World War II.
To resist imperialist pressures, the Iranian government established diplomatic relations with the U.S. in 1883, and the Iranian parliament hired an American financial expert, Morgan Shuster, in 1911, to reform the foreign-dominated finances of the country. British and Russian machinations, however, compelled him to leave Iran. He wrote about his bitter experience in his 1912 book, The Strangling of Persia.
Nevertheless, Iran continued to seek U.S. friendship as a counterweight to British and Russian pressures. Mohammad Reza Shah, who ruled Iran from 1941 to 1979, benefited from his "special relationship" with the U.S. The Truman administration pressured the Soviet Union to withdraw its occupation forces from northern Iran in 1946; then the CIA overthrew the shah's opponent, democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Musaddiq, returning the shah to power in 1953; and in 1971 the Nixon administration anointed the shah's regime as the policeman of the Persian Gulf.
This special relationship with the U.S., however, led to disaster. The shah's suppression of political dissent, combined with America's indiscriminate arms sales to Iran amidst economic crisis, led to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The shah's rule, and with it the ancient institution of monarchy, came to an end, together with the U.S. domination of Iran.
To ensure that the U.S. would not return the dictatorial shah to power, as it had done in 1953, militant students took Americans hostage in 1979. This event has cast a dark shadow on U.S. relations with Iran ever since, just as the overthrow of the popular government of Musaddiq by the CIA in 1953 has fueled deep Iranian distrust of the U.S. to the present time.
The revolutionary regime has ended centuries of foreign interference in Iran's internal affairs, but it has failed to fulfill the Revolution's promise of justice and freedom. In fact, because of its obsession with political survival, the regime has suppressed human rights in the name of Islam and independence. Personally, I have been unable to overcome the wrenching tragedy that befell my young and beautiful niece, Farshad, who was mercilessly executed by the regime in 1982.
It will take political will in Tehran and Washington to overcome the 33 years of mutual demonization and hostility since the Revolution. But the two sides are not talking to each other, while the drumbeats of war over Iran's nuclear program continue. The need for better understanding between Iran and the U.S. has never been as vital as it is today.
The dilemma of U.S.-Iran relations is how to change 70 years of friendship and 33 years of hostility into normal relations. It could be done if the two countries recognize that they have common interests in preventing the rise of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Iraq, avoiding a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and securing uninterrupted flow of Persian Gulf oil to world markets.
R.K. Ramazani is the Edward R. Stettinius Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia.