Washington, DC – In her first remarks to reporters on Jan. 27, new Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterated President Barack Obama’s determination to explore ways to engage Iran. President Obama has also said the United States wants to talk to Iran directly and, as he puts it, with “the language of respect.” We know what respect means to us, but we also have to know what it means to Iran if we are to negotiate successfully. As a backdrop we need to understand that Iranians take deep pride in the continuity of their ancient culture and in their longtime experience with eventful international relations. In dealing with foreign powers, Iranian leaders and diplomats have developed an expectation of respect from those who want to talk to them. So, when Iran talks to the United States it expects respect, but what does it mean by respect? It means a number of things.
First, respect means that American negotiators should recognize Iran’s fierce sense of independence. The Iranian people remember repeated foreign invasion, occupation, interference, dictation and domination during many tumultuous centuries. The Iranian Revolution aimed in part at terminating perceived American domination over a quarter century. The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran codifies the time-honored principles of respect for Iran’s political independence and territorial integrity, and declares that Iran rejects foreign domination and that it will not dominate other nations.
Second, respect means the United States should acknowledge that Iran has strategic importance and is a major player in the Middle East, particularly in the Persian Gulf region, where it straddles the Strait of Hormuz, the global oil chokepoint; where it connects the Middle East to Central Asia and South Asia; where it leads as the largest Shia state; where it is endowed with rich oil and natural gas resources, and where it has the largest industrial base. Iran also has more influence than any other re gional power in Iraq, where it can help the United States to stabilize the situation, and in Afghanistan, where it can help the United States in the fight against Taliban and al-Qaida terrorists.
Third, respect means that the United States should treat Iran on the basis of equality. Iranian people perceive that great and superpowers have treated their country in the past and present condescendingly and unjustly.
They believe that America had been the champion of Iranian nationalism for nearly a century before the CIA overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddiq in 1953. It had, for example, helped free Iran from the Soviet occupation at the end of World War II. But since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, America has become Iran’s principal victimizer.
Iranians resent that the United States has imposed untold economic and diplomatic sanctions on Iran; has sided with Saddam Hussein’s regime against Iran in the Iraq-Iran War; has shot down an Iranian passenger plane over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 people; has depicted Iran as the world’s greatest sponsor of terrorism; has called for regime change; has threatened military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities in Natanz, and has engaged in covert operations against Iran.
Fourth, respect means America needs to demonstrate empathy toward Iranians for what it and its friends and allies have done to Iran in the past. President Obama says that he learned from his mother to put himself in other people’s shoes. That sounds like music to Iranian ears. Iranians rejoiced at hearing former President Bill Clinton say in April 1999, “Iran has been the subject of a lot of abuse from various Western nations,” and sometimes “it is quite important to tell people, look, you have a right to be angry at something that my country or my culture or others that are generally allied with us today did to you 50 or 60 or 100 or 150 years ago.”
Fifth and finally, respect means that as a state that is more powerful than Iran, the United States should make the first move to engage Iran. Such an act of magnanimity would be fully compatible with a core American principle as articulated by Thomas Jefferson in his “special message” to Congress on Jan. 13, 1806: “A nation, by establishing a character of liberality and magnanimity, gains in the friendship and respect of others…”
R. K. Ramazani is Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia.This commentary first appeared in the Daily Progress.