Following the end of the Second World War, Iran found itself placed in a geostrategic hotspot. It shared a long border to its north with the Soviet Union and as a result acted as a geographical buffer to any Soviet moves into the Middle East. Iran’s wider location, known as the Persian Gulf, was a region that contained the world’s largest-known pool of oil – the steady supply of which was vital for the fuelling of Western-orientated economies. So, a coincidence of time, place, politics and economics judged Iran – in most ways a weak and underdeveloped state – important. When Iran’s king, known as the Shah, found himself side-lined by a powerful left-leaning government, the United States, in league with the British, conspired to restore him to power via a covert coup in 1953. During the Cold War the United States feared that leftward political developments in nations would result in a domestic communist revolution and/or an alliance with the communist Soviet Union. In certain cases, therefore, the United States took interventionist action to contain communism from spreading. The coup was a watermark in US-Iranian history. It set up a pattern of close relations that would last 25 years, as the Shah became a loyal ally of the United States in a volatile region. This volatility was not just due to Cold War geostrategic rivalry between the United States and Soviet Union. The wider region was embroiled in a series of crises caused by decolonisation and the resulting phenomenon of Arab nationalism, regional opposition to the creation of Israel, and a major ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan. Then, as now, this was a highly unstable area of the world to live in.
Iran has always been a nation that, despite different manifestations of its internal shape and character, has aspired to greater stature internationally, or at the very least regional predominance. For example, the Shah, whose autocratic rule was brought to an end by the 1979 revolution that erased his regime and created the Islamic Republic of Iran, harboured grand designs for Iran as the premier nation of the Middle East. This vision was shared by the United States, which armed Iran with advanced weaponry, of the non-nuclear kind, during the Shah’s rule. The United States hoped its support of the Shah would allow him to widen and deepen Iranian power in order to help stabilise the region. Iran today is not much different to the Shah’s Iran in the sense that it exists within the same borders and is a nation of the same peoples. However, a significant caveat is that the regional and global role Iran was to play under the Shah was largely in line with American desires, while the role envisioned by the Islamic Republic of Iran is deeply antagonistic to just about every facet of American politics. Hence, US-Iran relations are packed with insight and intrigue due to the history and divergent paths both nations have experienced.
The Iran hostage crisis
To connect our US-Iran case study to the issue of diplomacy, we do not need to look far beyond the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran to an episode known as the Iran hostage crisis. In November 1979 a gang of Iranian students invaded the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran’s capital city, and captured the personnel they found there. This occurred after the Shah, who was in exile, had taken residence in New York for cancer treatment. The protesters demanded his return to stand trial for various crimes committed by his regime, such as torturing political dissidents. So the prisoners, most of them US diplomatic personnel, were taken hostage as a bargaining chip, their freedom offered in exchange for the return of the Shah. The United States and Iran found themselves in uncharted waters when Iran’s new government, led by the once-exiled anti-Shah cleric Ruhollah Khomeini, officially sanctioned the hostage-taking.
Due to established diplomatic customs, an embassy – although hosted on foreign soil – is forbidden from being entered by the host state unless permission is given. So, when the Iranian protesters invaded the US Embassy in Tehran they violated a key feature of diplomacy developed over centuries to allow diplomats the freedom to do their work. This is why, to use a more contemporary example, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was able to avoid arrest by British police by taking up residence in an innocuous-looking terraced house in London – the house is the Embassy of Ecuador and police were refused entry. Strange as it may sound, police officers were then stationed outside the door waiting to arrest Assange should he decide to leave – an operation that has cost the British taxpayer millions of pounds. It is evident from the Assange example how highly such diplomatic customs are regarded by nations and how little this changes over time – even when those nations are in conflict.
In Iran’s case, its disregard for established diplomatic principles was both shocking and extreme. Not only did it violate established diplomatic principles, but hostage-taking by a state is defined as a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. Predictably, the United States rejected Iran’s demands and the hostage crisis became a tense diplomatic stand-off lasting 444 days. It turned Iran into an international pariah: there was worldwide outrage at its disregard not only for the rules of the international system but also for human decency as it paraded the hostages – bound and gagged – in front of news cameras. It also marked a new anti-Western political path for Iran, one in stark opposition to its pro-US stance during the time of the Shah. Despite the eventual freeing of the hostages in January 1981, the once-friendly nations had become foes. Following the crisis, all direct diplomatic links between the United States and Iran were severed until an issue of nuclear proliferation brought them to the same table over thirty years later.
The idea of Iran possessing nuclear weapons is understandably controversial. Iran’s known disregard for international laws and customs, as evidenced by the hostage crisis and reinforced by the regular accusation that it supports terrorist and radical groups, creates an atmosphere of mistrust in the international community. News of Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been a point of major international diplomatic focus since 2002, when news leaked out that Iran had begun the development of a modern nuclear programme that showed signs of weaponisation (see Sinha and Beachy 2015 and Patrikarakos 2012). This was in spite of the fact that Iran is a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and therefore bound to neither receive nor develop nuclear arms. Iran protested that its programme was for civilian and peaceful purposes only. However, due to Iran’s international profile, few believed this. Given that the United States had just declared its ‘Global War on Terrorism’ following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it was a tense period.
In 2002 the United States had no appetite for diplomacy with Iran over the nuclear issue. The US had already invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 and was preparing to invade Iraq in early 2003 as part of its campaign to rid the Middle East of regimes which might provide safe harbour to transnational terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda – the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. The United States also had a larger goal: to secure regime change in Iran, which it considered the world’s leading state-sponsor of terrorism. Seen through that logic, a war on terror was meaningless if it did not target the world’s chief terrorist. This would be done by demonstrating the might of the United States through its invasion of Iran’s neighbours – note that Afghanistan borders Iran to the east and Iraq borders Iran to the west. This would then create internal pressure on Iran’s leadership to reform of its own accord; it might even incite another revolution. If that failed, the United States was prepared to engage with Iran in some fashion in order to destroy its nuclear research facilities and possibly engineer regime change via military means, as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is best encapsulated by president George W. Bush’s oftrepeated phrase that ‘all options are on the table’ regarding dealing with Iran – outlined in more complete terms by the following passage from an official government document:
The Iranian regime sponsors terrorism; threatens Israel; seeks to thwart Middle East peace; disrupts democracy in Iraq; and denies the aspirations of its people for freedom. The nuclear issue and our other concerns can ultimately be resolved only if the Iranian regime makes the strategic decision to change these policies, open up its political system, and afford freedom to its people. This is the ultimate goal of U.S. policy. In the interim, we will continue to take all necessary measures to protect our national and economic security against the adverse effects of their bad conduct. (The National Security Strategy of the United States of America 2006, 20)
In that climate, diplomacy seemed a non-starter. However, an unlikely candidate entered the fray – the European Union (EU). In 2003, three EU nations, the UK, Germany and France, initiated high-level diplomacy with Iran in an attempt to prevent a war and introduce mediation to the situation. The talks were rejected by the United States, which refused to take part, given its above-mentioned objectives. For the European nations, diplomacy was worth pursuing. Despite the UK, France and Germany being traditional allies of the United States, there was no appetite in Europe for more war in the Middle East. The war in Iraq was controversial, as many – including the United Nations, which refused to mandate the war – did not accept its rationale. The 2003 invasion of Iraq also divided Europe politically and caused mass popular protests. In this context, engaging Iran was a bold move of diplomacy – effectively stepping in the way of the world’s sole superpower when it was at its most belligerent. The talks were initially inconclusive, but they at least succeeded in engaging Iran in diplomacy, stalling its nuclear programme and offering a path to resolution other than confrontation.
In the years that followed invasion, military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan became deeply troubled as both nations (for different reasons) descended into instability. This required a longer-term, and more substantial, military presence by the United States than had been planned. As a result, the US became bogged down and was not in a position to realistically pursue a military strategy against Iran. Thus, it joined the EU-Iran talks, albeit reluctantly, in 2006. China and Russia also joined, making it a truly international diplomatic affair. It took almost a decade, but the parties finally reached agreement in July 2015. That agreement is a marvel of diplomacy. What were once mutually opposing positions characterised by decades of mistrust between the United States and Iran were painstakingly worked on by diplomats at all levels over many rounds of diplomacy until compromises acceptable to both sides were found.
Personal relationships between the diplomats were also built during the years of the negotiations, and these helped transcend state rivalries. Wendy Sherman, the US lead negotiator, recalled how she and her Iranian counterpart, Abbas Araghchi, both became grandparents during their negotiations and shared videos of their grandchildren with each other. Personal relationships like this do not dissolve or change pre-set national interests on either side, but they were instrumental in both sides developing the resolve to work tirelessly and not give up until they were able to agree on key parameters. Similar personal relations were developed between officials at the highest level when they spent 17 days locked in intense discussions in Vienna during the concluding phase of the negotiations. Sherman later described the scene on the final day, with all the diplomatic personnel gathered together, as US Secretary of State John Kerry addressed the parties:
Secretary Kerry was the last person to speak. He recounted that when he was 21 he went off to war in Vietnam. He made a commitment that he would do whatever he could in his life to make sure that there was never war, ever again. The room was absolutely still. There was quiet. And then everyone, including the Iranians, applauded. Because, I think for all of us we understood that what we had done was to try to ensure peace, not war. (Sherman 2016)
Much like the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the key to the success of the diplomatic strategy underlining the agreement was to focus on verification rather than the seemingly impossible goal of establishing trust. The diplomats laboured in the one area where a resolution was possible and found a way to make it acceptable for both sides. For Iran this overtly involved the phased removal of punitive economic sanctions that had been sponsored by the United States and also the tacit removal of any direct military threat. For the Americans, the deal placed Iran under a strict regime of verification to ensure that it cannot easily develop nuclear weapons, and if they appeared to be doing so there would be time for the international community to react before those weapons became useable. This is known as a ‘breakout’ period (see Broad and Peçanha 2015). Such a thing is only possible via an unprecedented system of strict international inspection of Iran’s facilities, which Iran agreed to.
The resolution of the US-Iran nuclear standoff would not have been possible without the bold move of three European Union nations to start a diplomatic process during the tense year of 2003. Not only was a serious confrontation between Iran and the United States avoided, but the important nonproliferation principle that has become central to international relations was upheld by securing Iran’s commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Iran nuclear deal, although a clear example of a diplomatic success in the face of tall odds, is contentious and fragile. It will need to weather multiple political shifts in the United States and Iran that might unseat it in years to come – and it does not remove the enmity between the states, which continue to mistrust each other. However, it may be seen in retrospect as the opening act on a path of rapprochement between the two nations that may gradually replace the toxic pattern of relations begun in 1979 with the hostage crisis. Even if the United States and Iran resume a path of confrontation, it does not take away from the triumph of diplomacy in this case, with nuclear weapons in the Middle East prevented from proliferating during a critical period and an alternative offered to what might have been a major war.