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U.S. Embassy Held Hostage by History

February 24, 2014
Hanif Z Kashani
5 min read
U.S. Embassy Held Hostage by History
U.S. Embassy Held Hostage by History

U.S. Embassy Held Hostage by History

When Ramin Asgard was in graduate and law school, he regularly ran up against issues involving Iran and the United States.  He couldn’t help but feel that “it would be a once in a lifetime chance” to have the opportunity to work on some of these complex and significant problems. Years later, after having worked for the U.S. government in a variety of roles, including as foreign service officer at the State Department, as well as director of Voice of America Persian, he got his chance.

Asgard’s widely anticipated report, “Reestablishing a U.S. Diplomatic Presence in Iran: Advancing U.S. National Security and Serving American Citizens”, was published by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization on February 19th. It marks Asgard’s most significant contribution so far to bridging the 35-year gap between Iran and the United States.

The report suggests that, after relations between the two countries were severed following the 1979 U.S. Embassy hostage crisis, the absence of an American diplomatic presence in Iran “has severely limited its ability to understand and influence events in Iran and the region – thereby damaging its long-term national security interests”. Using the recent history of U.S. diplomacy in other countries, Asgard offers further insight into how diplomatic relations between the two countries might be resumed. American missions to Cuba, Libya, Vietnam, China, and the former USSR are given as theoretical examples.

Asgard explores the risks and obstacles involved in re-establishing such a diplomatic presence, as well as the considerable opposition to it. He comes to the conclusion that an American-staffed U.S. Interests Section in Tehran could only come to fruition if the Iranian government provided “ironclad guarantees” that it would adhere to conventions on diplomatic and consular relations, put an end to the annual commemorations of the November 4th US Embassy takeover – as well as offer compensation for former U.S. hostages and their families. 

The Islamic Republic of Iran has never been fond of pre-conditions set by the U.S. The ongoing P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China, plus Germany) nuclear negotiation process is a barometer of this. Add to that the fact Iran’s leaders constantly warn against the shadow of western influence on Iranian culture and society, as well as on the current administration led by President Hassan Rouhani.

During the second round of nuclear interim deal negotiations last week in Vienna, it was reported that U.S. diplomats discussed the “face-saving measures” necessary to ensure the talks did not reach an impasse. But would the Iranian government accept the provisions set forth in Asgard’s proposal without some type of reciprocal face-saving measures from the U.S.?

In return, Asgard told an audience at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC, where the report was launched, “Iran would receive an upgraded diplomatic status in the U.S.,” which would include the D.C. area and also mean that Iran’s U.N. mission in New York would enjoy fewer limitations too.

Is this the carrot that will entice Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to change what is essentially one of the pillars of the Iran’s revolutionary cries? Only last November Iran’s Revolutionary Guards let it be known that the slogan “Death to America” would remain part of Iranian public life, a statement of Iran’s resistance against US dominance – regardless of any improved relations between Iran and the U.S.

Under the presidency of reformist leader Mohammed Khatami (1997-2005), this type of rhetoric was successfully toned down, though he was unable to abolish it altogether. It’s important to note that the Iranian government is not monolithic, nor are its military branches, and it’s been argued publicly that such anti-U.S. rhetoric is not set in stone. Iran’s leadership has historically proven to be flexible, but the ends must justify the means.

Senior U.S. administration officials have indicated that the topic of reopening diplomatic relations could be discussed, but only if a comprehensive nuclear deal is reached first. While the U.S. administration perceives a direct correlation between nuclear talks and reestablishing diplomatic ties, the Iranian government views the issue in an entirely opposite light.  

Last week, Iran’s speaker of the parliament, Ali Larijani, was asked if the P5+1 negotiations would have an impact on relations with the U.S., and if an embassy would be opened in Iran. Larijani remarked that “these were two different issues”. After being asked to expand on the notion, he said, “The issue between the U.S. and Iran isn’t about an embassy. Our problems with the U.S. aren’t just for entertainment, our problems have deep roots. It is yet to be seen if these [problems] can be resolved, and in order to find a solution, the U.S. must take various measures. The U.S. instilled the Shah, a dictator, and defended him at every turn. The Americans had 60,000 advisers in Iran and pushed him towards capitalism. We got rid of the dictator and the Americans started a feud.” 

As admirable as the idea of opening up a U.S. Interests Section in Tehran is, it is clear that, in determining how this might take shape, the governments of Iran and the U.S. have very different views. This difference of opinion is much more than a logistical matter. Disagreements between the two sides are often emotional and hostile – and in many cases are fuelled by deeply-entrenched habits that have become part of both countries’ established behavior. In addition, each side is equipped with a completely different timeline of animosity: the U.S. views 1979 at the starting point of current tensions, whereas Iran’s resentment dates back to 1952 and the CIA-led Operation Ajax, which deposed Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh.

Thirty-five years after the severing of diplomatic ties, the relationship between the U.S. and Iran is still haunted by ghosts of the past that neither side wants to recognize. Reports and observations from experts like Ramin Asgard illustrate how enormously complex the relationship is and will continue to be. Until both sides can acknowledge the other’s grievances in a historically sensitive manner, hopes for restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries will remain unrealized. 



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