Iran & America

An interview with John Ghazvinian
John Ghazvinian (Helena Raju)

John Ghazvinian is the executive director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He is an author, historian, and former journalist, specializing in the history of U.S.-Iran relations. Ghazvinian spoke with assistant editor Regina Munch about his new book, America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. You can listen to the full interview here:

Regina Munch: Accounts of the history of American-Iranian relations often start with the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. Where does your account start?

John Ghazvinian: That’s where most popular memory in the United States begins. If you’re more favorable to the United States, you tend to start in 1979 with that original sin, if you will: the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by radicalized students in the midst of the Iranian Revolution. If you’re more critical of U.S. foreign policy, you tend to begin in 1953, when the CIA overthrew the popular prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh.

I think the problem is that this focuses too much on blame and victimhood, and that’s not a good use of history—trying to figure out who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. I was trying to get us away from that, which is why I wrote the book. I start in the 1720s, with the very first newspaper accounts of Persia, as it was known then, in colonial American newspapers in Boston and Philadelphia.

RM: Can you tell me about the first encounters between Persians and Americans? It almost sounds like a comedy of errors and misunderstandings.

JG: That’s a fair way to describe it. It is a history filled with missed opportunities, misunderstandings, and bad timing. The first actual contact between Iranians and Americans was probably rum traders in the early nineteenth century, but the first documented contact is a guy by the name of Joel Roberts Poinsett, whom we named the poinsettia flower after. He was a South Carolina gentleman who in his travels met with villagers in a small town named Kuban, and he writes about how confused they were by the mere existence of Americans. They had heard of the czar and Napoleon. They had heard of France and Great Britain and Russia, but when it came to the New World, they believed in it, Poinsett said, with the “scanty faith” of someone listening to an Arabian tale. It was a fantasy land.

The other thing I love about that anecdote is that they kept asking him, “But who is your king?” He said that the United States had just had a revolution, and he tried to explain constitutional government and republicanism. That didn’t make a lot of sense to most people in 1805, and eventually he gave up. Poinsett later said there was a guy sitting in the corner who was writing down everything he said, and that somewhere in the annals of this small town, the name “Thomas Jefferson” is inscribed as the Shah of America.

RM: I also liked the story about the two ambassadors who first visited each other’s countries.

JG: That’s an amazing story. The first U.S. minister to Iran was Samuel Benjamin, who went to Iran in 1883. He was received in the north and as he made his way down toward Tehran, he was escorted by a thousand liveried horseman for a hundred miles and had a grand ceremonial entering of Tehran, where twenty ceremonial cannons were fired off in honor of the United States. The news of his arrival took up three out of the four pages of the official newspaper. It was a real moment of history for the Iranians.

By contrast, when the first Iranian ambassador Hossein Qoli Khan Nuri went to the United States in 1888, he was received at the 22nd Street Pier in Manhattan by a junior official from the State Department who helped him check into a hotel for the night.

Iran became very interested in the United States starting in the 1850s, hoping it would be a third force to balance out British and Russian imperialism.

RM: Some listeners might be surprised to learn that over and over Iran looked to the United States to help it combat the more forceful European colonial powers. How did the United States get involved in Iran’s affairs?

JG: Iran became very interested in the United States starting in the 1850s, hoping it would be a third force to balance out British and Russian imperialism. The very first disagreement that Iran and the United States ever had was in the 1850s while they were negotiating their first treaty of friendship and commerce. The Iranian government wanted to purchase American warships and fly the Stars and Stripes from Iranian shipping vessels in the Persian Gulf to send a warning to the British empire. The United States responded by saying “No way, that’s none of our business.” That’s the first disagreement they ever had, and it’s extraordinary from where we sit today.

RM: You structure your book by seasons. There’s a wonderful spring of these two cultures discovering each other—not always getting along, but generally admiring each other—and now we’re in a kind of winter. What was the summer like?

JG: The summer is the early part of the twentieth century, which is the closest we’ve ever come to a golden age of U.S.-Iran relations. Both countries began to explore more meaningful ties. The United States rapidly became Iran’s third largest trading partner by the 1930s, exporting automobiles, sewing machines, and other machinery, and importing things like carpets and dates. American archeologists became very deeply involved in digging up Iran’s antiquities.

What these two countries saw of each other, they generally really liked. The Iranians saw in the United States a country that was the rapidly rising power of its day. They also saw it as an anti-imperial power, one that seemed to empathize with the struggles of smaller, weaker countries, and one that, most importantly, didn’t seem to have any designs on manipulating Iranian politics.

On the other side, the American public found itself really enamored by this country that had a constitutional revolution in 1906 and was trying to free itself from the yoke of Russian and British interference. It also had an ancient civilization that they admired. It’s a little bit of a love fest.

RM: That didn’t last too long. How do Americans underestimate the role that the 1953 coup plays in Iranians’ mindset today?

JG: It’s easy to play the blame game: the CIA came in and helped overthrow a very popular prime minister. So there are two ways I would answer that question. One is by looking at what came before. It’s amazing to me just how strong and warm the feeling of admiration for the United States was among Iranians right up until the end. Mosaddegh himself, just three weeks before he was overthrown, was writing a letter to Eisenhower appealing for help against the British, instinctively feeling that the United States would understand Iran’s plight. In fact, Eisenhower had already given his go-ahead for the coup.

When news reached Tehran that Samuel Jordan, a Presbyterian schoolmaster from Pennsylvania who had run the al-Gorz school in Tehran for forty years, had died, the city of Tehran came to a standstill to mourn him. That is how strong and positive the reputation of the United States was in Iran.

The other way I would answer the question is by looking at everything that happened since. Gradually, the shah’s government drifted toward autocracy over the course of the 1960s and 1970s. In many cases, American administrations tried to steer him away from that course. There were three basic nodes of opposition to the shah’s regime: the Left communists, the liberals in the middle, and the religious traditionalists. All three had run out of patience for the shah’s regime and also had reasons to be angry with the United States. The people in the middle, the liberal nationalists, should have been pro-American, but they couldn’t be anymore because they had lost their credibility with the 1953 coup. They had played by the rules—created political parties and newspapers and petitions—and their leader Mosaddegh had really believed in Western constitutional concepts. But Mosaddegh had been overthrown by the world’s greatest democracy. It was very difficult for that generation to say, “No, let’s sign a petition, let’s start a newspaper.” The feeling was, “Listen, grandpa, your generation did all that. And then what do they do to you?” That was the mood in Iran.

RM: You talk in the book about the ceremony in 1971 that the shah threw at Persepolis for the 2,500th anniversary of the Persian empire.

JG: That’s often seen as a turning point in the shah’s megalomania. The shah was trying to play down the role of Islam in Iranian society, instead celebrating the pre-Islamic history of the Persian empire. That would have been fine in a very different context: one where there wasn’t massive, rampant corruption, where people weren’t being tortured in large numbers by secret police, where there wasn’t a large, seething underclass of people who felt they had no opportunities, and when there wasn’t a religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, who was critical of the shah and these lavish ceremonies around Persepolis. The shah spent God-knows-how-much money on this celebration of 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy.

It’s a manufactured crisis. And I think it would just go away in a very different kind of atmosphere.

RM: In April, Israel apparently sabotaged an Iranian nuclear facility. What explains the stalemate with Iran over its nuclear program?

JG: The stalemate actually has nothing to do with the nuclear issue. I feel very strongly about this. In an atmosphere of trust and positivity, this is an easy disagreement to resolve. Iran’s nuclear file is not that different from that of dozens of other countries. The overwhelming evidence actually shows us that Iran has had no real interest in pursuing nuclear weapons. U.S. intelligence agencies say again and again they are not interested.

The problem is that no one trusts them, and there are some good reasons for that. But this issue would disappear tomorrow if Iran had friendly relations with the United States and Europe. The United States has enjoyed relations with a lot of countries that have similar nuclear plants; as long as there is no trust or goodwill between Iran and the United States, the nuclear issue simply cannot be resolved.

This has become such a self-perpetuating disagreement that I think in many cases it has encouraged Iran to begin increasing its enrichment to build up leverage for negotiations. They’ve discovered for better or for worse that this is the one thing that gets the attention of the United States and world powers.

I think this is an easily avoidable conflict. It’s a manufactured crisis. And I think it would just go away in a very different kind of atmosphere.

RM: What kind of missed opportunities were there over the last few decades?

JG: Neither country has been innocent of missing opportunities. I would say broadly that during the 1980s, Iran tended to miss more opportunities because it was high on its own revolutionary rhetoric. The Reagan administration made some ham-fisted and poorly executed, though well-intentioned, attempts to improve relations with Iran. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States missed more opportunities; Iran has become more pragmatic and less fanatical. I say this with full recognition of the fact that it continues to sponsor proxy militias throughout the region. But I think those are largely a defensive posture, an insurance policy against getting bombed by the United States or Israel. Iran has shown itself many times to be willing to reconsider some of those relationships, but what the country needs is recognition, respect, and the security guarantees of the kind only the United States can give. We forget that at least until recently, Iran was surrounded by hundreds of thousands of American troops and bases. It has a few proxy militias, and that’s it; it is a highly isolated country. Its economy is completely strangulated. The reality is that as long as that’s the case, Iran is not going to feel comfortable abandoning any of the activities that the United States sees as problematic.

RM: What are policies you hope the Biden administration could pursue over the next few years?

JG: I hope they would quickly find a way to return to the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. It really is incumbent on the United States to return to it after we walked away. It could be a starting point for a more constructive dialogue with Iran. I think there were too many entrenched interests, both in the United States and in Iran and elsewhere in the region, that simply do not want to see the relationship improve. That’s exactly what Barack Obama hoped for in 2009, but the Israelis dragged out the whole process. Maybe under Biden it will be different, but I’m not very hopeful.

RM: To write the book, you visited Iran and used both Iranian and American archives. What did you learn there that you couldn’t have learned otherwise?

JG: It was really important to me that I go to Iran. Typically, books on this subject have been written mostly with U.S. archives or mostly with Iranian archives. It’s unfortunate because it replicates some of those narratives that we want to get away from.

I was also trying to broaden what we mean by the word “archive”—more than a place where you go to look at documents. I wanted to look at the afterlives of the U.S. presence in Iran. I wanted to go to places like the American Presbyterian cemetery. It’s on a hilltop in the middle of northwest Iran at the end of a boulder-strewn track grown over with vegetation. Fifty or so American Presbyterian missionaries have been buried there for 170 years. I wanted to visit the schools that American missionaries established and look at the old American embassy. You can still see the old U.S. army barracks near the University of Tehran. Now they’re dormitories for the university, but they were built in the 1940s by the American military. All these things are part of the fabric of U.S.-Iran relations. Lingering signs of this U.S. presence are still there, if we know how to look for them.

RM: You wrote that “history can be a force for peace.” What possibilities do you see for peace in the region?

JG: Nothing anytime soon, but I do believe that better relations between the United States and Iran would have a real ripple effect across the region. I don’t think there’s a single problem that the United States is dealing with in the Middle East today that could not benefit from a better relationship with Iran—the Arab-Israeli conflict, Yemen, Syria, Iraq. There are places where this relationship would lower the temperature.

It’s a sort of unspoken cold war. Enough is enough; there’s no reason why it cannot be unraveled. It would benefit the region, but I think it would benefit both countries. Iran is a country of 80 million people with incredible potential economically, culturally, and otherwise for the United States, and that’s the reason it was once a major pillar of U.S. policy.

Published in the June 2021 issue: 

Regina Munch is an assistant editor at Commonweal.

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