As President-elect George Bush sits down to lunch with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in early December 1988 to discuss the modalities of Detente II, we wonder what the prospects are for any similar sort of US rapprochement with the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It took 16 years, from 1917 to 1933, for the United States to come to diplomatic terms with the Bolshevik Revolution, and the half-century since then has been marked by periods of deep hostility, none more pronounced than the first half of the Reagan-Bush administration.
The profound animosity between Washington and the revolutionary regime in Tehran after 1979 often seemed a function of the protracted struggle between Washington and Moscow. The national security establishment rarely bothered to distinguish between the challenge to US global influence posed by the Soviet Union and the challenge to US regional domination posed by indigenous but very different revolutionary upheavals in countries like Iran and Nicaragua. Thus the shibboleth of international terrorism was invoked, initially to supplement and more recently to replace the bogey of international communism as the chief threat to “civilized values” as defined in American corridors of power.
This international terrorism, even when portrayed as a construct of the KGB, invariably assumed the complexions and accents of the Middle East, that inchoate netherworld of Muslim zealots whose national identity — Iranian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Libyan — hardly mattered. The Middle East was not the only region where collective rage and desperation produced savage acts of terror that consumed innocents. But it suited the congruent interests of the anti-Soviet cold warriors and the anti-Arab partisans of Israel to impose a version of contemporary world politics that featured an insanely hostile Muslim threat, an enemy incapable of reason and understanding only force. A prominent piece of this composite demon was revolutionary Iran, though military discretion often required other targets be found. When US troops were attacked in Lebanon, officials here blamed Iran but it was Grenada that the Pentagon invaded.
Will the new era of US-Soviet cordiality foster a less truculent US policy towards Iran and in the Middle East? Secretary of State George Shultz's petulant refusal of a visa to Yasser Arafat suggests not. Candidate Bush, while campaigning on the slogan of a “kinder, gentler nation,” loudly ruled out any apology to Iran in July after the USS Vincennes shot an Iranian airliner out of the sky, killing 290 civilians. Bush’s nominee as secretary of state, James Baker, was White House chief of staff when the US-Israeli “strategic relationship” was formalized. In the first days of the Reagan administration, according to Alexander Haig, Baker favored scrapping the agreement with Iran that had led to the release of the embassy hostages.
Some of the circumstances that produced these policies are changing. The presence of the Palestine question on the American political agenda, marked especially by the debate at the Democratic Convention in July and the November victory of the referendum in Cambridge calling for an end to US support for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, indicates that this conspicuous silence is finally being broken. Throughout the Middle East, from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Israel to Algeria, the political ground is shifting. As the contributors to this issue show, Iran is changing too.
On the other hand, two aspects of the present situation suggest that US policy changes may not be in a positive direction. The first is that many US military leaders and strategists see the US naval escalation in the Persian Gulf — at their peak the US warships in the Gulf comprised the sixth largest navy in the world — as a great success and a valuable learning experience for future US military intervention. The second, more serious aspect is the state of disarray and rivalry in the global economy and the likelihood of a recession in the US. A decline in real income and living standards creates a situation in which foreign military adventures can serve to distract popular attention from underlying issues and disrupt political opposition. Was it just a coincidence that on the evening of October 19, 1987, news of the New York stock market crash competed for attention with Pentagon photos of US warships blasting Iranian oil platforms in the Gulf?
When the UN General Assembly voted to condemn Shultz’s denial of a visa to Arafat, only Israel supported Washington’s stand. But we have heard of no protests by any UN member states of the decision by a screening committee of 12 senior UN officials to censor an exhibit of drawings by Palestinian children in the organization’s exhibit hall from November 29 to December 5. The exhibit, 56 drawings and paintings by West Bank and Gaza children aged 4 to 14, was sponsored by Roots and curated by Kamal and Lily Boullata. They submitted the exhibit to the screening committee in July. Two weeks before the opening, the committee insisted that 11 works be deleted, and that all of the children’s titles be expunged. The reason, according to the secretary of the committee, was that the 11 were “offensive in their depiction of a member state or representatives of the member state” and the captions were “inappropriate and not acceptable for display in the public lobby.” The problem, the secretary explained, was that the paintings showed scenes of violence and the captions described those scenes “with precision.” The secretary contends that many exhibits have been modified in the past to avoid offending member states. (In 1983, some member states, principally Arab, objected to affixing any captions to a UN exhibit of Jean Mohr’s photos. These photos, with a wonderfully evocative text by Edward Said, were published as After the Last Sky.)
The children’s exhibit is in London through mid-January. Beginning February 12, 1989, it will be at New York’s Cathedral of Saint John the Divine for about a month and will then tour other cities in the US.