While visiting the desert city of Yazd during my most recent trip to Iran, a young female physician confronted me in the living room of her family home. The intense, chadored Iranian sharply demanded my answers to four questions: Why did the US oppose the Iranian revolution? Why did the US support Saddam Hussein in his invasion and war against Iran? Why did the United States shoot down the civilian Iranian airbus on July 3, 1988, killing 290 innocent men, women and children? And why did the US lie about this massacre and then proceed to award the captain and the chief weapons officer of the warship medals of commendation?

Shortly after this interrogation in Yazd, a distinguished senior American diplomat asked me quite a different set of questions at a conference in Washington, DC: Why did Iran have such a deplorable human rights record? Why was Iran sponsoring terrorism in Lebanon and Europe? Why was Iran building up an offensive military arsenal and seeking weapons of mass destruction? And why did Iran insist on opposing the Middle East peace process?

Both sets of questions are legitimate; both encapsulate the issues that plague US-Iranian relations. Twenty years after the Islamic Revolution, Iran and the US continue to criticize and condemn one another. Time has healed very few wounds. Each side is saturated with myths and misconceptions about the other. Many Iranian officials continue to view the US as a satanic imperialistic bully determined to destroy Iran’s revolution, cripple Iran economically and transform the oil-rich Persian Gulf into an American lake. Yet despite their hostility toward US policy, and although hundreds of Iranians have been killed by US military action in the Gulf while less than a handful of Americans have died at the hands of Iran, the masses of Iranian people still hold warm feelings toward individual American citizens.

The American public has not been so forgiving. The humiliating 444-day hostage crisis remains imprinted on the American psyche despite the passage of nearly two decades. With the partial exception of Iraq, public opinion surveys consistently reveal that Americans consider Iran to be the least popular country in the world. Anti-Iran feelings are nourished by propaganda disseminated by various groups with political axes to grind, such as the militant and anti-democratic Mojahedin-e Khalq (and its front, the National Council of Resistance of Iran), an Iranian opposition group that has collaborated for years with Saddam Hussein, and a number of pro-Israel lobbies that seek to promote their own agendas by exaggerating the Iranian threat. Meanwhile, distorted and simplistic mass media representations, such as the widely distributed Hollywood film Not Without My Daughter, question the very civility and humanity of Iranians. Given Iran’s overwhelmingly negative image in the US, American congressional leaders have little incentive to consider a serious dialogue with the Islamic Republic. Attempts to mend US-Iran relations would win few votes at election time.

The executive branch of the US government in general and the Department of State in particular enjoy more flexibility in foreign policy formulation than does the legislative branch. Nonetheless, recent presidents and secretaries of state have adopted a kneejerk, unimaginative and hard-line policy toward Iran. Some officials, such as former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, have had a personal, visceral dislike of Iran. In general, however, recent US policy towards Iran has reflected a new post-Cold War approach.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US emerged as the unrivaled global hegemon. By analyzing US-Iranian relations, we gain a better understanding of the broader dimensions of US foreign policy. And by explaining the broader dimensions of US foreign policy, we can place the Iranian case in proper perspective.

Global and Regional Hegemons

A hegemon is any nation state exercising a disproportionate amount of power in its particular global or regional context. The last two decades of this century have witnessed the rise of the US as the unrivaled global hegemon. These 20 years have also coincided with the existence of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Several hypotheses are worth considering before undertaking an analysis of US-Iranian relations. First, the US, the sole global hegemon, has consistently sought to prevent the rise of regional hegemons. Secondly, the global hegemon particularly seeks to weaken and control regional hegemons who pursue fully independent foreign policies. Cases in point include North Korea, China, India and North Vietnam in Asia, and Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria in the Middle East. Thirdly, the global hegemon exerts pressure on regional actors who lack the power to be hegemons but who nonetheless pursue independent foreign policies. Examples include Cuba, Nicaragua and Sudan.

The fourth hypothesis postulates that the global hegemon particularly seeks to control local hegemons in regions replete with natural resources vital to superpower interests. Outstanding examples of this category include Iran, Iraq and Libya. These three countries together possess more than 250 billion barrels of proven petroleum reserves. Iran, for example, is the major land bridge connecting the Persian Gulf with the oil-rich Caspian basin. Furthermore, Iran boasts the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas.

The fifth hypothesis states that, when the global hegemon successfully alters the independent behavior of a particular regional hegemon, the global superpower will moderate its antagonistic behavior toward that regional power. Conversely, Iraq, which has defiantly resisted the demands of the US, has felt the full wrath of the global hegemon. Fueled by the fire of its revolution and alienated by continuing US pressure, the Islamic Republic of Iran has also refused to abide by US demands — no matter how reasonable such demands may appear to outside observers. In the Iranian view, the very fact that the US makes “demands” defines the essence of the problem. Iraq and Iran’s refusal to submit to US pressure helps explain America’s otherwise puzzling and counter-productive “dual containment policy.”

The sixth and final hypothesis holds that the global hegemon seeks to create regional hegemons that will act as compliant allies and clients. In the Middle East, such clients include the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco. Israel, of course, represents a sui generis case because of its special relationship with the US. In Latin America, Argentina, Chile and, to a lesser extent, Mexico have followed the US economic and political lead.

Why Hegemony?

Hegemons seek to expand their power and to promote their ways of life across the globe. Clashes of power among hegemonic actors are most intense where gaps in worldview are the greatest. As global hegemon, the US considers itself protector of the international status quo. More specifically, it has emphasized expanding capital, economic growth, technological priorities and political efficiency — all introduced from the top. This policy alienates independent regional hegemons such as China, Cuba and Iran, all of which propound revolutionary ideologies based on equity and justice, values that remain important ideals, if not realities, in their respective systems. The US has resorted to blunt policy instruments such as economic embargoes and military threats in seeking to change the ideological perspectives and power positions of these regional hegemons. Yet, such hard-line policies have only stiffened the regional hegemons’ resolve to resist US pressure.

It now seems apparent that, in pursuing its own free-wheeling policy, the global hegemon may have overreached itself and may have even alienated its own allies. Samuel Huntington, a most unlikely source, warns in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs that the US is not only a lonely superpower, but is becoming a “rogue superpower.” More and more countries, especially those in the Third World, view the United States as “intrusive, interventionist, exploitative, unilateralist, hegemonic, hypocritical and applying double standards, engaging in what they label ‘financial imperialism’ and ‘intellectual colonialism.’” [1]

Viewed from the perspective of hegemon theory, Iran assumes a special importance to the United States. Its independent nature, born of the 1979 revolution and the trying years of the Iran-Iraq war, clashes with America’s existence as global hegemon. Iran’s fierce independence has particularly annoyed the global hegemon because of the Islamic Republic’s geostrategic significance as well as its refusal to compromise its national sovereignty and dignity in any way. The US has even developed a new terminology to describe those states that stubbornly refuse to abide by its dictates. Such countries are referred to as “rogue” or “renegade” states.

The Future of US-Iranian Relations

The antagonistic relationship between Iran and the US has yielded few benefits to either party. The global hegemon’s policymakers have gradually come to realize that US power is not boundless. The confrontation with Iraq has amply demonstrated the limits of US military power. Despite billions of dollars and the most sophisticated military weapons in history, the US has not been able to alter Saddam Hussein’s behavior. Over the last decade, the US has unleashed more than 700 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a cost of nearly $1 billion against Iraq and targets in Sudan and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein, who has already outlasted five US presidents, survives. Delicate social and political problems cannot be bombed or “missiled” out of existence.

These hard political and military realities are slowly seeping into the consciousness of US foreign policymakers. Experts in the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce are thus increasingly more sensitive to the need to mend relations with Iran than are leaders in the White House and Congress. In 1998-1999, the State Department began to soften its rhetoric concerning the Islamic Republic. On April 12, 1999, President Clinton himself surprised many observers when he stated that, “I think it is important to recognize that Iran, because of its enormous geopolitical importance, over time has been the subject of quite a lot of abuse from various Western nations.” Although few would deny Iran’s abysmal human rights record, political confrontation, economic embargoes, diplomatic condemnation and military posturing offer little hope of changing Iranian behavior.

In Iran itself, more and more voices are calling for a dialogue with the US. The surprising victory of Mohammad Khatami, elected president in May 1997, provided an unexpected opportunity for a US-Iranian rapprochement. Khatami and his colleagues, however, have yet to hem in the fringes of fanaticism and militancy that still threaten Iran’s push for dialogue and democratization. The violence in the streets in July 1999 reflected Khatami’s failure to neutralize the extremists who, sensing their increasing vulnerability, used the student riots as a means to assert themselves. Khatami found himself in a crushing double bind and, at various times, threw his support behind both the students and the extremist groups. In this delicate and explosive situation, the US must maintain a low-profile position. Hostile economic acts and threatening rhetoric from Washington will only lengthen the tenure of those extremist forces whose death rattle had begun to be heard.

The US-Iran detente is inevitable. When this detente comes, it will require the global hegemon to communicate diplomatically with the regional hegemon as a sovereign, independent member of the community of nations and not as a client state. For its part, the regional hegemon, Iran, will have to rein in its revolutionary rhetoric and its extremist activities at home and abroad. Both the US and Iran will need to anchor their foreign policies upon more than military might. They must also improve their understanding of one another while at the same time developing credible moral muscle. In a compelling critique of US foreign policy and a discussion of “American exceptionalism,” George W. Ball has stated: “There is little exceptional about military strength or economic weight; other nations have also gone far in that direction. What is truly exceptional is moral leadership, which means a firm adherence to principles and the rejection of certain arrogant practices that have now become almost automatic in our political life.” On the eve of the twenty-first century, both the US and Iran, global and regional hegemons, would do well to heed this wise advice.


[1] Samuel P. Huntington, “The Lonely Superpower,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 1999), p. 3549.

How to cite this article:

James A. Bill "Iran and the United States," Middle East Report 212 (Fall 1999).

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