Speaker: Gary Sick, Columbia University

This conversation took place immediately after President Rouhani's speech at the UN, September 24, 2013.


QUESTION: How would you outline the mistakes in policy that the United States and the West have made, going back even to the Mossadeq era, up through the present time, and how might that instruct us in terms of policy going forward?

GARY SICK: I could give a little history lesson here, I think, in terms of all the things that have gone wrong.

Some friends of mine have actually collected all of the examples. The history of U.S.–Iran relations is simply littered with the corpses of missed opportunities. It is on all sides. We have made horrible mistakes. They have made horrible mistakes.

It has always been—I like to compare it to a teeter-totter: when one side is up, the other side is down. So the side that's up says, "I don't need to negotiate," and the other side says, "I don't dare negotiate." And then—boom!—it switches the other way, and the same thing happens, only the positions are reversed.

Getting to a point of equilibrium is really hard. On the very few times that it has ever come to that point, one side or the other missed the boat. We are at a point like that right now.

So what are the things to avoid? My goodness, they are so numerous.

But Iran, for instance, in the early 1980s really was engaged in an attempt to wipe out their enemies. The same way that Mossad went after the Palestinians in Europe, who they went after for revenge, Iran did the same thing after the Revolution, and it went after the people who were involved in that. So they assassinated people in Europe. Very bad idea. It was a horrible period in Iran's history.

But at the same time that was going on, we were supporting Saddam Hussein, who was using chemical weapons at an incredible rate.

One of the things that was interesting about Obama's speech today, talking about history, is he mentioned specifically the 1953 coup and implied that the United States had been involved in that and that that is a grievance that the Iranians have against us.

He also mentioned chemical weapons, and he mentioned examples. For instance, he mentioned the Holocaust, but then in the same breath mentioned the use of chemical weapons against Iran in the Iran–Iraq War. Now, that was a telling point, because Iran lost about 20,000 dead immediately on the battlefield and maybe 100,000 casualties, and those people are still in hospitals in Iran, and they're still dying, and they can't breathe, and it's really, really bad.

Iran knows more about chemical weapons than any other country in the world. Their hospitals are full of people. So anybody who wants to study the effects of chemical weapons, Iran is where they go, because that's where the casualties exist.

I thought the president in talking about those two issues made it very clear that we understand that the past has not been a pretty event.

I would say that President Khatami, when he was the president of Iran, went through the same kind of litany about the hostage crisis and other things. Let's face it, the hostage crisis was the first fully televised foreign policy crisis in history.

This was a crisis that was piped into people's living rooms night after night after night for 444 days. The image was bearded, fanatic Iranians waving their fists and shouting, "Death to America!" That has an effect. That brand, that image that was created by Iran in that period, has persisted to this day and has a tremendous amount to do with our own domestic politics. Nobody likes Iranians. They all fear and hate Iranians, just because of the image that has been created.

It's difficult, because not only does Rouhani have to fight the eight years of catastrophe that were his predecessor's existence—I mean Ahmadinejad was a disaster for everybody, except for the real hard-liners on both sides; they loved him. But other than that he was a disaster. He was a disaster for Iran, he was a disaster for international politics, he was a disaster for the Middle East as a whole. Rouhani was left with that hole that Ahmadinejad had dug, and he's got to work his way out of it.

He is also left with the legacy of things like the hostage crisis and other events, which are not forgotten. They live on even in our genes. They're there. They are part of our body politic. Getting out of that is a tough row to hoe.

DAVID SPEEDIE: The ironic corollary, of course, is that it has been documented that among all the countries of the region, the view of America is much warmer in Iran than certainly any other country there. One commentator actually said "including Israel." Now, whether that's true I'm not quite sure. It's probably true.

GARY SICK: Actually, according to the polls, that's really true

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