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Visiting expert sees long road for improving Iran-U.S. relations


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February 25, 2003

In a guest lecture Monday, Feb. 24, Dr. Mark J. Gasiorowski outlined the troubled and often contradictory history of Iran-U.S. relations following Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

U.S. policy toward Iran has been driven by a "cold war image," said Gasiorowski, professor of political science at Louisiana State University and author of "U.S. Foreign Policy and the Shah: Building a Client State in Iran." As a result, he said, U.S. policy makers "have been very much unable to see the changes playing out in Iran," including several gestures of détente by the Iranian government since the early 1990s.

The lecture was part of SFSU's Year of Civil Discourse, a series of events designed to promote civility and free speech on campus regarding complex subjects such as the Middle East. Past events have included a panel discussion about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and a lecture on Hollywood stereotypes of Arabs.

Since the 1979 revolution, Gasiorowski said, U.S. foreign policy toward Iran has gone through 10 distinct phases. It began with cautious diplomacy under the Carter administration. U.S. actions in the first few months after the revolution, including a prescient warning that neighboring Iraq was preparing to invade, were "tragically misunderstood" by Iranian leaders and activists, he said. The diplomacy ended abruptly in November 1979 when Iranian students besieged the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took dozens of U.S. citizens hostage. The hostages were released in January 1981 just minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.

The hostage crisis ushered in more than two decades of tense and ambiguous relations in which the two countries have at times aided each other militarily, but have also engaged in armed skirmishes, said Gasiorowski, who has visited Iran many times, most recently in 2002.

One of the most contradictory episodes was the mid-1980s Iran-Contra affair, when the United States covertly sold missiles to Iran, then in a protracted war with Iraq, and diverted some of the proceeds to support an effort to topple the government of Nicaragua. In return, the Reagan administration expected Iran to use its influence to secure release of U.S. hostages in Lebanon.

But the rub, according to Gasiorowski, was that while U.S. arms were flowing to Iran, the United States continued to lend even heavier military assistance to Iran's opponent, Iraq. That assistance intensified after the Iran-Contra scandal became public, with the United States eventually aiding the Iraqis by taking part in armed clashes with Iran.

Since then, political tensions with Iran have eased and trade has quietly increased, but Gasiorowski faults the U.S. government for not seizing more opportunities to work constructively with Iran. He noted that even though Iranian troops helped U.S. forces during the recent war in Afghanistan -- and might be called on to help in the event of a U.S. war with Iraq -- Iran was branded as part of the "axis of evil" in President Bush's 2001 State of the Union address.

Gasiorowski believes U.S. relations with Iran will not improve overnight. He thinks political constraints on both sides will slow any progress. U.S. leaders, he said, continue to labor under a "distorted image" of Iran which prevents them from forging realistic policies. In Iranian politics, he suggested the ongoing struggle between reformers and conservatives feeds U.S. misgivings and is likely to remain deadlocked until at least 2005, when Iran has its next presidential election.

For more information on SFSU's Year of Civil Discourse, see the schedule of events.

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Last modified February 25, 2003, by the Office of Public Affairs