Time to Rethink Iran?
Chatham House: Transcript Speech by journalist Jon Snow 21 June, 2012
The Lord Garden Memorial Lectures are given annually by the Liberal International British Group to commemorate Tim Garden, a former Director of Chatham House. On 21 June, the fifth lecture of the series was given in which Jon Snow was invited to speak about Iran.
In his lecture, Snow’s essential argument is that “we could not have constructed a worse relationship with another country than we’ve managed with Iran”. He defends this statement by listing multiple examples of how the West, and Britain, went terribly wrong in their diplomatic endeavours and worsened the situation; despite the long history Britain has had with Iran and Iran’s status as a formidable regional power.
Snow suggests it has been all too easy to say that Iran’s leaders are mad, that the Supreme Leader is a difficult man, that the leadership is divided, that they are corrupt and that they are messianic. He places these notions within the context of Iran having not invaded another country in 300 years and that it has not bombed London or New York, or anywhere else. Overall, Snow believes Britain is currently in a ridiculous position, in which the British can ally with certain places in the Middle East that commit acts they knowingly disagree with but then be virtually at war with Iran—a country with a history of positive diplomatic relations with Britain before the decision after the Iranian revolution to follow America into its slipstream of distrust.
Snow notes that a lot of the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the mess we are in today can be explained by Iran’s recent history. Starting with the Iranian Revolution and what happened in its aftermath. Snow’s personal experiences within Iran reveal a lot, especially regarding the strategic losses that the US incurred in the eighties which explains current US attitudes.
Firstly, the revolution meant the loss of the most important listening post for Soviet atomic testing that allowed the US to know every minute detail about how much nuclear material had been detonated. Placing this in the context of the Cold War one can truly start to understand why America became so sour so quickly. Furthermore, Iran had become a “kind of bunkering base for the world powers”—with billions of dollars of weapons and military material sitting at its airport in Mehrabad it had become a client state to the West. Then enter the phase of the Iranian hostage crisis – where 52 Americans were held hostage for 422 days – which was, to say the least, simply humiliating, including its failed rescue mission, operation Eagle Claw. This was the icing on the cake for the US, scarring the nations mind of Iran.
Snow notes that at the time of these events one could still talk to the students and even several days after it had happened the press, people, and even politicians could talk to key Iranian officials, like the Foreign Minister a figurehead for the Iranians. Snow comments that it was even possible for America to strike a deal, but America would not talk. Overall, nobody would go to Iran and that is what Snow sees as a huge error on the part of the US but even more so for Britain. He notes that this has led to a “terrible stand-off” that has continues, and even since then very few top officials have visited. The pinnacle of this problem now, he proposes, is esteem. Iran, despite its long rich culture, history and depth feels like it has been denied a certain level of respect. As a result, it feels rejected by the West and almost follows policies that will nuisance the West for that very reason.
This is what is interesting about Snow’s ideas; having had first-hand experience on the ground he can say, with a relative degree of accuracy, what was actually happening and what was actually relevant at the time in respect to Iran. In comparison to a top down or overly intellectual analysis, it gives an entirely new perspective. As he suggests: don’t conflate the people with the leadership that is in shambles. What he urges is for engagement, something that has been lacking from the get go. “The great Satan”, he says, meaning the US, is the one that needs to extend the open hand of friendship and only then will things begin to change, but this change needs to be removed from the nuclear issue – the question of whether Iran is building nuclear weapons or not – as that will never create a solid relationship. The relationship needs to start from an acceptance of the bottom and work up, start with the culture and people and then trade and so forth. Furthermore, the sanctions, he suggests, are putting innocent people in the cross fire and diminishing the manufacturing relationship and trade relationships that do exist – especially when considering the actual effectiveness of sanctions in the first place.
Snow concludes his lecture by noting “we need Iran for our presence in Afghanistan, for our residue in Iraq, for our need in Syria, for the Middle East. There is no solution to anything in that region without Iran”. This is why we must engage.