Expert emphasizes history in U.S.-Iran relations

A former presidential adviser and expert on the Middle East discussed the reasons behind Iran’s increasingly hostile relations with the United States in 1957 E Street Thursday night.

Geoffrey Kemp, director of Regional Strategic Programs at the Nixon Center, spoke to students about the history of Iranian relations with the U.S. and how this influences current problems. The Elliott School of International Affairs’ Middle East Policy Forum hosted the speech entitled “Dialogue with Iran?” as the second in a four-part series of lectures. The next speech is Thursday with former President Jimmy Carter.

Kemp said the fact that the U.S. has no direct diplomatic relations with Iran is a large part of the problem.

“We should definitely be involved in a dialogue,” Kemp said. “However, we should not harbor any irrational expectations that we can end the longstanding conflict overnight.”

Kemp’s familiarity with the Middle East stems from his experience in the Department of Defense and his time spent as special assistant to the president on national security affairs during the first term of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Diplomatic relations with the third wheel of the “Axis of Evil” will not be easy, Kemp said. Iran’s open support of groups like Hezbollah and Hamas – both considered terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department – as well as Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology make negotiations difficult.

Kemp said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s support throughout the region and his determination for nuclear capability are complicating factors in U.S. thinking about the Iranian state. Ahmadinejad openly calls for the destruction of Israel and recently hosted a conference questioning the existence of the Holocaust.

“The problem is that even though he may not be popular within his own government, he connects with many Shiite Muslims across the Middle East,” he said. “On the other hand, Ahmadinejad may have done more than the West could ever have dreamed of in terms of putting Iran’s nuclear capability at the top of the Bush administrations’ agenda. It led a lot of people to ask the question, ‘Do we really want this man’s hand on the nuclear trigger?'”

Kemp added that the Iraq War is another reason why the United States has not opened up talks with Iran.

“If things had gone well in Iraq, it would be an entirely different story because Iran would be scared of United States intervention,” Kemp said. “This is not the case. Instead we botched things up in Iraq, and we are no longer in a good bargaining position.”

Kemp prefaced his discussion with a historical account of the United States’ tumultuous relationship with Iran. He said the Iran hostage crisis of 1979, U.S. support of Iraq in the 1980s Iran-Iraq war and an active U.S. weapons embargo on Iran are all factors in with relations with that country.

Iran justifies its antagonistic agenda as defensively necessary given this history, Kemp said. State security and economic stability are threatened by this history and American interests.

“The reasons we gave for invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein are the same arguments we are now using against (Iran), and that scares them,” Kemp said.

Kathleen Reilly, director of the Elliott School’s Public Affairs, said Kemp’s speech is important as part of the Middle East Policy Forum. She said the policy forum is a step towards a greater focus on the Middle East, with the Elliott School working on a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies.

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