The United States has announced that it is denying the application for a visa of Iran’s proposed ambassador to the United Nations, Hamid Aboutalebi, because he once worked as a translator for the revolutionaries who took over the U.S. Embassy in Teheran in 1979. Once this information about him became known, his posting to the U.N. was declared “not viable” and his person “toxic” as a result of this past. In view of the gridlock that characterizes Washington, D.C., these days, the outrage in the capital was strikingly bipartisan. New York’s liberal Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., joined forces with his usual Tea Party nemesis Ted Cruz, R.-Texas, to torpedo the visa.
This is all exceptionally short-sighted and petty, calculated purely for domestic political consumption. Given the broader shift in American foreign policy away from the Sunni oil monarchies that we have normally supported in the past to our recent breakthrough with Iran, it is also very misguided. For a contrasting approach, consider this: Last week, the Queen of England held a state dinner attended by Martin McGuinness, a former member of the IRA who was second-in-command of that group in Derry during the tragic events of “Bloody Sunday” in 1972. The disturbance, immortalized in an agonized song by U2, epitomized “the Troubles” that persisted for decades in Northern Ireland between the IRA and the British government. Yet McGuinness is now deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. The Irish and the British have decided to put the past behind them in the interest of a peaceful future. The Queen said, “There is nothing more futile than now expressing our regret for our ancestors’ actions that were then regarded as normal.” While that may go too far, it shows that there are situations in which the past must be put to rest in order to make a better future.
The refusal to admit Iran’s U.N. ambassador on the grounds of actions of 35 years ago is counterproductive and will only strengthen the hardliners in Teheran. While much attention has been focused on the “pivot to Asia,” which has been relatively halting, we are actually seeing a “pivot to Shia.” The late-2013 deal with Iran to temporarily halt its drive toward nuclear weapons capabilities heralds a much broader shift in Middle East politics. The deal is huge because it foretells the end of a cold war that has been in progress between the United States and Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Since then, and as a counterweight, the United States has generally supported autocracies in Sunni-majority lands, especially Saudi Arabia, because of its energy needs and ties with Israel. Whatever the Bush administration’s intended aims, the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 acted as a solvent that upended the previous political dynamics in the region. Iran, and Shia forces in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon more broadly, assumed growing political stature. These dynamics in turn strengthened Sunni extremism, because Sunnis tend to regard Shias as heretics.
Yet now Shiites are increasingly the force to be reckoned with in Iran, Iraq and Syria, and the American administration has decided that it can risk alienating Saudi Arabia and Israel in pursuit of a new regional order. Morever, it looks increasingly as though Bashar al-Assad is going to survive the death-struggle in his country and remain in power. The pivot to Shia has some of the earmarks of the strategy of “transformation through rapprochement” (Wandel durch Annäherung) that characterized German foreign policy toward the East in the 1970s and after. That strategy helped soften the hardliners in the Soviet regime; it may work again in the Middle East. We need Iran to help stem the sectarian conflicts in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, which threaten to engulf the region in a massive religious war. Denying admission to its U.N. ambassador is incompatible with our interests in engaging and working with Iran for greater regional stability.
John Torpey is the director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He can be reached at email@example.com.