Ten years after the Iranian revolution, the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran continue to speak past one another as they stumble across the world stage in a clumsy, acrimonious political duet. Formerly close friends, these two important nation-states remain frozen in a state of mutual misunderstanding and deep distrust. Although the new administration of George Bush has sought to inject a modicum of good sense and careful low-key diplomacy into a relationship poisoned by the eight years of crude jingoism of Ronald Reagan and the defensive paranoia of Ayatollah Khomeini, the road back to correct relations will be long and rocky.
Both sides must share the responsibility for this sad state of affairs. The July 3 American shootdown of the Iranian civilian airliner and Ayatollah Khomeini's recent death warrant pronounced on author Salman Rushdie after the latter's pornographic and racist attack on Islam are dramatic examples of the continuing nature of the confrontation.
The current situation cannot be understood, however, without analyzing the complex roots of the problem. Amir Taheri's "Nest of Spies" represents the most recent attempt to uncover the reasons for the rupture of relations. Beginning with a chapter entitled "Beautiful Americans," which discusses the positive U.S. pressure in Iran after the turn of the century, Taheri traces the history of Iran-American relations through the following eight decades.
By Chapter 5, which the author entitles "Ugly Americans," the author has described in considerable detail the unpleasant transformation of the relationship. The rest of the book focuses largely on post-revolutionary Iran with special emphasis upon the seamy episode known as Irangate.
Although "Nest of Spies" sometimes tilts to sensationalism, places far too much reliance upon personal interviews with actors carrying axes and grinding stones, and at times makes embarrassing factual and documentational errors, it does contain numerous valuable insights. The author presents these interpretations directly and forcefully. Although few are original, all deserve to be made and emphasized.
One of the book's central arguments is that despite the dismal record of various American administrations toward the shah's Iran, a special portion of the responsibility for the debacle must be placed at the feet of the administration of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. After destroying the myth that the Carter Administration abandoned the shah, Taheri writes that "the truth, however, is that, if betrayal there was in what was a long and repeatedly tested friendship, it came during the Nixon- Kissinger era." When various congressmen began raising questions about stability in Iran in 1976, the shah is reported to have said not to worry, "Kissinger will have all of them for breakfast." While Kissinger worked to keep America blindly in the shah's corner, the Iranian people themselves pulled him down.
There is a major lesson to be learned from this unpleasant and costly story. American leaders must avoid the Nixon-Kissinger diplomatic disease, a disease that involved gross ignorance of social forces in critical Third World countries, a myopic preoccupation with the threat of the Soviet Union, and an egoistic infatuation with royalty and dictators despised by their own peoples. In a world caught in the midst of revolutionary change, the United States gropes its way along the shaky banister of political crises without general guidelines or compass that could help sensitize American policy makers to the powerful, inevitable processes of change.
"Nest of Spies" is packed with detailed information that documents these problems. Furthermore, it decribes the inadequacies of American diplomats stationed in Iran, the internecine conflict among various American offices concerning Iran policy, the close relationship between American and Israeli intelligence operations in the Middle East, and the continued covert operations that continued in Iran after the revolution.
Among the least convincing interpretations found in the book are Taheri's curious slanted discussion of the Musaddiq movement in the early 1950s and his assertion that the revolutionary leaders hold no loyalty to Iran as a nation-state in the late 1980s. Although his description of the Irangate episode is fascinating, many of the details must be accepted with great care.
The subtitle of the Taheri book is "America's Journey to Disaster in Iran." This journey is far from over, but if further and graver disaster is to be avoided, then it is important to look back upon the path already traversed. This volume helps Americans and Iranians understand the errors and misjudgments that litter this path. Whether this understanding will result in lessons learned and more astute policy formulation remains to be seen.