In diplomacy, you build on small chances, you don’t throw them away.
— Ali Ardashir Larijani
Young men in t-shirts are gathered in the streets of Tehran, their fists raised and their mouths open. “Death to U.S. Imperialists,” reads a sign. The scene could be now, almost — save for the many women who have joined the protest and the focus of the placards and chants, today’s complaining of fraud in the recent Iranian presidential election. This scene is in fact dawn from a 30-year-old archive, and it is the starting point for Iran and the West, National Geographic Channel’s look back at the past three decades of tension and eruption.
Or, more accurately, as it follows the moment in Barack Obama’s inaugural address when he invited Iran to “unclench your fist,” this familiar image of an angry crowd sets up what the documentary calls “the untold story of Iran and the West.” What’s been untold are recollections by major figures in a series of complicated events, from the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini and the hostage crisis, to the Iran-Iraq war and Iran Contra, to the Gulf War and the emergence of the Northern Alliance. The documentary includes interviews from major figures like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, and former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami, frequently compelling and sometimes surprising.
As it begins with the appeal Obama made in January 2009 and not, for instance, the June 4 speech he made in Cairo, the film omits that history he made sure to mention in the second outing, that the CIA and MI6 helped to overthrow Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953. It’s rather a striking omission, as “Operation Ajax,” has shaped relations between Iran and the West ever since, in particular making the U.S. seem a “Great Satan,” the phrase coined by Khomeini in 1979. It’s also an omission that helps to make that first Supreme Leader’s ascendance seem the start of today’s problems.
Wit this caveat in mind, the documentary exposes assorted internal conflicts on both sides (“the West” primarily meaning the U.K. and U.S. here), as diplomats were repeatedly trying to work around their leaders’ posturing. As Jimmy Carter and Mondale rehearse what went wrong in 1979, including the botched effort to rescue the hostages, Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Bill Clinton’s first Secretary of State Warren Christopher recall efforts to get the hostages back on Carter’s watch, Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, a student leader at the time of the hostage-taking, remembers his group’s hope that the U.S. would be forced to turn over the Shah (“That would be a real victory for the revolution”).
None of these events came to pass (the hostages were released “about 20 seconds after Regan took the oath of office) — and bad precedents were set. As the documentary notes, Khomeini exploited the U.S. helicopter crash that killed eight rescue team members (“Who was it that brought down Carter’s helicopter? Was it us? It was God’s work!”) in order to reinforce his own power (premised in part on mass executions, in part on his popularity and smart use of media). Iran-Contra served as another troublesome precedent, as the Reagan Administration’s selling of arms to Iran to secure the release of six hostages held by Hezbollah (connected to Iran’s Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution) confirmed for Iran the corruption of U.S. government. This has led since to deals proposed and lost and reconfigured concerning Iran’s nuclear development programs. Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage speak briefly about their own efforts to negotiate with Iran regarding the nuclear program. “The State Department has a problem,” says the narrator, “the White House.”
More specifically, that problem is Dick Cheney favorite John Bolton, whose appearance in this documentary is of a piece with his appearance in, say The Reckoning. (As the documentary has it, Bolton’s entry into Iranian nuclear program negotiations being conducted by the State Department led to Powell and Armitage’s 2004 resignations.) Bolton’s certainty that his and Darth Vader’s worldview is correct has him insisting during his interview that the Iranians “owe” the U.S. (for support during the war with Iraq, for one thing) and that arrogance and swagger are useful negotiation tactics when dealing with difficult adversaries like Iran.
According to Khatami, however, this tactic has been perennially unsuccessful. (For one telling example, he disdains the “Mission Accomplished” banner by saying, “They were feeling proud of themselves, the world’s superpower could do as it pleased.”) The U.S. worked with Iran against the Taliban in Afghanistan, though neither side much respected the other: “America targeted bunkers,” scoffs Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mohsen Aminzadeh, “Caves actually,” while Bolton says this collaboration was “tactical” on Iran’s part, as if it was not also “tactical” for the U.S. In Iraq, however, as Shiia Muslim forces sought to consolidate, the nations clashed overtly.
The documentary makes clear that the Iranians in power today — including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — are in large part products of a long history of strained relations between Iran and the West. The question is whether the legacy of deceitfulness and angling on both sides can be understood and a change might be wrought in the near future.