Obama fumbles opportunity to improve relations with Iran

The Obama Administration made a big mistake denying a visa to Iran’s new ambassador to the United Nations, Hamid Aboutalebi. The United States should be seeking to improve our relations with Iran so that they will cease development of nuclear weapons and help us seek peaceful ways to clean up the messes in Iraq, Syria and Israeli-occupied territories. Easing tensions throughout the Middle East would free U.S. military and economic resources to address the eroding situation in Ukraine.

But beyond these considerations of what Henry Kissinger would call “Realpolitik,” there’s the simple fact that the U.S. government is wrong to interfere in the affairs of another nation.

And for what? Who is Hamid Aboutalebi? Did he engage in acts of terror funded by Mafia-like shakedowns of merchants as Menachem Begin did? Did he work with Nazis during World War II as Anwar Sadat did?

What was the horrible thing that Aboutalebi did?

As a 22-year old, he served as translator for the group of students who took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held 52 Americans hostage for more than a year before representatives of presidential candidate Ronald Reagan went behind the back of the duly-elected U.S. government to negotiate the illegal arms-for-hostages deal called the Iran-Contra Affair. All existing evidence points to the conclusion that Aboutalebi wasn’t even one of the core cadre of students who engineered the takeover, but was called in afterwards to provide a technical service—translation. Wikipedia reports that Ebrahim Asgharzadeh, who helped to organize and lead the embassy takeover, has said  that Aboutalebi’s involvement was peripheral. In Asghararzadeh’s words, “Calling him a hostage-taker is simply wrong.”

Now put yourself in the shoes of an idealistic and highly educated 22-year-old who has conservative religious beliefs that shape your concept of democracy and representational government. Years before, a foreign power had helped this dictator overthrow your legally elected government. The dictator then installed a decades-long violent reign of terror against all citizens, but especially religious dissidents.  For decades, the foreign power provided financial and military support to prop up this dictator. Now that your country has finally overthrown this anti-religious monster, the foreign country is harboring him and not allowing your country to extradite him. It would be as if a foreign country refused to extradite Hitler to Germany or Israel.  You did not participate in the violent takeover but you are sympathetic to the cause of the hostage-takers. And they are not asking you to carry a gun, pistol whip someone, hold a hostage’s head under water or make them crawl naked through excrement—no, none of the real torture that took place in the Bush II torture gulag. No, all you have to do is use your extensive knowledge to communicate with the other side.

Now, I’m not condoning the 1979 hostage-taking, but I do understand why a group of Iranian young people thought they were justified in storming the U.S. embassy.

The 444-day hostage ordeal embarrassed the United States and made us a bit of a laughing stock. But it did not harm the United States the way three decades of autocratic rule by Shah Mohammad Rezi Pahlavi ruined Iranian civil life.  In the vast scheme of things, it rates far below the 9/11 attacks, the illegal bombing of Cambodia,  the forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians known as the Holodomor or the dropping of the atomic bomb on civilian targets.

We are currently engaged in a process of negotiations to reduce tensions with Iran. When two enemy countries become friends, each side must in a sense, “forgive and forget” the transgressions of the other side. We of course should never forget, nor should we really “forgive” bad behavior. But what we should and often do is to put the bad stuff aside and move on. Israel and Germany are allies. We are allies with Britain, Germany and Japan, all former enemies.  Part of the process of dissolving tensions is to let “bygones be bygones.” The idea is for Iran to deal with us in a friendly manner despite the fact that we helped to suppress the country for three decades and for us to deal with Iran in a friendly manner despite the fact they embarrassed us so many years ago.

But instead of letting the sleeping dog lie, instead of moving on, the United States prefers to put additional strain on our fragile relationship with Iran by making a big deal about something non-violent that Iran’s choice for UN ambassador did more than 30 years ago when he was a young man.

It makes no sense.

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