The Foreign Service Journal, November 2019

84 NOVEMBER 2019 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Then, in 2016, something unforeseen occurred. As in Monty Python’s world, where “no one expects the Spanish Inquisition,” no one expected the election of a President Donald J. Trump obsessed with undoing the work of his predecessor, hiring anti-Iranian zealots as advisers and presenting himself as the world’s greatest negotiator. But the unexpected happened, and so events of 40 years ago continue to cast their malevolent shadows over a relationship that should have long since become something more productive. Most recently, we have seen a “locked and loaded” adminis- tration—already suffering from low credibility—determined to blame Iran immediately for the September attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities without bothering to present evidence. What happened? The Iranian Setting: Ideologues Ascendant Most Iranians welcomed the fall of the Pahlavi monarchy in February 1979, if only to end the violence that had torn the country apart for more than a year. But the change brought Iranians neither order nor the promised paradise. Members of the diverse coalition that brought down Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last king of Iran, were soon at each other’s throats. Hard-line Islamists, Maoists and everyone in between battled in the media, in the schools and in the streets. Ethnic separatists threatened to seize control in Arabic-speaking areas. The government maintained a measure of authority in the Kurdish areas only because Marxist and anti-Marxist Kurds hated each other more than they did Tehran. A provisional government led by Mehdi Bazargan and his religious-nationalist allies was supposed to run affairs until a constitutional assembly could finish its work and establish the new Islamic Republic’s permanent government. But Bazargan and his colleagues never had a chance. By the fall of 1979, they had lost authority to an informal “state within a state,” run by an alliance of senior clergy linked to Ayatollah Moham- mad Beheshti and his Islamic Republican Party. In the pro- vincial towns, Friday prayer leaders overshadowed governors; in offices “Imam’s (i.e., Khomeini’s) representatives” over- shadowed titular chiefs; and in neighborhoods local komitehs (revolutionary committees), answerable to powerful clerics and able to arrest anyone for any reason, overshadowed what was left of the police. In this confusion, moderates, nationalists and liberals were squeezed between radicals of left and right. Extremists on both sides were well organized, armed and unconcerned with democratic niceties. While some wrote penetrating articles, others used clubs, chains and acid to make their points. When Islamist goon squads attacked liberal papers and demonstrations, the leftists, including the Mojahedin- e-Khalq (MEK), cheered them on. Strong in the media, schools and universities, the leftists found a powerful message: anti-Americanism. They argued that America was using its agents in Iran to undermine the revolution, and that the new authorities had not gone far enough in purging the remnants of feudalism, capitalism and American influence. They attacked clerics for being “soft on America” and members of the provisional government for taking orders from the U.S. embassy. When a Tehran komiteh arrested MEK member M.R. Sa’adati in May 1979 on charges of spying for the Soviets, the leftist media launched a tirade of vitriol against Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi, claiming that he had ordered Sa’adati’s arrest on American instructions. John Limbert is a retired Foreign Service officer and academic. During a 34-year diplomatic career, he served mostly in the Middle East and Islamic Africa (including two tours in Iraq), was ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania and president of the American Foreign Service Association. From 1981 to 1984 he taught political science at the U.S. Naval Acad- emy, returning there as the distinguished professor of Middle Eastern studies in 2006. From 1991 to 1992 he was a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs. In 2009, he was appointed as the first U.S. deputy assistant secretary of State for Iran. He has written three books on Iran: At War with History (Westview Press, 1987) Shiraz in the Age of Hafez (University of Washington Press, 2004) and Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History (U.S. Institute of Peace, 2009). He is about to publish, with co-author Marc Grossman, an espionage novel, set in Iran and Washington after the revolution and in the present. One constant of these dysfunctional relations is that whenever there is promise of change, bad luck or a dumb decision sets everyone back into familiar patterns of unthinking hostility and chest-beating.