Obama Could Send Message to Iran With...a Message to Iran

In one letter, Obama could spell out common interests, mutual concerns, and prospects for peace.

By + More

In that connection, we are mindful of the fact that, throughout history, Iran's greatest strength has not derived from its arms or material wealth alone but from its rich and resilient culture. For centuries, Iran conquered and in turn was conquered by many invading armies, including Greeks, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols. Yet, the invaders were ultimately won over by Iranian culture, which, in effect, made them its converts and brought about the continual rejuvenation of the Iranian state. The peaceful spread of Islam into Central Asia, South Asia, and beyond owed much to this culture and its irenic interpretations of Islam. In the pursuit of knowledge, Iranians actively sought contact with scientists and philosophers from different regions. Even during periods of foreign domination, Iran's artistic and scientific spirit flourished and its poets, mystics, and philosophers produced one of the greatest bodies of literature in the Muslim world and created a remarkable cultural and scientific heritage that still resonates today.

Having noted Iran's great cultural and historical legacy, and its ability to both enrich and be enriched through its interaction with other civilizations, let me now turn to the issue of United States-Iran relations. It is our contention that, with a few notable exceptions, especially during the last three decades, Iranians and Americans have, on the whole, enjoyed remarkably positive relations. This strong record of mutual amity and respect provides reason for optimism that both our countries will eventually be able to put aside our differences and re-establish the goodwill that once served us both so well.

To begin with, let me note that during the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, American missionaries worked throughout Iran. Although they were not able to convert Muslims to Christianity, and had only limited success in converting some Armenian and Assyrian Christians to Protestantism, they established the first modern hospitals and the first modern educational institutions in Iran. In 1856, the United States granted Iran most favored nation trade status and welcomed Iranian students to its universities. When Iranians launched their constitutional revolution in 1906, Americans welcomed the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. The young American schoolteacher Howard Baskerville, who joined the constitutionalists and was martyred in Tabriz in 1909, is still regarded as one of the heroes of your revolution. It was also an American, W. Morgan Schuster, who came to the aid of Iran and organized its customs to serve as a revenue source designed not to be controlled by either Great Britain or Russia, and wrote a classic anticolonial book, The Strangling of Persia.

When, despite its neutrality during World War I, Iran was invaded by Russian and Ottoman troops, the United States defended its territorial integrity. Americans later welcomed an Iranian delegation to Versailles, where President Woodrow Wilson was the lone world leader to support Iran's claim for compensation from Britain and Russia for the effects of their wartime occupation. During World War II, following the Allied occupation of Iran and the exile of Reza Shah Pahlavi, the United States and its allies supported every effort to keep Iran united and whole and retained the institution of the monarchy as a symbol of the unity and continuity of Iranian statehood. During that period, Iran played a crucial role as a conduit for American assistance to the Soviet and Allied war effort. At the end of the war it was, once again, the United States that resolutely protected the territorial integrity of Iran by opposing Soviet efforts to turn Azerbaijan and Kurdistan into autonomous republics. Under the leadership of President Harry Truman, the United States compelled the Soviets to leave the northern part the country without allowing a Soviet monopoly over its energy resources. If not for America's efforts, Iran might have been broken up.

After the outbreak of the Cold War, the United States recognized the vital importance of Iran within the Gulf region. We helped build Iran's armed forces by providing training as well as over a billion dollars of modern armaments, and supported Iran's leadership of the Baghdad Pact and Central Treaty Organization. Between 1953 and 1978, we provided Iran with the most advanced weapons systems on a par with those available to our NATO allies. We were eager to help Iran become a modern economic and political force and thus provided Iran with a broad range of economic assistance, as well, including support for the diversification of its energy resources. During this period, it is a fact that the United States supported Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who succeeded his father as Iran's ruler. As a pro-Western, secular nationalist, America viewed the Shah as an important bulwark against Communism. The United States promoted the Shah's ambitions to make Iran a regional superpower and also considered it, as we do today, a key to regional stability. America welcomed Iran's efforts to promote economic ties among Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other powers in an effort to avert conflict, which would only impede Iran's and the region's prospects.

Vartan Gregorian is president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a grant-making institution founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1911.