The Baskerville Newsletter
January/February 2021 Vol I, No. 3
A Publication of the Baskerville Institute
Baskerville Lecture & Conversation Series
The Baskerville Conversation Series with Professor David Menashri: Iran & Israel: From Close Friendship to Bitter Enmity,” February 1st, 2021, 12:00 pm ( US MT), 2:00 pm EST. 9:00 pm Tel Aviv time.
Matthew K. Shannon ( January 4, 2021)
John W. Limbert ( January 14, 2021)
“W. Morgan Shuster: Friend and Defender of Iranian Democracy” by Kelly J. Shannon, Ph.D.
The incoming Biden Administration faces a host of challenges in crafting U.S. policy toward Iran. One goal of the incoming president is to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal – that the Obama Administration negotiated with Iran in 2015 and the Trump Administration subsequently abandoned over the course of 2017-2018. Trump also pursued policies that escalated tensions between the United States and Iran to heights not seen since the earliest days of the Islamic Republic, further complicating Biden’s efforts. After over forty years of enmity and distrust, it might appear natural or inevitable to many observers that future U.S.-Iranian relations will remain antagonistic. Yet there is nothing inevitable or irreversible about the two nations’ current diplomatic hostility, and the early history of American-Iranian engagement offers instructive lessons for the present day.
Americans and Iranians forged meaningful friendships from the late 19th century onward. Two Americans loomed particularly large during the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905- 1911: Howard Baskerville and W. Morgan Shuster. These Americans’ contributions to the cause of Iranian parliamentary democracy and national sovereignty book-ended the revolution, with Baskerville is already well known to this audience, so I will concentrate on Shuster as a model whose example Americans today should seek to emulate. Shuster was an American financial expert whom the constitutionalist government hired in 1911 to assist with Iran’s financial reorganization. Shuster and his small team traveled to Tehran along with their wives and children (an unusual choice at the time for westerners going to Iran) in the spring of 1911, when Shuster assumed the powerful position of Iran’s treasurer-general. He and his team worked to develop an efficient financial and tax collection system and extricate Iran from its crushing loan debt to European powers, primarily Britain and Russia. Shuster opposed European imperialism and became an outspoken champion of Iranian constitutionalism and sovereignty. This earned him the enmity of the British and Russians, ultimately contributing to Russia’s invasion of Iran in December 1911. This foreign intervention ended the revolution, shuttered the Majles (parliament), and forced Shuster’s ouster.
Three aspects of Shuster’s story are relevant to the discussion of American-Iranian friendship. First, unlike most other westerners, Shuster did not see Iranians as inferior. He attributed Iran’s difficulties to the pre-revolution Qajar government’s poor decisions, as well as Russian and British imperial designs on Iran. Most other white Americans at the turn of the 20th century characterized non-western peoples – especially Muslims – as inherently inferior, incapable of governing themselves, and unsuited for democracy. In contrast, Shuster asserted that Iranians were more than capable of building a just and democratic society if only given the chance. They just needed some help to extricate them selves from the situation created by the previous government, and they needed relief from European imperial pressures. Shuster had little prior knowledge about Iran, but he quickly educated himself about the country’s situation by talking to Iranians and truly listening to what they said. By treating Iranians as capable and as equals, Shuster was able to forge genuine friendships with many Iranians. This allowed him to avoid the stereotypical thinking about Middle Eastern peoples common among European diplomats and other westerners in Iran at the time. His honest work on Iran’s behalf and his respectful treatment of his hosts earned him significant goodwill.
Second, Shuster was not afraid to do the right thing and stand up for his Iranian friends, even when doing so was dangerous. Shuster’s life was threatened and he ultimately lost his job; an explicit goal of the Russian invasion was to expel Shuster. Nevertheless, Shuster believed in honesty and fair play, and he was a man of integrity. He chose not to follow the path of previous foreign advisers to Iran – who had worked on behalf of European rather than Iranian interests and/or used their positions for personal gain – and instead committed himself to the constitutionalist cause. Shuster enacted difficult financial reforms, challenged powerful members of the pre-revolution elite who resisted change, declared European claims on Iran illegitimate, and spoke out publicly on Iran’s behalf. He even published in the London Times a harsh critique of British and Russian treatment of Iran. Shuster’s reliability and forthrightness contributed significantly to his winning Iranians’ trust.
Third, Shuster was not a fickle friend. Even after his dramatic expulsion from Tehran, Shuster continued to speak out on Iran’s behalf. He toured the United States, condemning British and Russian actions and promoting a favorable view of Iran and Iranians among American audiences. He then published The Strangling of Persia in 1912, an account of his time in Iran that included a blistering attack on Russia and Britain and sympathetic portrayals of Iranians. At a time when most Americans deployed negative stereotypes against Middle Eastern peoples, Shuster avoided such characterizations and instead argued that Americans and Iranians had much in common. There is evidence that his arguments caused Americans to adopt a more nuanced, positive view of Iranians at the time. Thus, even after leaving Tehran, Shuster remained Iran’s steadfast friend.
Shuster’s honesty, respectfulness, reliability, and genuine support for Iranian constitutionalism forged a lasting friendship. When Iranians once again requested American financial advisers in the 1920s, they asked for Shuster. For various reasons the State Department pushed for a different American, Arthur Millspaugh, to advise Iran, although Shuster had been eager to return. Shuster’s forthrightness and integrity in dealing with Iran provides a model for present-day Americans to follow. After the recent escalation in tensions by the Trump Administration, policymakers in the Biden Administration must earn Iranians’ trust and prove that the United States is acting in good faith if they hope to reduce tensions and return to the JCPOA. In short, Americans today need to be more like Shuster.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has been a recurring problem for every American administration since 1979. Seeing how previous administrations’ policies failed, every new administration has wrestled with how to confront, contain, persuade or negotiate with a country that has remained constantly hostile.
This moment of a global pandemic, however, offers an unusual opportunity for cooperation. Despite their mutual hostility, the two countries today are on the same side of a war against an enemy that has killed more than 347,000 Americans and more than 55,000 Iranians. Unofficial numbers in Iran could be three to four times as high.
Although the Biden administration and the Europeans want to resuscitate the 2015 nuclear agreement, what Iran, the United States and Europe urgently need right now is a COVID deal. The raging pandemic inside Iran combined with factional jockeying for the Iranian presidential election in June have paralyzed its government.
A COVID deal would help rebuild trust for future negotiations with Iran, as well as improve U.S. relations with the European Union, which have weakened in the Trump era. Stopping the pandemic in Iran is essential to protecting Iran’s neighbors, 16 countries constituting over 500 million people. Without vaccines, more Iranians will die, and coronavirus infections from Iran will spread to other countries in the region.
Iranians know their government has botched its response to the pandemic. Like the Trump administration, it publicly denied the seriousness of the virus, ignored the warnings of health officials and encouraged super-spreader events. Now Iranians — like Americans — are paying the price for those misguided policies. In Iran, healthcare workers and doctors are dying in hospitals overwhelmed with COVID patients. The people should not be punished for the actions of their government.
Legally, the shipment of medicines to Iran is not under sanctions today, but the Trump administration has made it impossible for Iran to process payments from its central bank, or receive loans from the International Monetary Fund to pay for them. These financial sanctions have deterred international banks and suppliers of medicine from participating in any financial transactions for fear of becoming subject to secondary U.S. sanctions imposed on their companies or banks.
By issuing broad licenses to medical and pharmaceutical companies and manufacturers of COVID vaccines, the U.S. can assure banks, aid organizations and insurance companies that they will not be punished for supporting humanitarian medical assistance to Iran.
Iran has “pre-purchased” 17 million doses of vaccines through Covax, the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility, which the World Health Organization created to ensure a more equitable distribution of vaccines. But the sanctions prevent Iran’s central bank from processing the payment for these vaccines. This purchase covers less than 10% of the Iranian population. To fight the virus, Iran has requested an emergency loan from the IMF, which the Trump administration blocked. The U.S. should allow the loan to proceed.
In exchange, the Iranian government should commit to a process that guarantees transparency in the delivery of the vaccines for its population. It should provide accurate case numbers and assessments and allow organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Health Organization to facilitate the distribution of the vaccines inside Iran.
There is precedent for setting aside enmity to address a dire crisis together. After the December 2003 earthquake in Bam, which killed more than 20,000 Iranians, the Bush administration — while making threatening noises about sending tanks to Tehran — sent medical aid to victims. Somehow, the two sides could put aside their distrust to send and accept much-needed help for the survivors.
Today, decades of isolation, recrimination and demonization prevent us from realizing the power of cultural connections that have linked Iran and America for generations. Before the 1979 revolution in Iran, America and Iran enjoyed more than a century of friendship.
If the Biden administration works out a COVID deal that facilitates shipments of vaccines to the Iranian people, it will win over the hearts and minds of millions in that country, strengthening the deep but frayed bonds of friendship between ordinary Americans and Iranians.
John Limbert, a retired Foreign Service officer, was among the last American diplomats to serve in Iran, where he was held hostage from 1979 to 1981. He is a former professor of Middle Eastern studies at the U.S. Naval Academy and is the author of “Negotiating With Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History.” Bahman Baktiari is the executive director of the Baskerville Institute and author of “Parliamentary Politics in Revolutionary Iran.”
Wednesday’s disgraceful spectacle at the United States Capitol resurrected chilling memories for me. Forty-one years ago, on Nov. 4, 1979, I and my colleagues at the American Embassy in Tehran faced a mob that, like the one on Wednesday, invaded a supposedly sacrosanct compound and overwhelmed inadequate security — all with encouragement from their nation’s supreme leader.
For me, the similarities in the two events were unnerving. In the summer and fall of 1979, Iran’s leader — Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini — had incited his followers to act against the United States, blaming us for all Iranians’ problems. His vitriol only increased after President Carter — against his own better judgment — allowed the deposed shah of Iran to enter the United States for medical treatment.
Despite the obvious dangers, our embassy had only minimal defense against a mob attack. When that attack came, Khomeini not only did not condemn it, he praised the mob as agents of “a second revolution, greater than the first,” referring to the Islamic Revolution that had overthrown the Iranian monarchy nine months earlier. At that time only the cool heads of our embassy’s young Marine Security Guards prevented a bloodbath. Their superb training and discipline saved our lives.
On Wednesday, I again witnessed a mob storming the gates of a purportedly inviolable building. I again witnessed failure to provide timely assistance. When I heard statements that “the National Guard is on the way” and “the Maryland and Virginia state police are coming,” I couldn’t help recalling the empty promises we heard from Iranian authorities — that help would arrive soon. Help finally did arrive at the Capitol, but not before multiple deaths and injuries, and too late to prevent the mob from running amok through our nation’s beloved and beautiful “people’s House,” with some even posing for pictures in the vice president’s chair in the Senate.
I even heard the same after-the-fact criticisms: “We should have known.” “We could see it coming.” “Why did no one foresee such an obvious threat?” “Why did no one prepare for it?”
In both cases, two factors led to these failures: the very outrageousness of the attack and the fact that such events had happened so rarely. An armed group had attacked the U.S. Embassy in Tehran nine months earlier, in February 1979, but at that time the Iranian authorities had reacted quickly to clear the compound. But no similar event in Tehran had occurred since 1829, when a mob stormed the Russian Embassy and murdered almost all of the Russian staff, including the ambassador. The last attack on the U.S. Capitol was in 1814, when the British troops occupied and burned Washington during the War of 1812.
In Tehran, we were accustomed to noisy anti-American demonstrations. In Washington, the police were expecting a noisy pro-Trump demonstration near the Capitol. What they (and we) were not expecting was a mob that would storm the building. No similar event had occurred in Washington for 207 years. In Tehran, no one expected that the country’s ruler would give his personal endorsement to the occupation of a foreign embassy. Such outrageous things simply did not happen. Even the bloody 1829 attack on the Russian Embassy was not condoned by the Iranian authorities.
In both Tehran and Washington, the power to foresee was not the power to prevent. President Trump and his shills were obviously inflaming his followers with their incessant lies about election fraud. Despite these warning signs, the Washington mob easily brushed aside the inadequate security forces at the Capitol. Trump’s hollow “go home, we love you” message to the mob did nothing to end the riot.
In the Tehran case, 40 years earlier, Carter himself foresaw the consequences of his decision to admit the ailing shah. According to the memoirs of Hamilton Jordan, his chief of staff, the president asked his advisors, “What are you going to tell me to do when our embassy is overrun and our people are taken hostage?” History has not recorded any response.
John Limbert, a retired Foreign Service officer, was among the last American diplomats to serve in Iran, where he was held hostage from 1979 to 1981. He is a former professor of Middle Eastern studies at the U.S. Naval Academy and is the author of “Negotiating With Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History.”
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