BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — It was hardly fireworks and jubilation as US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Geneva to help cement progress on a nuclear deal with Washington’s longtime foe, Iran.
“[We] hope to try to narrow the differences but no one should mistake that there are important gaps to be closed,” Kerry told reporters. He stressed that there was as yet no agreement with Tehran on easing sanctions in return for suspension or freeze of its nuclear enrichment program.
He was right to be cautious: The forces arrayed against any possible accommodation with Iran include the US Senate, which is contemplating new sanctions against Iran even as negotiations are progressing.
Also fulminating against an agreement was the ever-irate Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
“This is a bad deal. A very, very bad deal,” Netanyahu said Friday, before any deal was even announced, let alone signed.
Iran’s hardliners are not overwhelmingly in favor of an agreement, either.
During Friday prayers in Tehran, Ayatollah Movahedi Kermani railed against negotiating with the West.
"It's harmful to underestimate the enemy because they do nothing other than playing tricks," he said.
President Barack Obama, speaking to NBC’s Chuck Todd Thursday evening, was less than gung-ho about Iran when he insisted that Tehran would be forced to prove it was not building a nuclear weapon.
“We don’t have to trust them,” he said.
Well, that’s a relief.
Trust is certainly a scarce commodity in the long and bitter history between Washington and Tehran.
The United States has never forgotten the hostage crisis of 1979-1980, when Iranian students in Tehran stormed the US Embassy and seized 52 diplomats, holding them for 444 days.
Last year’s Oscar-winning film “Argo” managed to pour a little salt into the still open wounds, with its portrayal of heroic CIA agents outsmarting alternately ignorant and barbaric Iranians.
Iran has its own historical grievances. Tehran’s resentment dates back to 1953, when a CIA-backed coup toppled the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh.
Mossadegh had sinned against US ally Britain by trying to nationalize the Anglo-Iranian oil company, which had been formed in 1908 under conditions almost ludicrously favorable to the British.
The coup was engineered by senior CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of the 26th American president. It cemented the power of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and began an era of repression that ended only with the revolution of 1979.
Since then each side has carefully nurtured an image of the other that would put Bond villains to shame.
Not that there hasn’t been reason.
In 2011, Washington uncovered an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US, supposedly orchestrated by an Iranian-Texan used car dealer who tried to contract the job out to a man he thought was a member of the Zetas drug cartel. The plot failed when the supposed Mexican gangster turned out to be an agent of the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
If that isn’t weird enough, try the story of the champion British speedboat bought by Iran and supposedly outfitted by the Revolutionary Guards Navy with mysterious weapons designed to sink US and UK warships in the Persian Gulf.
Then there was the fiery president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who may or may not have offered to “wipe Israel off the map.” His supposed threat has been repeated so often it has become a symbol of Iranian intransigence, but it may actually have been a translation error.
Iran has its own litany of dastardly deeds committed by the US.
In 1988, Washington shot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing all 290 people on board. Washington insists it was an accident, but try telling that to the families of the victims.
The incident came toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war. The US unequivocally supported Iraq, even when Washington had information that Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons against his enemy. The Pentagon even helped out, supplying Saddam with the locations of Iranian troops to be gassed.
Now these guys are going to sit down and negotiate?
Paul Pillar, a professor in security studies at Georgetown University and a retired CIA officer himself, says the outsized US antipathy toward Tehran is no accident.
“Americans need a foreign villain,” he writes in the July issue of Political Science Quarterly. The government, he explains, requires a bogeyman to convince its citizens that foreign wars are worth fighting. “As for who can play that role, Saddam Hussein is gone… and now [Osama] bin Laden is gone, too. Well-suited on several counts to play the current role of villain is that other state on the Persian Gulf with oil resources and radical politics: Iran.”
Now that the wild-eyed Ahmadinejad has been replaced by the cuddlier Hassan Rouhani, that may be a tougher sell. But Pillar says Americans can be trusted to stick to their black hat/white hat traditions.
“Americans have a profoundly Manichean way of viewing their interaction with the outside world,” he writes. “[This] leads to demonization of … adversaries. They are viewed not just as having interests that conflict with those of the United States, but as genuinely evil.”
This message obviously resonates with Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, creators of the hit TV series “Homeland.” For American audiences these days Iran has assumed a role once reserved for the Soviet Union: the ultimate villain, implacable, untrustworthy, hateful.
(Spoiler alert!) The bad guy in the Showtime terrorism drama’s third season is Iranian intelligence official Javadi, who, we soon learn, was the mastermind behind the massive explosion at the CIA that ended Season Two.
Javadi is definitely not a nice guy. He betrays friends, murders women in particularly unpleasant ways, and cannot wait to get hold of our heroine, Carrie Mathison, a talented if unstable CIA case officer.
But the disgust we are supposed to feel for Javadi borders dangerously on Islamophobia.
In one memorable scene, CIA acting director and all-around good guy Saul Berenson takes a young female Muslim employee to task for wearing a headscarf. Her decision to cover her head is, he says, “is one big 'fuck you' to the people who would have been your co-workers, except they perished in the blast right out there.”
Iran, in its inimitable way, is adding fuel to the fire with its sniping at “the Great Satan.”
Tehran, let’s not forget, was last week the site of a charming yearly ritual known as “death to America” day, when locals celebrate the storming of the US Embassy in 1979.
GlobalPost PlanetPic: Hardliners chant 'Death to America' on Iran hostage crisis anniversary (PHOTOS)
Iran’s capital last week was festooned with posters showing US and Iranian negotiators at a table. Captioned “American honesty,” it portrays the American in a suit and tie, but below the table he had on military camouflage pants.
But as negotiators wrap things up in Geneva, let’s hope they are not going to take advice from business magnate Sheldon Adelson, who in October told an audience at New York’s Yeshiva University that he had a surefire way of dealing with Iran.
“What do you mean support negotiations?” he said. “You pick up your cellphone and you call somewhere in Nebraska and you say, ‘OK let it go.’ So there’s an atomic weapon, [it’s] the middle of the desert, that doesn’t hurt a soul. Maybe a couple of rattlesnakes, and scorpions, or whatever. And then you say, ‘See! The next one is in the middle of Tehran.”
Geneva could be signaling a new era in US-Iranian relations; we’ll have to wait for the next season of “Homeland” to find out.