American Sanctions vs. Iranian Heritage (Part 5)

24 Nov 2020

American Sanctions vs. Iranian Heritage

Part 5: What Archaeology Can Achieve in US-Iran Relations

By Kyle Olson

November 24, 2020

This article is the fifth in a five-part series.

In the 1920s, relations between the United States and Iran had reached a low point, marked by the failure of Arthur Millspaugh’s financial mission (1922-27), the murder of Vice Consul Robert Imbrie (1924), and the withdrawal of American financiers from a railroad syndicate (1928-29), among other imbroglios. According to historian James F. Goode, the American chargé d’affairs at the time, Hugh Millard, wrote to the US State Department’s Near East Bureau Chief, Wallace Murray, stating that there had been “one flub after another in American efforts in Persia” but that ‘‘archaeology is about the only thing [the United States] are likely to be interested in which stands much chance of bringing results.” Perhaps the situation today is not so unlike that of the early 1930s, when—despite the accumulated ill will of the previous decade—American interest in Iran’s heritage brought the two countries into more sustained diplomatic engagement with each other.


Clearly, the past four decades have seen much more acrimonious relations between the US and Iran than the 1920s, with much higher stakes. As historian John Ghazvinian writes in America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present, for the past forty years, the United States and Iran have had few official relations at all. Between America’s support for the Shah, its arms sales to Saddam Hussein, and its policy of isolating Iran on the world stage since the Israel-Palestine Madrid Conference of 1991, a gulf in mutual understanding has opened that appears insurmountable. Decision makers on both sides operate in a context of severe and deleterious ignorance of each other’s motivations and aspirations. Indeed, bilateral relations between the two countries are so strained that they must be mediated indirectly by third parties: Switzerland (American affairs in Iran) and Pakistan (Iranian affairs in America). As Ghazvinian points out, even at the lowest depths of the Cold War, the chasm between American and Soviet leadership was not as wide as that between the US and Iran today.

More concerning still, according to Ambassador John Limbert—who was one of the diplomatic staffers held in the Embassy Seizure of 1979-81—is the fact that, since the 1980s, the American government has lost its cadre of diplomats with Iran expertise. In the past four decades, the US has trained few Persian speakers, and those it has trained have had almost no opportunity to use the language in an immersion setting. As Limbert writes, “those with both language and country expertise have aged and retired, leaving a gap that, with the best will in the world, will take at least a decade to fill.” Even prior to the embassy seizure, however, American foreign policymaking vis-à-vis Iran was sclerotic and ineffective. According to James A. Bill, a professor of international relations and government at William and Mary and an expert on US-Iran relations, the ineptitude of American diplomacy towards Iran in the late 1970s, leading to the deterioration of US-Iranian relations, was due to an institutionalized system of organizational conflict within the State Department. This allowed America’s Iran policy to be captured by special interests, and to be unduly influenced in equal measure by both ideology and ignorance.

William J. Burns—one of the diplomats who ran the Oman backchannel that led to the negotiation of the JCPOA—argues that the Trump administration has repeated and exacerbated many of these mistakes. For Burns, however, Trump’s Iran policy is a bellwether of a broader and more concerning trend. In his view, American diplomacy has slid adrift at a moment in history when American leadership is needed more than ever.

How might America regain its position of moral authority and respect on the world stage in the post-Trump era? Burns argues that American diplomacy will need to be reconstructed, from the individual on upward, requiring years of investment in the fundamentals of the craft: “smart policy judgement, language skills, and a sure feel for the foreign landscapes in which they serve and the domestic priorities they represent.” Wendy Sherman—the chief American negotiator in the P5+1 process that led to the signing of JCPOA—concurs. Sherman contends that diplomacy is most likely to succeed when its agents are not only deeply experienced, but also deployed in positions where they can draw on and that experience and put it to work. For Sherman, negotiation is not a set of stratagems, but rather comprises authentic person-to-person engagement. Unfortunately, as made clear by Limbert and Bill, for too long, the United States government has neglected to honor this principle in its dealings with Iran.

For some observers, renewed engagement with Iran is in fact key to the revival of American diplomacy. As Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett write in “Going to Tehran,” American strategic recovery must start with a thoroughgoing revision of the US Government’s Iran policy. Similarly, Ghazvinian writes there is no problem that the US faces in the Middle East that cannot be tied one way or another to its haphazard and ineffective Iran policy. He argues that the only way that the US and Iran can resolve their differences once and for all is through an unconditional, sustained, and high-level set of negotiations. Like the Leveretts, he believes that what is most needed is an historic summit meeting between the two countries’ leaders, an international peace conference of the same magnitude as Reagan and Gorbachev’s meeting in Reykjavik or Nixon and Mao’s in Beijing. As the Leveretts argue, if America does not do this, it runs the risk of condemning itself to a future as an “increasingly flailing—and failing—superpower.”

While I am sympathetic to these calls for rapprochement through a grand bargain, an October 2019 white paper by Chatham House researchers Sanam Vakil and Neil Quilliam found that foreign policy experts from the US, Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and China were highly skeptical of the possibility of such an agreement under present conditions. A year later, however, with the coming administration of Joe Biden, it appears that good-faith engagement is back on the table.

In this series, I have shown how heritage management—in the form of cultural tourism, museum exchanges, and international scientific cooperation—have suffered under American sanctions. Clearly, renewed diplomacy and sanctions relief would benefit those whose livelihoods have been impacted by these policies. I would like to suggest here that American diplomats attempting to reestablish cordial exchanges with Iran have something to learn from the experiences of archaeologists and cultural heritage professionals. The precedents set by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago—in keeping positive relations between the US and Iran alive even during dark times—should be followed and honored.

Cultural heritage is one of the only fields in which person-to-person contacts between Americans and Iranians have been sustained through these four decades of hostility. For this reason alone, the Biden administration should create space for and leverage cultural exchanges as part of its reengagement strategy. More broadly, however, as all of the experts quoted above make clear: when those with deep knowledge of and investment in each other’s culture and history are involved in diplomatic negotiations, all stand to benefit. On whatever time-scale, no matter the form that renewed engagement between the US and Iran takes—whether a grand bargain, a direct meeting between heads of state, or some other expression of goodwill toward repairing broken ties—it can only be for the good of the people of our two countries.

My hope is that no matter the forum, American leadership chooses to call on envoys who speak Persian, or at the very least have some degree of appreciation for Iranian culture, rather than under-qualified appointees with an axe to grind. May our two governments recognize—as Hugh Millard so presciently did in the 1930s—the special role that archaeologists have played and can continue to play in improving ties between America and Iran and follow our lead in delving into a shared past to bring about a better future.