As the United States remembers the events of September 11, 2001 on their tenth anniversary, it is important to remember that the tragedy was commemorated around the world, not just in America. And one of the nations that expressed the most profound and sincere grief over the loss of life was Iran.
Candlelight vigils were held throughout Iran and professions of sorrow and sympathy for the United States citizens who lost family and friends were ubiquitous. This was even more impressive when one notes that these were not government organized events, but were the spontaneous outpouring of Iranian citizens. On an official level, many Iranian religious leaders condemned the attacks, despite their differences with the United States administration. It was also noteworthy that no Iranian was involved in any way with the 9/11 attacks.
The 9/11 tragedy also resulted in a brief thaw in U.S.-Iran relations as Iran offered its air space and landing fields to the United States in its attacks on al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It created increased positive feeling on the part of ordinary Iranian citizens for the United States and its people.
It is a secondary tragedy that this brief halcyon period in U.S.-Iran relations did not last.
President George W. Bush inexplicably made Iran one of the targets of vituperative rhetoric in his now infamous State of the Union address in January, 2002:
“States like [Iran, Iraq and North Korea], and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.”
In effect, President Bush was associating Iran with the September 11 attacks, either explicitly or implicitly.
The effect of these words in Iran was electric and immediate. Iranians who were sympathetic to the United States were chagrinned and puzzled by the “axis of evil” epithet, and stung by what they saw as unjustified accusations. They were especially confused by what they saw as a repudiation of the positive developments in the immediate post-9/11 period.
From this point on, the already poor relations between Iran and the United States deteriorated sharply.
Today, Iran’s relations with the United States could not be worse. The Bush administration went on from the 2002 verbal attack on Iran to, in 2003, accusing Iran of fomenting a nuclear weapons program, assisting al-Qaeda and the Taliban and attacking U.S. troops in post-Saddam Iraq.
None of these accusations have proved to be supported by credible evidence. Many Iranians and some Americans saw these attacks as the basis for creating an acceptable justification in advance to overthrow the Iranian government either directly or by proxy, or to attack Iran militarily.
Iran became the United States’ chief international bogeyman, replacing Libya in the 1980’s and Iraq in that regard.
What course would history have taken if President Bush had not made this fateful reference to Iran in his State of the Union "axis of evil" speech? No one can know for sure, but it is certain that the post-9/11 reservoir of good feeling on the part of Iran could have been the basis on which to build trust rather than enmity.
Were relations with Iran normalized following 9/11 rather than destroyed through the exercise of strategic ideology-based attacks, we might be seeing stability in the Middle East today—paradoxically an improvement in relations between the United States and the Middle East rather than the quagmires in which the United States is stuck today.
It is to be hoped that the commemoration of the events of 9/11 will not only mark the sober tragedy of those times, but also serve as an important look-back to re-evaluate America’s actions and attitudes toward the region—first and foremost with regard to our relations with Iran.
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