The US and Iran one year later: hope for peace?
On the eve of the anniversary of Iran’s tumultuous presidential election and its violent aftermath, many Iran watchers are reflecting on the past year and what it means for Iran’s Green Movement. I have also been thinking a lot about the state of US-Iran relations as it has been just over a year since I returned from my people-to-people diplomacy trip to Iran with the mission of drawing greater attention to the Iranian and American people’s shared desire for peace. Though it was just two weeks before the historic Iranian election, I saw little sign of the Green Movement and the repressive crackdown that would follow. In talking to Iranians, I did sense a tentative hope, tempered by skepticism informed by years of hostility, that the relationship between the US and Iran could change. It pains me to say that a year later that hope is waning, and if we are going to revive it the US and Iran need to depart from the counterproductive path they find themselves on today.
While I understood that transformative change of the US-Iran relationship would be difficult, I was encouraged by President Obama’s shifting rhetoric, from his refusal to back down on his pledge to negotiate with Iran on the campaign trail to his Nowruz message to the Iranian people. There was not an Iranian I met who did not want a better, more peaceful relationship with the United States. Many of them were skeptical of the potential for change; one person told me he thought hostility toward Iran was so ingrained that President Obama couldn’t change the policy singlehandedly even if he wanted to. One local businessman I met in a convenience store told me that the United States posture toward Iran was like holding out a carrot but holding a bottle behind your back; there was always an implied threat. The biggest complaint I heard from Iranians was about the United States’ condescending tone toward Iran and its double standards around nuclear proliferation. As one cab driver summed it up, “why is your government always telling us what to do?”
This mistrust is reciprocated by many Americans and is often seen as a major obstacle to negotiations. Despite what could seem like insurmountable conflict, I did see hope for a peaceful future. This was embodied most strongly in the young activists I met from Miles for Peace. Their passion for peace is so strong that a group of them biked across five countries in 2007 to show the world that Iranians are peace-loving people and want to have a more positive relationship with the world. As I videotaped members of the group conveying their messages of peace to Americans, I got to know a group of young people who were moved by the tragedy of the Iran-Iraq War to make sure no people had to endure such suffering again. Whatever the faults of our governments, it became clear to me that there is real potential for peace in the Iranian and American people. The raving anti-Americanism people imagine in Iran is a myth perpetuated by politicians and pundits. I have never received a warmer welcome or felt like more of an honored guest than when I was in Iran. Whatever their (mostly legitimate) complaints against the US government, the Iranian people welcome Americans with open arms.
Shortly after I returned to the US, I was greeted with the shock of the Iranian election that shook an already volatile political landscape, as well as the inspiring stories of Iranians taking to the streets to fight for their rights. The tenacious Green Movement brought a new perspective on Iran to the American public, though unfortunately many of the pledges of support for the movement from politicians were contradicted by counterproductive policy proposals. As organizers based in the US, we at Peace Action West focused our efforts on encouraging the US to reverse decades of poor Iran policy and get down to the challenging work of serious engagement.
A year later, where is the US’s policy on the long road toward a more productive and peaceful relationship with Iran? Congress’ role has tended toward counterproductive political gestures with little policy merit. Peace Action West and many other groups strongly discouraged Congress from passing unilateral petroleum sanctions on Iran, which were likely to undermine diplomacy and would hurt the Iranian population while failing to change the government’s behavior. In the face of lack of evidence that sanctions would be helpful, the House and Senate passed them overwhelmingly, and a final conference version is pending. Some members of Congress such as Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Howard Berman have made dangerous comments indicating that diplomacy has already failed; such statements imply closing the door on our one viable option for resolving outstanding tensions with Iran.
When I was on the Hill last week meeting with congressional staff (before the UN Security Council passed sanctions), I asked a Senate staffer about his sense of Congress’ feelings on the proposed uranium swap deal negotiated by Brazil and Turkey, which provided a new option to get back to the negotiating table. He told me he didn’t think there was a single senator who would be willing to urge the administration to welcome the deal as an opportunity to return to negotiating. When I expressed my concern about what the next step is after UN sanctions pass and do not in and of themselves change Iran’s behavior, he replied “that’s the million dollar question.” Actually, that’s a question that the people who are taking us down this road should have an answer to. Instead, they seem to be plowing full speed ahead with a continuation of a failed policy while dismissing serious diplomacy as a viable option. With some admirable exceptions, such as Reps. Keith Ellison and Jim Moran, creative congressional thinking on this issue has been lacking. Sen. John McCain keeps racking up wonderful ideas for how to further damage our relations with Iran. Just today he called on President Obama to use his personal mojo (which he mocked incessantly in the presidential campaign) to encourage the Iranian people to overthrow their government. Because US-backed regime change worked so well the last time.
While the administration has favored a more multilateral approach to Iran and pushed back against Congress’ unilateral sanctions push, they too seem to be stuck in a rut on Iran policy. The Obama administration’s early moves were encouraging, but many Iranians I met said they would draw their conclusions based on concrete actions, and those have been less than encouraging. The Obama administration’s agreement to participate in P5+1 talks on Iran was a move in the right direction, however the talks were stalemated by the proposed confidence building move of shipping Iran’s uranium, partially because the western powers would not budge in their original offer. A major aspect of sound strategy on Iran that seems to be lacking to me is an understanding by the US of how these negotiations will be perceived by the Iranian domestic audience. The nuclear enrichment program is broadly popular in Iran, and I saw firsthand Iranian resistance to having demands dictated by the US. Both sides need to be able to claim some kind of win, which means acceptable compromise from all parties. The uranium swap deal negotiated by Brazil and Turkey, while it had its flaws, offered an opportunity to get back to the negotiating table. I think the National Iranian American Council sums up the US response quite well (verbally and photographically) here.
I’m not implying that Iran does not share in the blame for the failure of negotiations; plenty of their actions have made this process more difficult, and their treatment of dissidents has been despicable. However, the United States has not made enough of a good faith effort to try serious, tough-minded diplomacy to justify placing all of the blame on Iran. As Stephen Walt wrote recently on foreignpolicy.com, the Obama administration’s Iran strategy has been “utterly unimaginative.” David Sanger reported in the New York Times today that the US has “plans B, C, and D” after UN sanctions inevitably fail to have a major impact, but patient, comprehensive diplomacy is not one of them.
This unleashing of my frustration at the lack of progress is not to say that there is no hope. It is to emphasize that we are at a critical point in US-Iran relations and must do all we can to push for a committed diplomatic approach. There is a potential solution that hasn’t been explored. Will it be easy? No. Will it be quick? No. Is it the best hope we have? It certainly carries far more potential than anything else the administration has tried. Defense Secretary Gates reiterated this week that Iran is one to three years away from the ability to develop a nuclear weapon (if they make a political decision to do so). We won’t know if broad diplomacy, covering an array of issues, will work unless we try it. There is time for one of the only approaches the US and Iran have not yet tried—broad, bilateral negotiations covering an array of areas of mutual interest. As Iran expert and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran (and former embassy hostage) John Limbert has stated, we need to have both high expectations and low expectations. We must hold out hope that diplomacy with Iran can be productive and is worthwhile, while being realistic and pragmatic about what it will take to resolve decades of tension.
My real hope for the future comes when I listen back to the hundreds of messages of peace recorded by Americans and Iranians before and during my trip last year. Speaking directly to one another, they express a profound understanding of the potential for friendship and peace more sophisticated than anything coming from our politicians and media. They reflect our shared humanity and ability to see beyond our governments’ scapegoating and demonizing. We need to share this message so more people in our countries can create a groundswell for peace, and compel our governments to catch up with the wisdom of their citizens.