Future Oriented Diplomacy Toward Iran

We did something that infuriated Iranians in 1953 by organizing a coup removing their democratically selected Prime Minister. They did something that properly infuriated us in 1979 by taking our embassy staff hostage. George Bush announced that Iran was part of the Axis of Evil. So now is the die cast? Are we doomed to permanent enmity? Trapped in stereotypes and hatred, too many see no way to a better future except by deepening the conflict with every kind of force.

I have a fair amount of contact with people who study Iran or spend time there periodically. And they all tell me the same things. Iran is changing. Even clerical views are becoming less radical. The population at large is becoming more secular, less radical, and narrowing the clergy’s options. There is less attendance at the mosques and more activity that contradicts the strict interpretations of Islamic theology that worry Americans. Iranians are wearing unsanctioned clothing, listening to unsanctioned music and news, even dancing and producing theatre. Not only middle-class Iranians but up and down the income scale and across Iran geographically people are changing toward much more cosmopolitan views and lifestyles.

Those developments are important. They signal a widespread Iranian desire for rapprochement with this country, a weakening and a softening of clerical control over the government, and the possibility of moving toward much better relations between our countries.

We should not lose sight of the fact that Iran had a democratic government long before the Revolution and that Iran had an Israeli diplomatic presence while the rest of the Middle East treated Israel as a pariah. Although the Iranian Revolution dislocated some of those traditions, Iran cannot be lumped in with the radicalization of some sects in the Sunni world. It has long been following a separate, westernizing path.

A westernizing trend with deep roots in the population of an economically progressive and powerful Islamic country needs to be encouraged. Despite all the rhetoric about bringing Iran to its knees with sanctions, the sanctions are being used in Iran to sustain the more conservative elements in Iranian religion and politics. It is a clumsy American foreign policy that guarantees that the future will be worse than the past. The short term is dominated by disputes. Diplomacy, however, cannot ignore the long term.

That was the genius of the European Union. Germany and France had been enemies, repeatedly fighting major wars over several centuries. Yet after World War II they were united, but not by sanctions, reparations and renewed threats. Instead we rebuilt Germany under the Marshall plan, while French and German statesmen, with British and American backing, envisioned a world in which Germany could be a partner and an ally. That took vision, not merely the repetition of slogans about battles and hatreds.

I don’t mean to imply that the EU is a model that can be repeated wherever there are enemies. But diplomacy must work toward a vision for how we can share a better world.

That is really the strength of the Obama-Kerry plan. Instead of insisting that old disputes must fan future ones, it strives to reduce the friction and heal the wounds, while important historic forces work inside Iran so that it can regain a positive role in resolving middle-Eastern struggles.

And yes, of course, this agreement does not solve everything. The Iranians reached out to George Bush with a proposal to put a broad range of disputes on the table but instead of responding through diplomatic channels, he publicly called Iran part of an Axis of Evil. It’s hard to tell what that may have cost us. As some diplomats say, put everything on the table, agree on nothing. My point instead is that there are fundamental developments in Iran that should be encouraged, and that it is a huge mistake to write them off. Lack of vision can make a decent future unreachable.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 21, 2015.

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