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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, 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.

Crossposted on Groundswell.

Originally posted to Rebecca Griffin on Fri Jun 11, 2010 at 03:04 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I'm confused. Are you for getting rid of the (0+ / 0-)

    Mullahs who are in charge of Iran or not?

  •  I have warm feelings toward (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    sandbox, divineorder

    the Iranian people. I have worked with a number of Iranian emigres and found them to be extremely kindly and friendly. I am sure many Iranians also have strong feelings of affection to Americans.

    That said, there is a serious problem at hand and it is that the Iranian dictatorship is pretty clearly set on acquiring a nuclear weapon and doing a pretty good job of blocking efforts to prevent them. In fact their ingenuity and single-mindedness is rather impressive. It seems to me that there is little if anything that can be done to block the Iranian program. So the US policy should be to start preparing for the day when Iran has deployable nuclear missiles.

    If we look at the history of nuclearization, there is a paradox. The fear that others have of a nation acquiring nukes seems a little unfounded. India and Pakistan have had 4 major wars. But since Pakistan exploded its bomb, both sides have had to make a series of careful judgments in the full knowledge that their very existence is at stake if they let things get out of control. So nuclear states may become much more conservative not more radical. China, once blithe about WW3, became much more enabled to negotiate with the USA when it had its own bomb. It's fair to ask whether Iran might not also become a much more careful and politically mature nation when it acquires nukes.

    Nations crave security. The nuke is the ultimate "don't tread on me" message. A nuclear Iran may paradoxically become much more willing to engage the west than it is today. Still, that's not a question I am looking forward to answering if I am wrong.  

    •  In the case of Iran I don't think we can live (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      with this. The leadership is fanatical islamic religious nutcases.

      •  This is the kind of myth that prevents (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Dr Marcos

        any productive conversation about negotiating with Iran. Whatever you think about the current regime, they are not suicidal, and they know that launching a nuclear weapon would be a suicidal move. Their actions clearly show they want to maintain power, and launching a nuke at Israel or the US would cause them to be "obliterated," in the words of Hillary Clinton.

        On Anne's comment, I think the Iranian regime may be pursuing a nuclear weapon, or it may not be. There are certainly reasons to be suspicious of their intentions, but we can't know for sure. I think what we need to focus most on are the facts: all estimates say it would take Iran at least a few years to develop a nuclear weapon if they chose to do so. We know that sanctions and threats aren't effective tools in deterring Iran. We don't know if diplomacy can work because we haven't really tried it, despite what some might say about the minor attempts the US has made to engage. I think it's possible to come to a negotiated solution, but both sides need to be willing to put a lot of issues on the table and to make compromises.

        In the bigger picture, the US could also help things by shifting nonproliferation policy. It would not be hard to imagine why Iran might want a nuclear weapon after seeing what happened to Iraq and what didn't happen to North Korea. The US legitimizes nuclear weapons as part of security strategy. The Obama administration is taking some important steps toward rebuilding American credibility on this front, but a lot more needs to be done.

        •  I think we do know, Rebecca. (0+ / 0-)

          They are. No real question about that in my mind. And I don't think the Iranians would be even slightly persuaded by any disarmament by the USA, not that that shouldn't happen. We are working with Russia to decrease our inventory and a study recently concluded that only 312 nukes would have the same deterrent quality as what we now have. So nuclear arms reduction is a worthy goal but it has nothing to do with Iran's ambitions or plans.

          But I think the larger issue that must be pondered is how we deal with a nuclear Iran. I agree with you that the leadership of Iran is not suicidal but they are also utterly ruthless, make no mistake. They are not trustworthy. They are not our friends. We and our allies want very different things from what they want. There is a conflict. It is serious and it cannot be solved by sticking a daisy in the barrel of an Iranian gun. So let's stay real. Conflicts - even and perhaps especially nuclear confrontations - can be managed. We did it with Stalin and Kruschev. We did it with Mao's China. And, like you, I don't subscribe to the belief that the Iranian dictatorship is suicidally crazy. If so, they would have launched their formidable army across the border into Iraq back in 2005. They didn't because they have strategic objectives. A nuclear-armed Iran would present a major power-shiift in the region. Our response will likely not be military because it's unthinkable. I do think that we will respond in 2 major ways.

          First, we will contain Iran by building stronger military alliances with the primarily Sunni nations in the region. They don't like Shiites and they really don't like Shiites with nukes. We will see a new military and economic alliance emerge in the Gulf as a counterweight. We will also work hard to damage Iran economically wherever possible although this is a hard task but why not give it a shot.

          Second, we will - and this seems antithetical - engage Iran. We will start talking to them about how to coexist just in the same way that, despite our loathing, we talked to the USSR. Maybe we will get somewhere. Maybe we won't. A green curtain has descended across Iran...

          As always, good policy comes from rational thought rather than through demonization or hippy-like fantasies.

          •  Anne: (0+ / 0-)

            That is one of the most arrogant, dishonest, and immoral defenses of US imperial entitlement I've seen in months. Your scorn and rejection of the concept of universality reads like standard State Dept. agitprop.

            How easily some are manipulated into hating Iran and its people. Your casual advocacy of "damaging Iran economically" reveals that you regard Iranians as your inferiors by definition, objects deserving of respect and human rights and decent lives only in direct proportion to their acquiescence to US demands. Sanctions against Iran do next to nothing to harm the fundamentalist Mullahs or Ahmadinejad and his supporters, but they will make life yet more miserable for the general population. Not that this fact would ever be a concern to US planners.

            You may not know Iran, but Iran knows you. It knows what the US did to Mossadegh in '53. It knows what Pahlavi and SAVAK did to the Iranian people with full US support. It has not forgotten that Iraq attacked Iran as the US backed Saddam and assisted him materially in killing as many Iranians as possible. And they know that when Saddam gassed the Kurds at Halabja, he was at the time still a US ally.

            Yes, Iranians know through direct experience how some Americans view not only Iran but every other nation on Earth that seeks to chart a course of independent economic and social development. They know that what the US objects to in other nations are not "evil leaders", torturers, brutal tyrants, or ruthless dictatorships; after all, the US has bankrolled so many of them. No, it is disobedience that the US hates, nationalists of any political stripe who refuse to be extorted and humiliated and meekly submit to the interests of the US corporate leadership class.

            They know that the US claims that any actions they undertake in the international arena are legal, good, and just by definition. No state has the right to defend itself from US attack. Hence, when local populations attempt to resist US or US-allied military aggression and covert mass murder operations, such as the Viet Minh, the Pathet Lao, anti-Pinochet Chilean organizations, the FSLN and FMLN in Central America, Palestinians, Cubans, native-born Iraqi or Afghan nationalists, or any of a dozen other entities, their acts of self-defense are labeled "internal aggression" and "local terrorism."

            As the Obama administration intensifies and expands the current Bush-initiated US terrorist war from Afghanistan to Pakistan and Yemen to Somalia, killing more civilians with more drone strikes in one year than Bush/Cheney did in eight, the ideological champions of  American exceptionalism will diligently defend America's divine right to dictate through violence the rules by which the world's rabble must live by.

            R. Griffin: Wonderful diary. Thank you for this.

            Illegal Alien: Term used by the descendents of foreign colonizers to refer to the descendents of indigenous people

            by mojada on Sat Jun 12, 2010 at 10:49:10 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

      •  Dumb comment Sandbox. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        In the case of Iran I don't think we can live with this. The leadership is fanatical islamic religious nutcases.

        Any more fanatical than Afghanistan government which we are propping up. Or Pakistan's. Or Saudi Arabia's. Or even Israels fanatical religious nutcases.

        Hell from where I'm living, the United States has got a pretty heavy contingent of fanatical religious nutcases including the guy Obama replaced.

        What is it about Iran's religious nuts that you "don't think we can live with".

        Non Violence is fine... so long as it works. - Malcolm X

        by Dr Marcos on Fri Jun 11, 2010 at 04:28:50 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  As (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    As long as the government of Iran is headed by evil fanatics, there will be no thaw.  I think the Iranian people are the biggest victims of their government, but I don't know any way to hasten their fall.  If I were Bush and had just HAD to invade someone, I would have gone into Iran and not Iraq.

    "In his library at Simi Valley, dead Reagan waits dreaming"

    by greatdarkspot on Fri Jun 11, 2010 at 03:43:51 PM PDT

    •  Would also have been a fail. Nice diary. nt (0+ / 0-)

      by divineorder on Fri Jun 11, 2010 at 03:45:52 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Thanks, divineorder. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Some groups we worked with put out an add a few years ago that said, "If you liked war with Iraq, you'll love war with Iran." War with Iran would make Iraq look like a piece of cake, and would further victimize the Iranian people who have enough problems on their hands. That's one of the reasons we need to get negotiations back on track, so Obama doesn't get pushed to engage militarily. I think enough people realize that would be a complete disaster, but I don't think I could confidently say it would never happen.

        •  Agree with you. BTW, I quit teaching to (0+ / 0-)

          promote US/USSR citizen diplomacy exchange projects in teh mid 1980's.  Your efforts are very important for change.

          by divineorder on Fri Jun 11, 2010 at 04:25:40 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  That's great. (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            Thanks for your efforts. It's really a shame that these exchanges can't happen more often, they would do so much for shifting the environment if they happened on a large scale. I saw so many European tourists in Iran who were visiting for the beauty and culture. Hopefully someday Americans will actually consider (and be able to easily) do that.

  •  But can America even exist... (0+ / 0-)

    ...without some demonized "evil" enemy? The entire American narrative is based upon us hating and needing to destroy the "others". There is an irrational combative streak in America, stoked by the indefatigable death industry, that stymies any move toward peaceful foreign policy. It's not right but it's a national character flaw that must be dealt with.

  •  If you would like to read a... (0+ / 0-)

    recent official statement from Iran, then you can go to this UNSC web-page. Move down the page to 9 June 2010 and open the Meeting Record "S/PV.6335".

    This is an 18 page pdf document. Pages 15 through 17 contain a speech given by Mohammad Khazaee the current Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations.

    (Note: For reasons I don't understand it does not seem to be possible to make a permanent web-link to UNSC pdf documents. Hence the manual digging around that is required to actually get to this document.)

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