Iranian Election Results Offer Opportunity for Creative Diplomacy

Iranian Election Results Offer Opportunity for Creative Diplomacy

an op-ed on #Iran and recent elections

The election of moderate reformer Hassan Rohani as the new Iranian President  offers an opportunity for a positive turn in relations between  the United States and Iran. 

While there are ample reasons for skepticism that any big changes in Iranian or U.S. policy will occur, a combination of cautious optimism and creative diplomacy by leaders of both countries is what’s needed now.  In Iran, President Rohani’s path will be difficult since supreme power still rests with the more conservative, hardliner Ayatollah Ali Khameni.  In the United States also, hardline anti-Iranian attitudes and policies will not be easy to change.

Popular support for positive change in U.S. policy will depend in part on Americans acknowledging what we remember about Iran and what we forget.  American memories still are haunted by images of the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah’s dictatorship, especially images of radical young Iranians attacking the U.S. Embassy and holding fifty-two Americans hostage for 444 days. Our memories of these events were recently and vividly rekindled by the Academy Award winning film Argo. What we don’t remember at all or too easily forget is that in 1953 the Shah was installed by an American CIA financed and orchestrated coup d’etat that overthrew Mohammad Mossadegh, Iran’s first popularly elected President.  Most Iranians, whether conservative or liberal, remember those events and many are understandably suspicious of U.S. policy.

There are three critical policy issues between the United States and Iran: the war in Syria, Iran’s nuclear program, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The new Iranian government may bring a change of emphasis and tone to these issues, reflecting  President Rohani’s priorities on improving Iran’s struggling economy and avoiding further confrontation and the threat of war.  Progress on these issues will also require new approaches by the United States.  On the war in Syria, the U.S.-Russian initiative for an international conference is hopeful, but in order to increase chances for success, the conference should be endorsed by the U.N. Security Council and must include all the countries involved in supporting the two sides in the war, that means the United States, Russia, the European Union, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran, as well as China and possibly Japan and India, all of which have interests that are threatened by a prolonged, devastating war that already is metastasizing into wider regional and global conflict.

On Iran’s nuclear program, negotiations have been stymied, on the one hand, by U.S. insistence that Iran give-up its 20% enrichment program, even though the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty apparently allows it and, on the other hand, by Iran’s unwillingness to permit the kind of thorough inspections by the IAEA that would assure the world community that Iran is not hiding development of nuclear weapons.  An equally serious problem in the negotiations is U.S. unwillingness so far to commit to lifting sanctions if Iran satisfies international demands related to enrichment and inspections.  Making matters even worse, there currently is a bipartisan bill in the U.S. Senate, similar to one that had disastrous consequences in Iraq, that would tie lifting sanctions to regime change in Iran.  Obviously, no Iranian President, no matter how moderate, could possibly bow to that kind of ultimatum.

To understand Iranian attitudes about relations to the West and to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it is essential to remember that there are two very different streams of Iranian thinking.  President Ahmadinejad represented a radically confrontational approach.  Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s last President before Ahmadinejad  and a prominent supporter of Hassan Rohani, promoted a Dialogue of Civilizations, denounced Ahmadinejad’s denial of the Holocaust, and indicated he was prepared to support a negotiated two-state peace agreement between the Palestinians and Israel. While how President Rohani may shift emphases in Iranian policy will become clearer in the coming months, his views are certainly closer to Khatami’s than they are to Ahmadinejad’s.

Complicating all of these issues and making the process for resolving them more difficult is the fact that for thirty-three years the United States has not had diplomatic relations with Iran.  In 2009, President Obama indicated interest in improving relations.  With the election of a new, reform-minded Iranian President, it is time to revive that positive emphasis in U.S. policy.

*Ron Young is Consultant for the National Interreligious Leadership Initiative for Peace in the Middle East.  He lives in Everett, WA.