US/Iran Relations – Confrontation or Collaboration?

By Wilford H. Welch

Good politics or good policy? That is the quandary many U.S. Congressmen now face with regard to Iran. The American people have been conditioned over the past thirty-six years to distrust Iran and support policies that will keep Iran boxed in. But, building constructive relations where possible, in addition to limiting Iran’s ability to build and deliver nuclear weapons, may now be wise policy. This was the type of choice President Nixon faced in 1970 with regard to Communist China. This was the type of choice President Obama faced earlier this year with regard to Cuba and it is the choice America faces today with regard to our future relations with Iran.

During the Nixon administration I was a young China specialist in the State Department where I played a modest role in our normalizing relations with the Chinese communist government. Politicians in both countries had demonized the other to such a degree that  it took forethought and political courage for President Nixon to reach out to a country most Americans and members of congress considered a major enemy.  It was a good policy move, but a risky political move.

Over the past sixteen years I have led over twenty people-to-people trips to Cuba, a country whose relationship with the U.S. has been held hostage by a small group of Cuban – Americans and their political leaders in Congress. Part of the success of this small group of Cuban-Americans stemmed from the fact that there were no pro-normalization lobbying groups to counter such a well organized, moneyed, and single minded  lobbying effort. Three factors in particular broke the impasse:  A new generation of Cuban-Americans who were in favor of a change in policy; Recognition by our diplomats that U.S. relations with many other countries in Latin America were being damaged by our decades old embargo of Cuba; A second term U.S. President with little to lose.

On April 2nd, just hours after Iran signed the interim nuclear agreement with the U.S. and five other countries, I arrived in Iran with fifteen well travelled American citizens for a two week trip. All that most U.S. citizens remember of the Islamic Republic of Iran are five things: The storming of the U.S. Embassy in 1979;  The Iranians holding sixty-six American diplomats hostage for 444 days;  The Grand Ayatollah Khomeini labeling the U.S. “The Great Satan”;  Past President Ahmadinejad’s support for those claiming that the Holocaust did not exist; And finally, Iran’s efforts to build its nuclear capabilities.

Not surprisingly, the net impression all these Iranian actions have left is that Iran is irrational, dangerous and can not be trusted. This impression was hardened by President George W. Bush labeling Iran a member of “the axis of evil” and by the pronouncements by most U.S. and Israeli politicians and lobbyists ever since, including Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. As has been the case with China and Cuba, there have been no well organized groups in the U.S. seeking to provide an alternative assessment of Iran today and no incentives to those who might like to buck the prevailing view.

I do not claim to be an Iranian or Middle Eastern expert.  I did however teach at a business school in Tehran in 1976 before the revolution and have worked or visited many of the surrounding countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan and Egypt.

I leave Iran with the following impressions, many of which run counter to the views that have so consistently been given to us by Iranian, American and Israeli politicians. Here are a few:

  • As has been the case with other Americans visiting Iran, the members of our group stated they have seldom been greeted in any other country with the genuine  warmth and hospitality they received from the ordinary Iranians they met on the street and in the bazaars throughout the country.
  • U.S., British and Canadian citizens traveling to Iran are more carefully monitored by the Iranian authorities than most other nationalities, particularly when entering and exiting the country.
  • Many of the Iranians we met were deeply disturbed by Iran’s belligerent rhetoric and actions in recent years, are keen to have the sanctions lifted in exchange for restrictions on their country’s nuclear program and expressed interest in working with us, not against us.
  • Our group members felt safe at all times, even while walking the streets at night.
  • Many Iranians are convinced that history proves that U.S., British and Russian governments can not be trusted. This “trust gap” on both sides of the U.S. – Iran relationship is very deep.
  •  Ordinary Iranians are appreciative of the efforts of United States Secretary of State John Kerry to work hard to overcome the nuclear impasse and to build trust.
  • Iran has a well educated population of 80 million and will certainly gain economically, politically and militarily if the sanctions are lifted. A key question is whether they would use their expanded powers against us or, on balance, in alignment with our goals.
  • Iran is arguably the most stable country in a Moslem Middle East filled with failed or failing states. It is a Shiite Moslem state surrounded by predominately Sunni Moslem states the Iranians have argued with to unite the region.
  • Iran and the United States are now fighting ISIS separately, yet to the same end – to eliminate the self proclaimed “Islamic State” which claims to be Sunni and wants to establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate, a direct  challenge to Shiite dominated Iran. While closer collaboration with Iran on this issue would anger Saudi Arabia it might also temper Saudi’s support for Sunni extremist groups.
  • Much like Cuba, Iran’s economy and people have suffered as a result of years of economic sanctions. And, much like today’s Cuba, they are only likely to strike a deal if they can also retain their “honor” and “sovereignty”.  Both are proud peoples who are determined to no longer respond favorably to foreign powers wielding clubs.

It is of course essential from a U.S. foreign policy perspective that Iran not develop nuclear weapons. We have a choice however whether to seek confrontation at every turn or collaboration where feasible. Maintaining a belligerent tone on all matters pertaining to Iran may be a winning political approach for members of Congress, but it is not wise foreign policy. Diplomatic relations are not about only dealing with regimes you like but building relations with regimes you need to deal with – whether that means dealing with the likes of China, Cuba or Iran.

Wilford Welch is a former U.S. diplomat, and author of The Tactics of Hope. He also leads trips for Cross Cultural Journeys.

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