Friends of the Devil: U.S.-Iran Ties Beyond a Nuclear Deal

People of good will hope that the ongoing P5+1 negotiations will culminate in a deal by November 24, but whether the final deal happens next month or not, it will be important to continue to avoid conflict in favor of dialogue and even collaboration when possible.
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Shaytân-e Bozorg: The Great Satan.

Ayatollah Khomeini first bestowed this sobriquet upon the United States during the 1979 revolution in Iran. In 2002, President George W. Bush returned the favor when he cast Iran as part of an "Axis of Evil."

The time for this vitriol has passed and its utility is nil. It is time for a new approach.

As the November 24 deadline for a comprehensive nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran draws nearer, we should applaud the diplomatic efforts on both sides: they have brought us closer to a solution where it is hoped that Iran will not create a nuclear weapon for its arsenal and the United States will not be dragged into yet another armed conflict in the Middle East. These negotiations constitute the longest sustained direct and high-level contacts between Washington and Tehran in over 30 years. Even if the talks fail to bring about a deal, senior U.S. and Iranian leadership will have spent a good deal of time face-to-face. This in and of itself is significant.

Washington and Tehran, Americans and Iranians need to update their mutual narratives accordingly, and we should look for ways to expand productive ties.

This does not mean glossing over the issues that continue to divide us. Even though Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is a marked improvement over his predecessor Ahmedinejad, the system over which he presides is still deeply flawed: 30 years of repression do not disappear overnight. The Iranian regime has backed the brutal reign of Bashar al Assad, supported terrorism and aided Hezbollah. It has persecuted religious minorities and imprisoned journalists and social media users. Most recently, a harmless group of young Iranian Pharrell Williams fans who produced their own video to the song "Happy" were sentenced to six months in prison and 91 lashes.

The best hope of reforming an oppressive regime is to engage with it. We can raise objections publicly while continuing the dialogue: our diplomatic relations with Russia and China are ongoing, for example, even as we oppose certain of their military and human rights policies. And most importantly, Rouhani has shown that he is a willing partner in dialogue.

People of good will hope that the ongoing P5+1 negotiations will culminate in a deal by November 24, but whether the final deal happens next month or not, it will be important to continue to avoid conflict in favor of dialogue and even collaboration when possible. How can we build on the progress made thus far?

First, we need more exposure for and greater interaction between the pragmatists in both countries. There are hardliners and naysayers on both sides, but there are also centrists who see the wisdom of reconciliation. In the United States, these centrists include former Ambassadors Thomas Pickering and William Luers, U.S. Representative Rush Holt and others who have been outspoken in their support of moving nuclear negotiations forward. In Iran, the pragmatists include many of those who elected President Rouhani: his supporting coalition includes reformists, mainstream conservatives, technocrats and the business community. The United States can strengthen the foundation for more positive and constructive ties by engaging these specific communities: convening joint technology conferences, encouraging scientific collaboration and organizing student exchanges -- all are tools that could be useful.

Second, local groups and media need to raise the visibility of ordinary people. The Pacific Council is based in Los Angeles -- affectionately called by some "Irangeles" -- sister city to Tehran and home to the largest Iranian population in the world outside of Iran. We can learn a great deal from the Iranian community in the United States and its linguistic, cultural and political wisdom about Iran, which better represent the diversity and complexity of the country than simplistic epithets and demonization. At present, data from the Pew Research Center show that American attitudes toward Iran remain overwhelmingly negative: 76 percent of those interviewed reported holding an "unfavorable" view of the Islamic Republic. That number has increased steadily during the past five years, rising about 10 percentage points. Meanwhile, data from Iran show that the feeling is mutual: a 2012 Gallup poll found that 67 percent of Iranians did not approve of the U.S. leadership in the world; only 8 percent said they approved. The policies and approaches we support as a public will begin to change when our perceptions of each other change.

Third, we all must foster and participate in the open lines of public communication and diplomacy. The world looks very different than it did 35 years ago: there are new ways to connect and a proliferation of digital avenues for direct contact. Today, Iranians and Americans can learn from each other without ever leaving their home countries. Like others around the world, Iranians are tech-savvy and active on social media and in the blogosphere. In the face of persistent challenges to internet freedom on the Iranian side, we should encourage and initiate efforts in the digital space as much as possible.

Fourth, we need to initiate a shift in official government language: such change has to come directly from Washington and Tehran. Let us dispense with childish name-calling: no more Axis of Evil, Great Satan and "Death to America." The current nuclear negotiations have opened the door for that kind of shift. U.S.-Iranian collaboration on combatting the Islamic State (ISIS) provides another opportunity -- one that will no doubt be easier to approach with a final nuclear agreement in hand. As a Shia country, Iran shares the West's concerns about the radical Sunni group. Yet right now, the United States and its international coalition on ISIS still hold Iran at arm's length, sticking to the temporary and tenuous logic that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Instead, Washington should pursue the partnership with its long-term potential firmly in mind and begin to modify official rhetoric to reflect this shift.

These kinds of initiatives will not solve all problems, nor eliminate almost 40 years of hostility. Domestic hardliners in each country will not disappear, and our disagreements on key issues of human rights, women's rights, freedom of the press, U.S. anti-terror strategy and other U.S. policies in the Middle East will remain. But open lines of diplomatic and people-to-people communication coupled with mutual respect will be more productive in moving towards resolution than epithets and insults.

We have a global responsibility to act like a great power: a real U.S.-Iran relationship has to mean more than finding the lesser of two evils. We must seek to treat each other as potential partners, skip the ad hominem attacks, build a genuine foundation for collaboration and consider our differences and disagreements on their own terms. Middle East expert Jerrold D. Green is President and CEO of the Pacific Council on International Policy.

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