In response to President Obama's Nowruz overture, Iranian officials said: words are nice, but that what Iran is looking for is concrete changes in U.S. policy. Remarkably, such Iranian statements were presented in much of the U.S. press as evidence that Iranian officials aren't interested in improving relations. Another interpretation is at least plausible: Iran is looking for concrete changes in U.S. policy.
Treating a request for changes as an insult would make sense if we agree to assume that the U.S. is congenitally incapable of making concrete changes in U.S. policy towards Iran. But of course, that's not true at all. On the contrary, the U.S. finds itself like a kid in a candy store, confronted by so many choices for concrete policy changes to improve relations with Iran that one hardly knows where to begin. Here, by way of example, are twelve steps the U.S. could take to improve relations.
1. Authorize routine contact between U.S. and Iranian diplomats.
Right now, if you are a U.S. diplomat in any country, in any international forum, and an Iranian diplomat standing next to you sneezes, you have to apply to Washington for permission to say "Gezundheit." There are a lot of issues in the world, and on many of them, the United States and Iran see eye to eye. Our diplomats are not going to get Shiite cooties if they are allowed to engage Iranian diplomats in regular conversation.
2. Establish a US interests section in Tehran.
This is such a good idea, even the Bush Administration almost did it. The idea is that the United States, which now has zero American diplomats in Tehran, would establish a low-level diplomatic outpost there. Among other things, U.S. diplomats in Tehran could issue visas to Iranian students, scholars, and tourists to travel to the U.S. Right now, Iranians have to travel outside Iran to get a visa. There is a broad consensus in Washington that we should be engaged in "citizen diplomacy" with Iran; an obvious step would be to remove roadblocks in the way of Iranian citizen diplomats.
3. Guarantee multiple entry or expedited re-entry visas for Iranian students and scholars.
Many Iranian students in the U.S. - and there are many - have been prevented from traveling to Iran with the assurance that they'll be allowed back into the U.S. to continue their studies. So, if you're an Iranian PhD student at a U.S. university, and a member of your family in Iran got married, became gravely ill, or passed away, you had to weigh your desire to be with your family against the danger of not being allowed to complete your studies. This hasn't been conducive to citizen diplomacy. Iranian students should know that they'll be able to visit their families and come back to their studies. While we're at it, we could authorize direct airline flights between Tehran and New York.
4. Acknowledge Past Misdeeds. I have yet to see a rational argument for why we can't say sorry for overthrowing Iranian democracy in 1953. Bill Clinton said sorry for what the U.S. did in Guatemala in 1954. Why can't we say sorry for what the U.S. did in Iran the year before?
5. Demonstrate U.S. Innocence of Iranian Accusations The belief is widespread among Iranians that the U.S. instigated Saddam Hussein to invade Iran in 1980. If it's not true, let's show that it's not true. Perhaps Jimmy Carter, who was President at the time, could put this matter to rest.
6. Affirm no U.S. policy of "regime change" The Bush Administration proposition that the U.S. could force a change of government in Iran that would make the U.S. better off was deeply immoral, plainly illegal, and wildly impractical. It provoked hostile actions by Iran for no apparent benefit. Let's state for the record that we're permanently out of the business of "regime change" in Iran, and make clear that we will in no way support armed groups that attack Iranian civilians and officials.
7. Re-affirm the Algiers Accords In 1981, the U.S. signed an agreement with Iran in which the U.S. pledged "that it is and from now on will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs." Since we've already signed this, let's affirm that it's still U.S. policy and will remain so.
8. Abolish U.S. "Democracy Promotion" programs in Iran The notion that the U.S. can "promote democracy" in Iran by funding Iranian oppositionists is a bad joke. No Iranian reformist who wants to be taken seriously in Iran will go anywhere near the taint of U.S. money, and the mere existence of these programs needlessly and counterproductively taints reformists and provides an excuse for repression. The best thing the U.S. can do to support Iranian civil society is contribute to a relaxation of international tensions. That will open more political space in Iran than all the money in the U.S. Treasury.
9. Affirm that Iran has the right to the peaceful enrichment of uranium. It's extremely unlikely that we're going to get Russian, Chinese, and European companies to willingly endure a significant amount of real pain for the "principle" that Iran has less right to enrich uranium than Brazil. In affirming Iran's right to the peaceful enrichment of uranium, we'd just be opening the curtains and looking outside. "Build a taller fence around a smaller yard," as the saying goes. We'll make much better progress campaigning for the internationally legitimate demand that Iran's nuclear program must be transparent, than for the quixotic, unilateral demand that it should cease to exist.
10. Affirm that the U.S. welcomes Iran's role in stabilizing and helping to rebuild Iraq. It's perfectly understandable that some people in Washington are deeply annoyed that after America baked a cake of a new government in Iraq, Iran came along and helped itself to the biggest piece of influence. Maybe, the next time we decide to overthrow a Sunni minority government and replace it with Shiite exiles from Iran, we'll look before we leap. But there's no use crying over spilt milk. Iranian influence in Iraq is an accomplished fact. We might as well make the best of it.
11. Affirm that the US has no problem with Hamas or Hizbullah if they become nonviolent political parties. Many people in Washington have their undies in a bunch about that fact that Iran has good relations with Hamas and Hizbullah. But Iran used its influence with Hizbullah to help bring about a national accord in Lebanon. Iran could use its influence with Hamas to help bring about a Palestinian national unity government that can make peace with Israel. According to polling commissioned by J Street, the majority of American Jews support peace negotiations with a Palestinian national unity government; a poll in Israel found similar results; many top advisors to Obama agree. Since we're all agreed that this is a good idea, let's use Iran's influence to help bring it about.
12. Stop making provocative, "faith-based" accusations against Iran. I know it makes Likudniks happy, but our top officials look silly when they say that we know Iran is trying to acquire a nuclear weapon at the same time that our Director of National Intelligence is testifying to Congress that Iran has made no such decision. If what we're concerned about is that is that Iran is developing an enrichment capacity that could be helpful if a decision were made to seek nuclear weapons in the future, why not say that instead?
Similarly, our leaders look silly in the Middle East when they accuse Iran of "supporting terror," when it's obvious to Middle Eastern publics that the practical definition of "terror" in this context is "people we don't like." Obviously, it's tautologically true that Iran "supports terror," since it "supports" Hamas and Hizbullah and we've issued fatwas that these are terrorist groups. But the same logic would make Pakistan, the United States, Israel and Colombia "state sponsors of terror." The description is arguably accurate in each case, but it's no way to begin a conversation. Trying to start a conversation this way sends the message that we're not serious.
If we have real issues with Iran, why don't we speak about them truthfully instead of just making stuff up? Surely that is more likely to lead to resolution.