Comprehending Iran

Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammed Khazaee, on stage at the Asia Society along with journalist David Ignatius and former U.S. top diplomat Thomas Pickering

Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammad Khazaee (center), on stage at the Asia Society along with journalist David Ignatius (left) and former U.S. top diplomat Thomas Pickering (right) on February 20, 2013

Most Americans seem to know Iran as the most significant threat to U.S. national security and the remaining giant of the “Axis of Evil”–yet as I read through news and commentary and talk with friends and colleagues, I notice that there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of understanding going on.  This was the primary reason why I went to go hear Iran’s Ambassador to the United Nations speak at the Asia Society in NYC on February 20th.  And it’s also why I want to further the conversation in this blog post.

When I was a young kid in the late 70s, I remember Iran looming large, and followed along as best I could the baffling news of revolution, the Shah taking refuge in the U.S., the hostage crisis.  As a bookish, newspaper-reading child, I learned sometime in the early 80s that I shared a birthday with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.  I still am unsure what to do with that tidbit of information.  And I am still only beginning to understand the magnitude of what has transpired and continues to go on between our two countries.

I wasn’t really sure even who Iranians were when I first arrived in Afghanistan, just one country to the east of Iran.  I thought of everyone in the region as ambiguously “Middle Eastern,” which wasn’t so accurate.  During my first deployment, I took a short primer on conversational Dari taught by an interpreter who was an Iranian national, now a U.S. citizen.  He’s the first one who set me straight on a few basics.  Dari, the official language of government in Afghanistan, is essentially Afghan Persian; he could speak Dari because he was raised speaking Farsi, which is Iranian Persian.  Ariana Airlines and Ariana TV in Afghanistan are named for Afghanistan’s historical roots as a land of the many Aryan peoples (unrelated to later Nazi racial mythologizing, by the way); the name Iran also literally means “land of the Aryans.”  Of the ancient Aryans, the Persians emerged as the most politically dominant and culturally prolific.  If you talk to a Persian today, they’ll reference their 7,000+ years of culture that has influenced world history.  (And that so much of what we take for granted as western civilization has roots in Persia.)

As I spent more time there, I came to realize how many people in Afghanistan identify as Persians.  Some of my older Afghan National Army colleagues took refuge in Iran during the years of civil war and Taliban rule in Afghanistan.  They fed me Iranian dates that they bought from the local bazaar. Afghanistan may share 1,500 miles of border with Pakistan, but it also shares more than 500 miles of border with Iran.  Yet the U.S. has had no official diplomatic dialogue with Iran since 1980 other than these tense, often hostile negotiations over uranium enrichment.  What gives?

Fast forward to the event a few weeks ago at the Asia Society, which transformed Iran for me as the looming elephant in the room of world history into a living, breathing nation at the table deserving of a voice.  Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee has served for years as Iran’s representative at the United Nations in NYC, yet Washington has no formal ties with him.  Iran’s population is more than twice that of either Canada or Iraq.  Iran’s GDP, despite decades of harsh trade economic sanctions, is still larger than either Australia or Taiwan.  We have formal relations with, say, Pakistan, which is already a nuclear state and fraught with serious problems that are too lengthy to list here.  Yet we’ve had no official dialogue with Iran for more than three decades.

It is plainly true that Iran has an unpleasant history with the U.S. since 1979: American hostages were held in Tehran for 444 days; Iran has been a primary supporter of Hezbollah militants, who have been responsible for the 1983 embassy bombing in Beirut among other acts of terrorism; Iran is suspected of backing militia members fighting against U.S. soldiers in Iraq; and Iran has maintained an aggressive posture toward Israel.  Not to mention a catalog of human rights abuses, repression of dissidents and peaceful demonstrations, and other such horrific conditions.  And there have been serious, urgent concerns in recent years that Iran has been developing nuclear technology in order to produce weapons that could strike Israel or otherwise result in mass destruction. In addition Iran’s support for Assad’s atrocities in Syria in recent years.  Take note that I am not excusing or giving a pass to any of this.  But as I mentioned, we do have diplomatic relations with the governments of other countries that we might also characterize as deplorable and highly problematic.  It seems that the U.S. has spent the last three decades trying to wish the post-revolution Iranian government out of existence, with no success whatsoever.  With stakes that have escalated this high, would’t we be in a better position to offer Iran alternatives if we had an open diplomatic dialogue?

When he took the podium, Amb. Khazaee introduced his remarks by saying that Iran seeks peaceful relations with the U.S., and has no “red line” when it comes to relations or negotiations.  He then pointed out that the U.S. has not only cut off diplomatic ties with Iran, but also has said one thing, yet done another.  He hopes for what Obama once promised as “a new approach,” although as of yet it has seemed a continuation of the old approach.  He then politely outlined the Iranian view of the events of the last three decades, naming acts of aggression toward Iran by the U.S., including the Iran Air flight that was shot down by U.S. missiles in 1988, killing all 290 passengers (including 16 children), as well as the U.S. backing of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran and the subsequent eight years of war that came after–in addition to recent tightening of sanctions, cyber attacks, and strikes against nuclear facilities.  He said that Iran strongly desires negotiations, but only negotiations that respect the sovereignty of their government, that are not coercive, and that are aimed at bilateral cooperation.  He also brought with him a written statement from Iran’s Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) specifically for this evening, saying, “We are reasonable” and asking for reasonableness from the U.S.–in respecting their sovereignty and not interfering in Iranian domestic affairs.

The fact alone that Amb. Khazaee was present in a prominent U.S. public forum shows that Iran is seeking a voice with the U.S.  President Ahmadinejad and his flamboyant rabble-rousing have faded to the background as his term nears an end this year, and hopefully the Supreme Leader will ensure that Iran’s future voices on the international stage are as “reasonable” as promised.  The stakes are high and the problems are grave and urgent, but Khazaee’s speech was compelling, and it was clear to me as I sat there in the audience that we all would do well to listen and at least open the dialogue.  There is simply too much at stake here not to.

Thomas Pickering, who formerly served as U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and in a number of other key diplomatic positions throughout his career, did indeed open up dialogue–although he made it clear he was not speaking on behalf of the government, and he framed his statements as recommendations for how the U.S. could proceed with negotiations and dialogue with Iran.  He emphasized that the U.S. should open negotiations and dialogue based on mutual respect, and that the near-term goal should be to set the stage for continued open dialogue.  We’ve had more than thirty years of mistrust and misunderstanding, and we have to change course.  Pickering said he was skeptical of reaching a “grand bargain” with Iran, but instead proposed a “grand agenda” to move forward with small, incremental steps that would build trust and de-escalate the situation that exists between our countries right now.  He suggested that our countries take four first steps:

  1. The U.S. should show forward progress with removing sanctions against Iran
  2. Iran should take steps to reinforce their stated commitment to nonproliferation of nuclear arms
  3. The U.S. should recognize Iran’s sovereign right to enrich uranium for civil projects
  4. Iran should accept IAEA monitoring of uranium enrichment to the satisfaction of international standards

Pickering discussed that Iran has been converting much of its enriched uranium stores from gaseous form to metallic fuel for their research reactor, which serves as an indicator that the purpose of this material is not for weaponry.  He suggested that this could be an opportunity for future negotiations–it could be feasible, for example, for the U.S. and allies to assist Iran with making the research reactor more efficient for developing medical materials (or materials for other civil purposes), thus reducing the need for stockpiling nuclear materials.

Khazaee and Pickering had a cordial dialogue facilitated by journalist David Ignatius, and there is a lot I’m not covering here.  It was a serious, smart, and very detailed conversation.  Khazaee brought up the idea that Iran, if it wished to produce nuclear arms, could simply withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (as North Korea has), but they haven’t done this.  He said an example of the U.S.’s double-speak is that a day after Iran signed an agreement with Brazil and Turkey in 2010 to ship low-enriched uranium to Turkey for conversion to metal fuel for the research reactor–a gesture to show these materials are not to be used as weaponry–the U.S. then pushed for UN Resolution 1929, which slapped Iran with even tighter sanctions.  Khazaee said that this is exactly what creates mistrust.  He said the Supreme Leader had issued a fatwa (a binding religious edict) just months earlier explicitly prohibiting nuclear proliferation, and Iran registered this fatwa with the U.N. Security Council.  Yet the sanctions still came.

I left the Asia Society event stunned, and with pages of notes and heavy ideas to process.  There is a lot of surface-level chatter in the news media and blogosphere that takes a bullying tone towards Iran, and that addresses none of the finer points of why a nation would be interested in developing nuclear materials for energy and medical technology–which could be socially and economically beneficial, and also help to bring about incremental improvements in how Iran’s government relates to the rest of the world as well as its populace.  We are at a point where it is clear that the policy the U.S. has been pursuing with Iran has not been an effective one.  We have not had open dialogue and diplomatic relations with Iran for more than thirty years, and the problems between us have only escalated and become increasingly dangerous and frightening.  Iran is a giant power, a significant influencer, and a nation representing one of the oldest continuous cultures in the world–and the current government is not going away any time soon.

What I’m saying is this: there simply has to be a better way forward.  And there has to be a better, more productive conversation on Iran, both diplomatically as well as among everyday Americans like you and me.  What do you think?

Please feel free to respectfully continue the conversation here.

3 thoughts on “Comprehending Iran

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