|PHOTO ESSAY: See Life in Iran through the lens of Arash Shiva.|
You wouldn't know it from the aggressive language coming out of Washington, DC, and Tehran, but most Americans and Iranians would be better off if tensions between our countries were dramatically reduced.
The urgent interest of most Americans is getting U.S. troops out of Iraq. Iran has tremendous influence with Iraq's Maliki government—some analysts say even more than the U.S.—and could press the Iraqi government to more seriously pursue political compromises that would help stabilize the country and facilitate a U.S. withdrawal. But Iran is unlikely to fully use its influence in this way while the U.S. continues to threaten it with military force, wide-ranging sanctions, and regime change.
Likewise, most Iranians want their government to focus on economic development, improving job opportunities, and relaxing restrictions on civil liberties. But these domestic reforms are unlikely to progress much in the current atmosphere of confrontation, in which Iranians are pressed to unite against foreign threats, and domestic critics of the government are marginalized, or worse, as the witting or unwitting agents of a hostile foreign power.
Iran could do more than help stabilize Iraq and facilitate the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Iran also has significant influence with the Hamas movement in Palestine and the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, which are at loggerheads with the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority and the U.S.-backed Lebanese government, respectively. Regardless of what we think of these movements, they have significant popular support and are unlikely to simply disappear. The conflicts they are part of are a significant source of violence and instability in the region. Iran could use its influence with these movements to press them to abandon the use of violence and focus on nonviolent political activity.
Do these claims about how Iran could work with the U.S. seem far-fetched? Iran offered in a 2003 diplomatic initiative to do all these things. But the Bush administration rejected the initiative out of hand. Iran cooperated with the U.S. to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan; its reward for this cooperation was being named part of the “axis of evil.”
Americans also want greater emphasis on diplomacy. A recent USA Today/Gallup Poll found that, by a margin of 73 percent to 18 percent, Americans favor economic and diplomatic efforts over military action.
By setting preconditions for diplomacy that Iran will almost certainly not meet, the Bush administration is making real diplomacy impossible.
It is risky to wait for the next administration to take office to resolve this issue. The Bush administration still has nine months left. During that time, if a climate of confrontation between the U.S. and Iran continues, small incidents could spiral out of control and we could find ourselves involved in yet another war. Or, as some predict, the administration could order air strikes against Iran, unleashing a cycle of retaliation whose end is hard to see.
The Bush administration has shown that it can be responsive to sustained congressional pressure, which in turn results from public pressure. The congressionally appointed, bipartisan Iraq Study Group unanimously recommended talks with Iran. In response, the Bush administration began limited talks with Iran concerning Iraq, which the Iraqi government says have been useful. These talks should be expanded to include all issues in dispute between the two countries. If members of Congress hear consistently from their constituents that a “surge” of U.S. diplomacy is needed, not a bombing campaign, U.S. policy could change, even before the next election.
|Robert Naiman wrote this article as part of A Just Foreign Policy, the Summer 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Robert Naiman is national coordinator at Just Foreign Policy, which supports a multilateral approach to foreign affairs.
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