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Iran–U.S. Relations: Imagining
a New Paradigm

PANEL II: Shared Concerns, Shared Interests

Mustapha Tlili introduced the second panel, which he moderated. The panel would move from a conceptual discussion to a more concrete analysis of shared interests and concerns between the United States and Iran. The purpose of this panel was to draw up a list of shared areas of interest, in which cooperation between the U.S. and Iran could begin.

Barbara Slavin spoke first. She identified Afghanistan and the fight against al–Qaeda as two issues where the U.S. and Iran could resume discussions, especially given Iran’s opposition to al–Qaeda and Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Other areas for cooperation include piracy off the Somali coast; drug interdiction (especially after the resurgence of the drug trade in Afghanistan); Iranian airline safety and the provision of spare parts for the old U.S. civilian airliners that Iranian airlines still fly; and Iran’s inclusion in peace conferences like the Annapolis conference. In addition to this list, there are other areas in which Iran can be made to feel like a responsible stakeholder, rather than an enemy. Maritime safety in the Persian Gulf and the eventual U.S. withdrawal from Iraq are two examples.

These are simple issues of mutual concern on which cooperation could begin immediately, Slavin noted. She concluded with a quote by Iran’s Deputy National Security advisor, who said: “In Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, and Palestine, the United States needs Iran. Iran needs the United States, too. We can come to an understanding. But do you think there are eyes to see or ears to listen in Washington?”

The second panelist, Neda Sarmast, brought an artist’s perspective to the discussion. Having worked in the music industry for 17 years, Sarmast has witnessed the power that art and culture can command over people. Her experiences in Iran during the Iran–Iraq War, and in the United States during the hostage crisis, have allowed her to see both sides of the divide, and to recognize that in the United States, the Iranian side has been misrepresented. This impelled her to begin working with the American–Iranian community. For the past few years, Sarmast has dedicated herself to portraying Iran’s dynamic youth culture to an American audience.

Referring to recent demographic statistics, Sarmast highlighted the importance of youth as a segment of Iran’s population. Fifty two percent of Iranians are below the age of 30, and their voices, Sarmast explained, are seldom heard in the U.S. media. She decided to make her documentary, “Nobody’s Enemy”, in an attempt to initiate a dialogue between the youth of Iran and America. The documentary offers an inside view of ordinary Iranians, and in particular students and artists.

Sarmast concluded with a quote from the former American National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezinski, who stated that America’s inability to conduct intelligent policy comes, in part, because its public is insufficiently educated about the rest of the world. Brezinski encouraged public education as the solution, an imperative which Sarmast echoed.

The discussant, Professor Mohiaddin Mesbahi, connected the two panels conceptually by developing two of the themes he introduced in the first panel.

First, when hostility emerges from a conflict of interest it is more likely to be resolved rationally than when it emerges from ideological confrontation. In ideological conflicts, every area of common interest and potential cooperation becomes a battleground between the two sides. For example, Mesbahi noted, Iran and the United States cannot combat terrorism together so long as the United States defines Iran as a terrorist state.

Second, power disparities have real consequences for negotiations between the two sides. Iran and the United States are not equal. The United States is the more powerful side and Iran is demanding, in part, to be treated as an equal. The United States must show more restraint in its political rhetoric and avoid talking about regime change in Iran. Unless both sides are willing to talk about their common interests, without one side interfering in the domestic politics of the other, there will be no movement forward in negotiations.

Mesbahi concluded by emphasizing that both sides must cease to frame their conflict in existential terms. Both sides are presently unable to coerce each other toward their ultimate objectives. The United States is no longer able to attain its political objectives solely by the deployment of military force, as Iraq has shown, and Iran can no longer expect to push the Americans out of the region. With this deadlock, alternative visions should present themselves more clearly, and agents of change should come forth and express their voices.

Tlili opened the question and answer session by asking all the speakers how they would advise President–elect Barack Obama to deal with Iran during the first hundred days of his presidency.

Mesbahi answered that he would request an official moratorium on “name–calling” between the two sides. This would provide the opportunity for a new language to enter the realm of foreign policy and create a new atmosphere for negotiations.

Slavin agreed that a change in language was important, and added that the U.S. government should give American diplomats permission to talk with their Iranian counterparts, something that they are presently denied. She also credited Condoleezza Rice with acknowledging, this past summer, the legitimacy of the negotiating process with Iran.

Sarmast emphasized the importance of dialogue without preconditions. Americans need to learn more about Iranian culture and heritage, said Sarmast, and refrain from prescriptive statements about domestic Iranian politics.

A number of audience questions addressed the nature of the Iranian regime and its recent actions toward the United States.

Fred Hill, a former State Department official, asked about the impact of Iran’s fractured power system on the upcoming Iranian elections and on future prospects for dialogue. Another audience member asked why the Iranian government’s recent congenial gestures have not been taken seriously in the United States.

In response to the first question, Mesbahi stated that he does not believe Iranian decision–making power is as diffuse as it is sometimes portrayed. There does exist a complex process of negotiation and opposition among government officials, but certain authoritative players also have the ability to leverage their weight to forge consensus. Slavin added that the diffuse decision–making argument is often used by the United States to justify their search for elusive Iranian moderates. By contrast, Slavin argued that decision–making in Iran, especially in the domains of defense and foreign policy, is made by the Iranian National Security Council and, ultimately, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Sarmast also suggested that the United States may be waiting for the outcome of Iran’s upcoming elections before pursuing any avenues for dialogue and contact.

Addressing the second question, Mesbahi argued that Iranian gestures toward the United States are not always a reflection of their cooperative intentions, but are also based on domestic calculations. By reaching out to the U.S. government, the Iranian regime can convince its own people, in the event of armed conflict, that it tried its best to resolve the conflict through other means. Slavin added that the new Obama administration may be more receptive to Iranian gestures than the previous administration.

A number of questions addressed the role of universities in facilitating dialogue and interaction between Iranians and Americans, especially in light of former Iranian President Khatami’s appeal for a dialogue of civilizations.

Mesbahi agreed that university exchanges are useful, but cautioned that the actions of the U.S. Congress have not helped. Congress has been the source of the most radical anti–Iranian decisions taken under the current administration, including the decision to deliver funds to Iranian opposition groups.

A number of questions were posed about Iran’s role in the regional and international context. One audience member asked about the impact of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict on U.S.–Iranian relations. David Speedie, from the Carnegie Council, asked how Iran perceived its interests and threats in relation to the rest of the Middle East. A final question was posed about Russian–Iranian relations.

Professor Mesbahi acknowledged the huge impact of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict on Iran’s relationship with the United States. He noted that Iran has an ideological attachment to the Palestinian cause that is normative and not strategic. This can affect U.S.–Iranian relations in two ways. Either both countries can agree to deal with their contentious issues separate from the respective commitments to Israel and the Palestinians, or, if Hamas is incorporated into the Israeli–Palestinian negotiation process, Iran may follow their lead and soften its rhetoric against Israel. Slavin added that Iran has shown cooperative tendencies in the past, having endorsed the Saudi peace initiative of 2002. She also highlighted that many Iranians resent their government devoting money and energy to support Arab causes.

Professor Mesbahi also noted that Russia has been a tactical beneficiary of U.S.–Iranian hostility and Slavin spoke about Russia’s historically intrusive role in Iranian politics.

The panelists closed by emphasizing the role of ordinary people in bridging the gap between Iranians and Americans. Professor Mesbahi revisited the issue of language in defining national security. Confrontational language, when deployed uncritically, can lead to a callous characterization of threats. The tone of the language used between the two sides must be softened.

The panelists also acknowledged the complexity of Iranian experiences and points of view that cannot be captured in simple narratives and anecdotes. Observers and people who want to learn more must be attentive to Iran’s diversity, and avoid reducing Iranians to caricatures and simplistic representations.

Tlili concluded by thanking all the panelists.

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