Iran and the United States: time to engage

About the author
Omid Memarian is a journalist who writes for the IPS (Inter Press Service) news agency and the Daily Beast, and whose work has been published in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the San Francisco Chronicle. In 2005, he received both Human Rights Watch's Human Rights Defender award and the Hellmen Hemet award. In 2007-09, he was a World Peace Fellow at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He is currently working on a multimedia project on the condition of "American Muslims in the Obama Era", and teaches journalism at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). His website is here

The Sharm al-Sheikh conference on 3-4 May 2007 gathers representatives from the United Nations, the G8 states, and Iraq's neighbours to discuss the future of Iraq. But the event may be equally important for the chance it offers for talks between the United States and Iran. Both parties may still profess reluctance to initiate discussions, but it is clear that the taboo on negotiation is dissolving on both sides. The key questions are: how will they happen, who will be involved, and on what topics will discussions focus?

Iranian and American senior officials - including Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani and the US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice - have for several months been prominent in voicing the possibility of a diplomatic opening. At the same time, they have set preconditions which have acted as a deterrent to progress.

If it proves different this time, the deciding factor could be that Larijani has the full support of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the point here is about institutions rather than personalities, and about the way that Iran's internal politics affects its external policy and rhetoric.

Omid Memarian is an Iranian journalist and civil-society activist. He was awarded Human Rights Watch’s highest honour, the Human Rights Defender award, in 2005. In that year, he was a visiting scholar at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Omid Memarian's blog is here

Also by Omid Memarian in openDemocracy:

"Under the radar: an Iranian and America" (17 August 2006)

"Ahmadinejad, Iran and America"
(15 January 2007) – with Dariush Zahedi

The various political factions (conservative or reformist) jockeying for power in Iran have long been conflicted on most subjects but agreed that normalisation of relations with the US is historically desirable. Many politicians believe that the group which proves most successful in this endeavour will gain a decisive advantage in the internal power game. But this means in turn that any real step towards this goal is seen by rival factions as a threat to their influence, and a reason to try to stall progress. Today, the faction proposing negotiations - of which Khamenei and Larijani are leading players - is the most powerful and least likely to fail in any new diplomatic initiative.

A politics of threat

For their part, the Iranian people are closely watching for signs of movement, especially in light of a possible third round of United Nations sanctions against Iran that could follow a failure of negotiations over Tehran's nuclear programmes. It is indeed ordinary Iranians who are the main victims of the animosity between the two governments. The United States professes that its "reach-out policy" is directed at serving their interests, but Iranians' own experience is of economic pressure and political isolation.

Moreover, the Iranian government uses hostility with the US as an excuse to suppress the country's energetic civil society, marginalise democratic forces, restrict the public sphere, and ignore people's material needs. Their great excuse is the threat from what Ayatollah Khomeini called the "great satan". This is the mantra that avoids responsibility for addressing corruption, poverty, unemployment, and bad governance.

A policy that truly seeks to "reach out" to the Iranian people would eschew both multilateral sanctions and the option of a military strike, which reinforce the Tehran hardliners' ability to tap anti-US sentiment, rally people behind the flag, and suppress opposition. If instead the US decides to initiate negotiations with Tehran, the Iranian government will be ideologically disarmed - no longer able to use anti-Americanism as a major weapon of self-protection.

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on Iranian politics in a period of crisis:

Hooshang Amirahmadi, "Iran and the international community: roots of perpetual crisis" (24 November 2006)

Dariush Zahedi & Omid Memarian, "Ahmadinejad, Iran and America"
(15 January 2007)

Ali Afshari & H Graham Underwood, "Iran's post-election balance" (22 January 2007)

Kamin Mohammadi, "Voices from Tehran" (31 January 2007)

Fred Halliday, "The matter with Iran"
(1 March 2007)

Anoush Ehteshami, "Iran and the United states: back from the brink"
(16 March 2007)

Sanam Vakil, "Iran's hostage politics"
(2 April 2007)

Andreas Malm & Shora Esmailian, "Iran: the hidden power"
(10 April 2007)

Nazenin Ansari, "Tehran's political dynamic: after the kidnap crisis"
(16 April 2007)

Nasrin Alavi, "Axis of Evil vs Great Satan: wrestling to normality" (2 May 2007)

Such dialogue would also be an asset to Iran's democratic and human-rights movements, which came to flourish in the period after Mohammad Khatami was elected president in 1997. It is too easily forgotten that Iran is among the very few countries in the Middle East with a living democratic tradition (one the United States helped to suppress in the 1953 coup which overthrew Mohammad Mossadeq's government, the most popular and democratic in Iran's modern history). It is also a country where democracy is a matter for serious political debate, and where - if free elections were held - secular elements or moderate Islamists, not radical Islamists, would gain power. Since the revolution, Iranians have had enough experience of the negative consequences of combining doctrinaire religion and politics in governing a society.

It is important to remember too that Iran has held more than twenty-one elections since the Islamic revolution in 1979 - even granted that the candidates are hand-picked and the majority of moderates are disqualified. Furthermore, women in Iran - unlike some of the US's allies in the Persian Gulf region - can vote, run for office, create successful businesses or launch NGOs, and comprise the majority of university students. They are a major, active force across society, initiating vital campaigns against misogynistic laws, social abuse and the enforcement of the hijab (headscarf) which have mobilised thousands of people.

A more nuanced US policy involving diplomatic relations with the Iranian government and fully-fledged economic and social ties with Tehran would allow the true picture of Iran under the ayatollahs and hardliners to emerge. It is then that advocates of democracy and human rights who are struggling for the advancement of their society will flourish.

It's time

There is a wider strategic interest for the United States too. The US is currently attempting to contain the influence of Iran's hardliners in the region by employing Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as a proxy - two states where democracy is merely a dream even for optimists. If ever a "one individual, one vote" system is established in either country, radical Islamists are bound to rise to power - and whose access to nuclear bombs would make their containment near impossible. It is part of a greater geopolitical hypocrisy that the status of these two countries as US allies has guaranteed them immunity from criticism for their violations of human rights, lack of democracy, and even sponsorship (financial and ideological) of terrorism.

It is noteworthy that Iran and the US share the same enemies in the region, namely the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The bombing which occurred during Dick Cheney's trip to Afghanistan on 27 February was a clear signal that such groups present an immediate threat. Since the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, the US has made meagre progress in ending their operations or arresting their leaders. All indications are that it is Pakistan and Afghanistan, not Iran, which harbour these terrorists; and that they have survived US attack to emerge reorganised. The US could improve its own security through collaboration with Iran.

A fresh approach would help solve the nuclear standoff too. The US and the European Union could help Iran to develop a peaceful nuclear programme, provide safe nuclear technology and alternative fuels and equipment, monitored by the international community. In any case, a nuclear Iran cannot be more dangerous than a nuclear Pakistan and or North Korea.

For twenty-eight years, a revived relationship between Iran and the United States has been blocked - by, at various points, the Iranian government, Iranian dissidents outside the country, and the US government. Its absence has meant that democracy in Iran, stability in the region, and the containment of terrorism have all suffered. Today, the interests both of the United States and Iran converge behind an "engagement policy". Sharm al-Sheikh would be a good place to start.