By Welling Hall
The President has been alluding to the different memories that Americans and Iranians have of their past relationship (thank you Joe Volk!). Notably, in his speech to the General Assembly, the President was echoing some of the sentiments that JFK made in his olive-wielding speech to the Soviets at American University in 1963. Changing the narrative from one of Inherent Bad Faith to one in which it is possible to think about areas of common interest has to be part of the diplomatic game plan not only in relations with Iran, but in talking about the relationship with suspicious domestic partners (like Congress). Indeed, it is hard to imagine how relations with Iran can improve much so long as the President is constrained by the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010. You can’t do much negotiating with your right hand when your left hand is targeting the potential business partner with economic restrictions that are intended to be crippling.
President Eisenhower confronted a similar situation when he was trying to imagine ways to continue the Spirit of Geneva in the 1950s with the Soviets. One way that he pursed a diplomatic front at that point was by flying beneath the radar and facilitating off the record conversations between Americans and Soviets to try to break through the cultural and political barriers reinforced by the Cold War. Initiatives like those (and the kind of initiatives pursued by the Institute for Soviet-American Relations in the 1980s) will be essential to transforming the American-Iranian relationship
Is this emerging diplomatic track helped or hindered when other issues are on the table, like Syria and Afghanistan?
Given the imperative of improving this relationship and the multiple challenges that need to be overcome in order to do so, it will not be helpful to have other issues on the table that distract from the creation of a new narrative in which Americans and Iranians can think of themselves as “we.” If there are other issues on the table, they should be in areas in which Iranians and Americans believe that they can mutually benefit from shared technical expertise, e.g. natural disaster relief, conservation of cultural heritage, countering desertification.
What implications might a thaw in US-Iran relations have in building shared security approaches in the Middle East, and what role could the Quaker community play in supporting such a thaw?
A thaw in US-Iran relations could provide a moment to revisit the proposal that Iran made to the General Assembly in 1974 for the Middle East to be a Nuclear Free Zone. Much more than a thaw in US-Iranian relations would be necessary in order to talk publicly about the contribution that Israel could make to a nuclear-free Middle East, but confronting this reality and Quaker plain speaking are essential prerequisites to developing shared security approaches to Middle East peace.