US-Iran Diplomacy — 2 Essential Next Steps

by Joe Volk

This is a response to our question of the week. You can read all of the responses here.

Beth & I are in Vietnam as I reply to your questions about the U.S. – Iran diplomacy initiative.  Today’s (Oct. 30th) news says that former V.P. Dick Cheney called for a US war on Iran.  That brings back memories. Dick Cheney supported the US war in Vietnam, avoided military service at the time, and went to work in the White House.  I opposed the US war, refused to go with my army unit to Vietnam, and went to work for Quakers.  We disagreed then on Vietnam; we disagree now on Iran. Though very different countries, the Vietnam case might have something to teach us about Iran.

Here today in Vietnam, with all the US flags on clothing, all the English signs, all the western pop music, all the people being lifted out of poverty, all the hustling entrepreneurs, all the handheld devices, all the environmental pollution, and all the corruption, one has to wonder:  what was the US war in Vietnam for and what was the Vietnamese civil war for?  These wars and all their waste, misery, and death could have been skipped, and this might still be where Vietnam would have ended up.  We might take that lesson to the case of Iran today:  War Is Not the Answer and Peace Is Possible Through Peaceful Means. Let’s skip the war part and go right to the post-war phase of building a new relationship with Iran.  Now, let me offer specific responses to your questions.

What are the necessary next steps the Administration can and should take to further develop their diplomatic game plan with Tehran?

Two essential, though not exclusive, next steps are:

1.    Renounce and Replace Regime Change as the U.S. Goal for Iran.  Replace it with a goal of cooperation and coexistence with the Islamic Republic, and
2.    Convey Respect and Understanding for Iran’s history, cultures, and religions.
Ambassador (ret.) John Limbert, once a US hostage in Iran at the time of the Islamic Revolution and now a professor at the Naval Academy, wrote an indispensable book, “Negotiating with Iran: Wrestling the Ghosts of History.” He makes the point that we should see negotiations with Iran as a marathon not a 100 yard dash.  We should expect progress and set backs along the way.

Limbert and others, including Trita Parsi, “Treacherous Alliance: Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the US“, and Barbara Slavin, “Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US, and the Twisted Path to Confrontation,” have suggested (as I read them) in years past that negotiations with Iran will more likely succeed if they focus first on a grand bargain, not on nuclear weapon issues.  The nuclear weapon issues would resolve in the context of a grand bargain.  I believe that is still the case, although current events may prove me wrong.

Will Congress enable or impede the ability of the President to take these two key steps, replace the goal of regime change (ending all the secret attempts to undermine the regime) and convey respect?  That’s the question, and the answer may well depend on the American people making a compelling and persistent demand that Congress enable the President.

Is this emerging diplomatic track helped or hindered when other issues are on the table, like Syria and Afghanistan?

These issues work both ways.  If and when the US & Iran seek cooperation with each other, how each addresses Syria, Afghanistan, Hezbollah, oil ships in the Strait of Hormuz, Israel and Gaza, Iraq, and others may serve as “carrots” for cooperation.  For example, warming and improved US-Iran relations could significantly improve prospects for a negotiated ceasefire and political settlement of the civil war in Syria. If Iran and the US escalate threats and sanctions, then these issues can serve as “sticks.”

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?

The 2003 so-called secret letter (see Trita Parsi’s book cited above)  from then Iranian president Rafsanjani outlines what’s possible.  His initiative toward the Bush administration was rejected and, worse, used to undermine his presidency.  Among his proposals were that, in exchange for normalized relations with the US and Iran being let back into the global economic core, Iran would support a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine, pressure Hezbollah (in Lebanon) and Hamas (in Gaza) to de-militarize, and assist the US and others to pacify Afghanistan and Iraq.  When we spoke with him in 2007, he carefully avoided our questions about that proposal. However, in speaking with others, I felt that these and other welcome outcomes would be possible, even under new leadership, if the US and Iran achieved a grand bargain.

The Quaker community, along with its historic peace church partners and nonviolent movements, can support a thaw in the cold confrontation between the US and Iran.  Service work such as the earthquake relief that the Mennonite Central Committee has done for over 20 years helps to build relationships.  Religious leaders delegations such as those by FOR and by AFSC, FCNL, and MCC help to build relationships and to demonstrate the possibility for fruitful talking rather than destructive warring.  Laboring with Members of Congress and officials of the US government helps to translate protest into policies for building peace.  Working with veterans of US wars can be a powerful way to show the folly of war and the benefits of peaceful prevention of deadly conflict.  Nonviolent direct action in support of diplomacy and to stop killing can help too.  The Quaker community and others of like mind have much to be done at the local, national, and international level of activity.  We need to work quickly and well for the lives of many innocent people depend upon us.

Joe Volk is Executive Secretary Emeritus of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), former National Secretary for Peace Education of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and a member of Ann Arbor Friends Meeting.


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