As US-Iranian relations continue to be adversarial after Trump, any path to reconciliation should involve the US administration engaging directly with and listening to the general Iranian public, writes Kourosh Ziabari.
A portrait of U.S. President Joe Biden is taped to a balloon during a ceremony marking the anniversary of the seizing of the U.S. Embassy in downtown Tehran on November 4, 2021. [Getty]
Withdrawing from the world famous Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action advocated by all the world’s major democratic leaders at the time of its signing was not just a foreign policy mistake on the part of former US President Donald Trump, but a catastrophic betrayal of years of painstaking efforts to resolve one of the intractable dilemmas of international relations and the instigation of a critical risk of nuclear proliferation.
When the JCPOA was agreed, EU High Commissioner for Foreign Policy Federica Mogherini said it could “open the way to a new chapter in international relations”. Trump wreaked havoc in this opening.
But instead of filling the void resulting from this misstep by initiating a plan B to deal with Iran, Trump escalated and it soon became apparent to the international community that he intended to completely closing the door to diplomacy. Although he avoided war with the Islamic Republic until the end, he surrounded himself with hawks whose drive for regime change and open confrontation with Iran got the world into serious trouble. Rudy Giuliani, John Bolton and Brian Hook couldn’t be the kind of advisers to pull the United States and Iran out of crisis and simplify the enigmas that marred their relationship.
With the era of Trump now over and the policy changes promised by his successor Joe Biden presaging the transition to normality in international relations, it is imperative that both adversaries take the necessary steps to mend the fences, and even late, and dismantle this formidable wall of mistrust built and reinforced since 1979.
“With the era of Trump now a bygone world and the policy changes promised by his successor Joe Biden presaging a transition to normality in international relations, it is imperative that both adversaries take the necessary steps to repair the fences”
The fact that diplomats from Iran and six world powers have been traveling to Vienna for several weeks now to try to resuscitate the JCPOA is promising, and it would not have been possible without President Biden’s commitment to renewing diplomacy and doing understand that his Middle Eastern strategy does not smack of Trump idiosyncrasies.
Yet the fate of the nuclear deal remains bleak as there is no indication that Tehran is willing to make the compromises that are the basis for reinstating the deal, while extremist discourse in Iran remains obsessed with “no negotiation with the United States” – a tactic that does not seem conducive to reversing Iran’s woes.
The Islamic Republic’s ultra-conservatives – who consolidated power after the June 2021 presidential election and can no longer complain about a ‘liberal’, ‘westoxified’ Rouhani spoiling everything – should say they want to reap the benefits of fully implementing the JCPOA. To do this, you have to talk directly to the United States. If they don’t recognize it, every overhaul of the deal will be half-baked and short-lived.
But while one tends to err on the side of optimism and anticipate an overhaul of US-Iranian relations, there are a range of policy options available to extricate relations between the two countries from the current state of misanthropy and of antagonism.
The options available to the Biden administration to attempt detente are more diverse and its resources more extensive. The United States has hardly been in a vulnerable position in its relations with Iran. It prescribes economic sanctions against Iran with no return effect on its own economy, while immeasurable burdens also weigh on Iran and its partners.
Moreover, the contemporary history of Iran-US interactions shows that for the theocratic Middle Eastern nation, voluntarily approaching normalization means entering uncharted waters, fraught with the risks of losing face and legitimacy after years of spreading an entrenched anti-American ideology.
If the Biden administration can reasonably be expected to take the first steps toward reconciliation, it should be by directly engaging the Iranian people, listening to their voices instead of notorious far-right action groups or of pro-war think tanks, and striving to capture the realities of a sophisticated nation, with its long history and significant aspirations.
Iranians are on the whole outward-looking and open to dialogue with the West. Of course, the government relentlessly pushes its publicity against the United States. But this is not the vision of the world shared by young people, students, academics, Internet users and the young generation of the “revolution”.
By providing opportunities for engagement with authentic voices inside Iran and supplanting Trump’s ostracized immigration artefact, the Muslim ban, with regular people-to-people exchanges and Track II diplomacy , President Biden can deepen ties that will remain impervious to future shocks, surviving ebbs. and flow of relationships in the years to come.
Additionally, Biden is expected to draw on the sizable community of Iranian-Americans, comprising a vibrant cohort of college professors, tech geeks, doctors, painters and photographers, musicians, writers , public intellectuals and scholars, NASA scientists and Silicon Valley geniuses, to usher in a new era after decades of bitterness.
“Iran is not a monolith, and these nuances must be discovered”
The presence of Iranians in the United States, despite the missing link between diplomatic relations and the absence of embassies, the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended international travel and the hangovers from years of Trump’s warlike pugnacity , is remarkable. Nearly 12,000 Iranian students are enrolled in American universities, and the US Census Bureau’s 2018 Annual American Community Survey finds that 467,000 citizens in the United States are of Iranian descent.
This unique presence is useful for each American administration to strengthen its relations with Iran. Trump’s most immediate Iranian connections were members of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq organization, a poorly known terrorist group that, even in the diaspora community, suffers from a lack of credibility. The MEK and other regime change dreamers are too out of step with the realities of modern Iran to help a US president pragmatically approach this complex society.
By initiating ties with Iranians of all persuasions, by strengthening Iranian civil society, whose size and influence are diminishing daily for lack of support, and by adopting a language of respect and inclusion, it is possible to hope for a new departure.
Iran’s hardliners may continue to resist and insist on their favorite “Death to America” slogan, but the US government and its security apparatus must understand that this anti-American mentality, fueled by a vocal minority , does not represent the plurality of Iranian society. Iran is not a monolith, and these nuances must be discovered.
Kourosh Ziabari is an award-winning Iranian journalist and reporter. He is the Iranian correspondent for Fair Observer and Asia Times. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford Fellowship.
Follow him on Twitter @KZiabari
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