The estrangement between the United States and Iran over nearly three decades continues while the two countries increasingly pursue conflicting geopolitical agendas, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, or Israel and the Palestinian territories. The presidents of both countries have described the other’s nation in hyperbolic negative terms, and their diplomats have little experience of each other because of a generation-long prohibition of official contacts. In this climate, even the extremely small number of unofficial exchanges or collaborations between Americans and Iranians are vulnerable to attack by many in Iran and in the United States as “Trojan horse” strategies concealing more belligerent intentions. Nevertheless, desire for increased contact with the United States is widespread among Iranians. A more detailed understanding of Iran’s politics, history, and current conditions is vitally needed if the significant strands of Iranian society that are open to establishing constructive relations with the United States are to be effectively engaged.
In the fall of 2006, Network 20/20 members took the unusual step of fielding two delegations to Iran in order to gain first hand knowledge and build bridges with their counterparts in this important country. The delegations had three goals in mind:
1) To acquire a better understanding of Iran and Iranians in today’s geopolitical climate
2) To gain insights into the impact of the 28-year gap in Iranian-U.S. bilateral relations
3) To make concrete recommendations for reframing issues and reestablishing diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States
In two separate 10-day trips to Iran, Network 20/20 conducted more than 50 interviews in six cities and several villages. Some meetings were planned in advance, while others took place spontaneously in tea houses, at historic sites, on the street, and in bazaars. Interviewees represented a cross-section of Iranian society ranging from students, soldiers, and taxi drivers to government officials, mullahs, NGO leaders, and university chancellors. Many interviewees spoke English; Network 20/20’s Farsi-speaking members conversed with those who did not.
Overall, we found that interest in better relations with the United States remains strong, objections to U.S. policy do not inspire hostility to Americans individually, and in a few cases U.S.-Iranian medical, environmental, business, and drug prevention collaborations have endured.
Nationalist sentiment is shared by Iranians across the political spectrum and colored by grievances over past American and British interference in domestic affairs. Iran’s nuclear program is largely viewed as symbolic of Iran’s independence and prestige, rather than in terms of proliferation or military strategy. Even strong opponents of the clerical and security establishments strenuously object to coercive diplomacy by the U.S., and especially to the threat of military force. While most reformists feel that threats of military force and regime change are counterproductive to their reform agenda, they privately believe that external pressure is critical to forcing the clerical regime to moderate. Keeping the diplomatic heat on the Iranian government for its human rights record and disruption of the Middle East peace process, for example, is an approach many reformists welcome.
Within Iran, political debate persists, skepticism about the government’s motives abounds, and liberal civil society institutions have been tenacious. While Western analysts usually portray the country in terms of a crude division between “reformists” and “conservatives,” the reality is far more nuanced, and political alignments and personal ideology can be fluid.
Our main recommendations to U.S. opinion leaders and policy makers are that:
- The U.S. government should reestablish diplomatic relations with Iran. The United States should also avoid mixed policy messages. For example, Congress should not pass legislation that couples support for Iranian democracy with support for regime change.
- The U.S. government should build expertise on Iran among its diplomats and support joint projects or exchanges in the less controversial areas of the environment, education, science, public health, and culture working through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), multilateral agencies, or private foundations.
- The U.S. government should work with the current Iranian government on issues of political, social, and economic reforms. Eventually the United States should help Iran, the way it has China, accede to international organizations, including the World Trade Organization.
- Congress should hold open hearings on how better relations could be established with Iran. A large pool of expertise on conditions, politics, and attitudes in Iran is present in the United States among Iranian-Americans and among academics, journalists, former diplomats, and some businesspeople. Where possible, experts and opinion leaders should be invited to participate in such hearings on Iran.
- In the current highly charged climate, people-to-people relationships need to go beyond simply enacting good will between Iranians and Americans and begin testing out ways of raising the level of the debate between our two countries.