According to the chancellor of a prestigious university in Tehran, despite the current government-to-government freeze, the way to start fostering further cooperation among Iranians and Americans is by people-to-people visits that allow us to question our fundamental perceptions. “Coming here to talk to people like me in order to seek a greater understanding of reality is how we can all start to see that what we believe is often very different than the actual facts,” he said in a meeting with members of our delegation. “This sort of exploration can only lead to a greater understanding and further cooperation between our two countries.”
Yet in the aggravated climate surrounding the sanctions debate in the United Nations Security Council, young reformers we met bemoaned the setbacks they suffer from the hardliners every time the United States issues statements that threaten to isolate Iran. They told us that Americans must begin to understand Iran on its own terms and to listen to Iranians and learn about local realities, rather than rely on stereotypes. America’s big-stick diplomacy only fuels Iran’s hardliners and hinders reforms, we were told.
President Bush’s co-mingling Iran with North Korea and Iraq and calling it part of the “axis of evil” immediately after Iran supported the U.S. in Afghanistan has had deleterious effects. According to a retired government official in Tehran, “the U.S. pulled the carpet out from under the Iranian internationalists who had supported outreach to America.” Iran’s UN ambassador, Javad Zarif, who was in charge of his country’s negotiations with Washington over Afghanistan at the time, explained why the U.S. label “axis of evil” had such a negative impact in Iran. He said that many Iranians had expected a positive response from the U.S. for Iran’s help in Afghanistan and that they were outraged and hurt by the poisonous labeling “axis of evil” that they received instead. He told us, “Iran made a mistake by just hoping that the U.S. would reciprocate and by not linking its assistance in Afghanistan to American help for Iran in other areas.” It is likely that Iran will drive hard bargains with the U.S. in the future.
In the context of tensions between the U.S. and Iran, American Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns told us that the U.S. and Iran maintain only limited back-channel contacts. Burns reported that he himself has never been in a room with an Iranian official and that the State Department does not have a cadre of Farsi speakers. “There is no one in my generation who’s ever served in Iran,” he said. “There’s no one in my generation who has ever worked with the Iranians in any way, shape, or form. And we have got to fix that.” To that end, Burns has promoted first-time Farsi lessons among State Department employees.
He has established a special outpost in Dubai where U.S. diplomats can meet Iranians as they come and go to and from Tehran, and has set up a special interagency task force within the State Department to facilitate the exchange of information on Iran.
While Iran’s hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, resists international pressures to open its nuclear program to full international inspection and the United States elaborates new complaints about Iranian influence in Iraq, supporters of democratic reform have been heartened by the setbacks Ahmadinejad received in the December 2006 elections for municipal government bodies and for the “Council of Advisors,” a large body that advises Iran’s “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. As long as tensions run so high, however, even secular liberals in Iran are not receptive to gestures of support from the American government. Like the journalist Akbar Ganji, important dissidents tend to reject overtures from the U.S. administration.
The pro-democracy broadcasting proposed under the Iran Freedom Support Act, which passed both houses of the U.S. Congress with broad bipartisan support in 2006 as part of a package that also threatens sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, is widely seen as propaganda in service of a U.S. policy of regime change. The Iranian sociologist and former UNESCO advisor Ehsan Naraghi opposed the act from early in its conception, writing to Pennsylvania’s Senator Rick Santorum that “your support would only give the authoritarians the opportunity to accuse freedom activists of complicity with the American superpower.”
A manufacturer we met in Yazd warned, “America’s threats of regime change, bombing, and UN sanctions fuel our hardliners. We will be set back and our freedoms taken away if it comes to war.” A participant in the embassy hostage taking of 1979 who now promotes human rights and other reforms complained to us that the surge in support for democratic reform, symbolized by former President Mohammed Khatami’s first-ballot electoral majorities of 70 percent in 1997 and then 78 percent in 2001, was “stopped in its tracks” by President Bush’s 2002 “axis of evil” speech. In 2004, candidates identified with the reform movement were able to win only 39 out of 290 seats in Iran’s Majlis, or parliament. By 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had a base of support among Revolutionary Guard veterans of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and an alliance with Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, was able to gain a second-round majority of 62 percent in Iran’s presidential election. Although a major reason for the resurgence of politicians aligned with Iran’s clerical power structure in 2005 is that right-wing bodies were able to approve who could run for office in partyless elections, the effect on popular opinion in Iran of the United States’ escalating anti-Iranian rhetoric and actions should not be discounted.