Events

Possibilities for Improving Relations with Iran

May 17, 2004 // 10:30am12:00pm

The following remarks were prepared by Ambassador Miller based on his presentation at the Woodrow Wilson Center May 17, 2004. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and in no way represent the views or opinions of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

For several years, certainly since 1998, face-to-face discussions between U.S. and Iranian officials were not only possible, but on occasion have taken place. In a number of important recent instances contacts with Iran have been of great value and have contributed significantly to U.S. interests. Overtures to begin the process of normalization of diplomatic relations have been made first by one side, then the other, since the election of President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, but both sides never seemed to be in alignment when serious ventures were openly made, such as those made by President Khatami on the Iranian side and by President Clinton and by Secretary of State Madeline Albright on the American side. Of course, earlier, there were the secret discussions known as "Iran Gate". No overtures for normalization have been made during the Bush administration, which has been characterized by its rhetoric of demonization particularly the use of the phrase, "Axis of Evil" by President Bush in the State of the Union address. But most important, despite a contrary rhetoric there have been and continue to be occasional pragmatic discussions on tactical issues.

In the face of tactical discussions between U.S. and Iranian officials on Afghanistan and Iraq, Al Qaeda, drug trafficking, and refugees, the official public stance of the United States government has been one of isolated distance, a posture of looking across a chasm filled with the rubble of broken relations dating from the 1979 taking of US diplomats serving at the US embassy in Tehran as hostages. The twenty-five years that have passed were marked by public mutual governmental hostility. The United States, on the one hand, repeatedly condemned Iran's support for terrorism in many parts of the world, assigned responsibility for terrorist acts against Americans such as the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Iran's support for Hamas and Hezbollah and hindering the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians; Iran on the other hand, cited U.S. support of unjust Israeli actions and support for continued settlements and occupations of Palestinian territories, direct military support for Sadaam Hussein and Iraq in its war against Iran, U.S. support of the repressive regime of the Shah, the damage done by economic sanctions, the demeaning treatment of Iranians by immigration authorities, blocking of World Bank loans for Iranian development projects. The result of charges and counter charges has been a bitter pattern of diplomatic warfare. The United States has used the means of sanctions and rhetorical demonization of Iran as a "rogue", "pariah state" and a key element in a contemporary "axis of evil" to maintain official hostility.

To be sure the list of grievances on both sides is long but so is the list of matters of mutual interests, wherein both sides could benefit if serious discussions took place. Despite the obvious benefits that could ensue if official relations were allowed to develop, grievances have continued to cloud the official public perception of each side by the other.

Nonetheless, two important factors have begun to erode this official position of mutual hostility: the first is a growing set of pragmatic needs, the second is the cumulative effect of the "Dialogue of Civilizations," that is, the direct engagement of many many non-governmental individuals and groups in the normal process that makes up normal civilized life- the practice of civil society.

To turn first to the pragmatic needs of both Iran and the United States: The United States is now a neighbor to Iran and it is a very powerful neighbor engaged in full scale warfare and occupation in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It is very clear that the United States is, and is likely to be a long-term powerful presence in the Persian Gulf and probably Pakistan as well. In the face of this very direct reality of American proximity, Iran has taken active steps to engage the United States on the most pressing matter of direct interest: Afghanistan and Iraq. A recent article published in the Washington Post on May 6, 2004, p A35 written by ambassador James Dobbins who was the Bush Administration's first special envoy to Afghanistan, details the constructive assistance given by Iran to the United Sates in the Bonn Conferences, sponsored by the U.N. convened to bring about a successor government in Afghanistan to the Taliban and Al Qaeda elements that had been defeated by coalition forces.

Dobbins describes the direct positive help given by Iranian diplomats. He also particularly describes the help given by the Iranian military commander, a general, who had been overseeing military assistance to the northern alliance under Massoud. Dobbins write further about other Iranian offers of collaboration and assistance, which he reported to Washington but unfortunately was not taken up. Speaking of the present situation in Iraq, Dobbins said:

"London has begun to engage Tehran more constructively and it is desirable that Washington do so likewise. Cooperation on Iraq will be more difficult that it was on Afghanistan and Iranian policy is likely to be more internally divided on its cooperation with the United States. But there is no good reason not to be talking to those in Iran who seek to democratically reform their own theocracy and have no desire to see one emerge in Iraq."

Despite past differences with the revolutionary government of Iran, our European allies: the UK, Germany, France, Switzerland, and others such as Russia have been in close diplomatic contact with Iran on many issues. They are particularly engaged in growing trade and commerce. They are now importantly engaged in the context of UN IAEA deliberations on NPT compliance and needed curbs on nuclear enrichment processes that could lead to nuclear weapons material development. On this very important security issue affecting our own security as well as that of the entire world, we have handcuffed ourselves by not having a much-needed broad range of official discussions on these matters, which would be possible, if we had official relations. While it is not such a vital material security matter, it is also important to note that friends and allies have been able to engage in increased trade and commerce with Iran greatly to their benefit in markets that the United States traditionally had a large share.

It is unfortunate that the United States is less well informed about the reality that is Iran then it needs to be. For most of the twenty-five years that the United States has not had official relations with Iran, information about what is happening inside this very large, very important pivotal state has been largely derivative, filtered through other nations diplomatic and intelligence reports, the reports of journalists, the observations of the Iranian Diaspora who have visited relatives living in Iran, the impression of tourists, the conclusions of journalists, articles written by scholars and the variety of Track II efforts with Iran, particularly meetings that take place between Iranian and American experts in Iran, Europe and the United States. These contacts are, of course, important and well informed for the most part, but our government officials have not benefited from similar direct experience. And this is a serious shortcoming.

American diplomats have not served in Tehran in the Embassy or in the consulate of Isfahan, Tabriz, Mashed for twenty-five years. The number of Farsi speaking Foreign Service officers has dwindled. The small cadre of Iranian experts watch from across the waters of the Persian gulf at best. There is, for official Americans, very little direct experiences with the present reality of Iran to consider, authoritatively, what would constitute a strong long-term relationship with Iran. This situation makes the information that comes form the non-governmental range of contacts cited above vitally important. This information is extensive, of long duration, broad in its perspectives, and basically sound. It should be used by our government, which lacks such direct sources.

Whatever the reasons that might have been convincing to US policy makers in the past, reasons used to maintain a solid, stubborn isolation, looking away from any real possibility of direct diplomatic engagement, there are many more pragmatic, compelling and even urgent reasons for official engagement now. Not the least of these reasons is our troubled increasingly more difficult involvement in Iraq. Iran is in a position to help the United States and the UN bring whatever stability is possible to that war-shattered nation. Iran is, of necessity, deeply involved in Iraq and has said that it is prepared to help. As a neighboring state, that suffered through a bitter costly eight year war with Sadaam Hussein's armies- armies that used poison gas and Scud missile attacks on Iranian cities with devastating effect- Iran has many plausible reasons for its present involvement in Iraq. It has a direct national interest in how the Iraqi Shi'a majority and the Kurds fare in the construction of governance. It has important, legitimate, religious, cultural and commercial interests that are of centuries and millennia standing. Iran is already a major player in Iraq and is likely to remain a strong force for better or worse in the shaping of post Saddam Iraq.

It seems sensible, therefore, that since Iran is a major player in Iraq, and continues to be a significant influence in Afghanistan, that it is in the pragmatic material interests of the United States to expand our engagement with Iran and work to resume normal diplomatic relations.

It is reasonable to ask "how to begin?" Many designs of how to begin already have been put together. There is a so-called "grand design" which has been widely discussed. It is a kind of all-inclusive agenda of outstanding issues, a chorography of step and response that in time would work through the list of grievances. There have been several NGO's that have had conferences on such grand designs or road maps employing an all-inclusive approach. It is also understood that there have been planning exercises within the U.S. government as well. Search for Common Ground was perhaps the first NGO to undertake such planning discussions with groups of Iranians and Americans at sessions held in the United States and in Europe. The Atlantic Council, the Stanley Foundation, The Nixon Center, several University Middle East programs such as Columbia and the University of Maryland also closely examined agendas for action and ways to begin. The Council on Foreign Relations has a task force under way. The United Nations Association has been at work in what is clearly the most long-standing and important effort. There is no lack of possible prescriptions about what should and can be done.

Whether to begin with a grand design that is comprehensive, or rather to begin with the most pressing present pragmatic issues, such as Afghanistan, Iraq and NPT compliance, it is necessary to open such important diplomatic discourses with a shared belief that in such a circumstance of vital mutual interests it is possible to engage in discussions on the basis of mutual respect. There must also be recognition that there is a positive value in publicly expressed mutual respect. Obviously, such mutual respect would imply that there are no preconditions except a shared willingness to consider such issues of mutual concern. In any case, past grievances should not stand in the way of setting present concerns of vital importance to both countries.

The groundwork of necessary popular public support for resuming relations has been laid over the past seven years. The sound wisdom of president Khatami's efforts to stimulate a dialogue of civilizations has had constructive effect. His premise is that most relations between nations do not concern governments. In a normal relationship between nations most contacts, most activities of the people of nations are between individuals, businesses, institutions, cultural and professional groups, all of whom have little or nothing to do with governments. Khatami's idea was that the hostility and the deep chasm between nations exemplified by the divorce between Iran and the United States could be bridged by encouraging normal contact between scholars, religious leaders, artists, film makers, journalists, athletes, scientist, poets, businessmen, and tourists.

Although the sanctions and onerous visa and security procedures imposed by the United States have made exchanges between non-governmental individuals and groups extremely difficult, there has been significant back and forth between athletes, filmmakers, students of language, academics of all kinds, even astronomers and astronauts; there have been exchanges of ayatollahs and bishops, museum directors, archaeologists, physicians, art galleries, environmentalists, lawyers, businessmen, oil companies and groups from the leading foreign policy and national think tanks as well as a steady stream of journalists and tourists.

Search for Common Ground, an NGO devoted to conflict resolution, arranged for the first serious step in the dialog of civilizations, that is, wrestling matches between US and Iranian Olympic wrestlers. This event was followed by film festivals, trips of solar physicists and astronauts to witness the 1999 eclipse, and exchanges of religious leaders and environmentalists. Many of these opening exchanges have lead to still other exchanges.

I have participated in a large number of foreign policy and national security conferences on Iran. Some of these conferences have been underway for several years and are continuing, and have lead the result of building up a considerable body of knowledge and expertise on either side about the other. Considerable deepening awareness about the domestic conditions in both Iran and the United states, as well as an informed understanding of the national perceptions about the major foreign policy and security issues has been learned by an increasingly large group of experts on both sides. This knowledge is a basis for going forward toward a restoration of relations.

As a general practice, these groups have consulted with the State Department and as appropriate with the NSC before going on trips to meet with Iranians in Europe and Iran. These groups have, as a rule, discussed their findings after returning from conferences. The State Department and the NSC and many Congressional and Senate offices such as Congressman Bob Ney, Senators Biden, Hagel and Spector have encouraged such contacts and meetings. On the Congressional side the interested senators and some of their staff have participated in some of these meetings and conferences. There are significant numbers of congressmen and senators who have expressed their interest in meeting with their Iranian counterparts in Washington or on neutral ground in Europe or in Tehran should the occasion present itself.

Iranian diplomats have been and are accessible at the UN in New York and at many European capitals. These Iranian diplomats are well trained, able and many received their college and higher degrees from American or European universities.

It has been 25 years since the Iranian revolution. From 1950 until the cutoff of relations in 1979 about 50,000 Iranians each year were studying at American universities, and a large number of those were perusing advanced degrees of all felids of the sciences and humanities. A good portion of those many thousands who studied in the United States at the time of the Revolution are now in the 40's and 50's are now leading figures in Iranian government membership, and are leaders through Iranian society. This influential leadership group knows the United States at first hand, shares a belief in many American values, and as a whole, it seems to me, believes that a civilized relationship between Iran and the Untied states is possible and desirable and should be pursued now. One condition, and it seems to me a reasonable one, that most of those I have talked to on this matter, have stressed is that mutual respect has to be the basis of any serious discussion. Mutual respect, they maintain, will make the beginning of discussions on pragmatic issues of mutual concern, successful.

I have been working on Track II projects for Search for Common Grounded since 1998. In the course of these exchange projects and as a member of several Iran-United States policy discussion groups, I have had the opportunity to meet and talk with leaders of present day Iran in the United States and Iran. I have had the chance to meet ordinary Iranians in many different parts of Iran. I have returned to Iran for several two or three weeklong visits and have had a chance to visit individuals and groups throughout Iran. I have found that despite our governmental differences on both sides, despite the war in Iraq and its brutality, Iranians have great admiration for the United States in most respects. There is a widespread belief that there should be friendly relations once again between the two nations. Among the many students I have met, the desire to go to the United States to study and live for a while is undiminished.

It is my present conclusion that the conditions are now good for relations between the Iran and the United States to be built together again. Sufficient preparatory work to deepen public awareness has been done. The foundations of a strong relationship, of a kind envisioned by president Khatami's Dialogue of Civilizations, has been laid. There are in being many reliable channels to use to make the beginning: our closest allies, alone or in combination could help; Switzerland which has represented our interest very ably in Tehran could also assist, as could Kofi Annan and the U.N.; and there are many Track II individuals and groups that could assist. One, or several, or all could be used to make the beginning. What remains to be done is to make the decision to begin the process.

Engagement does not mean that there will be immediate agreements on issues or the automatic improvement of relations, but exploring the realities directly- face to face- is certainly better then continuing the destructive, imaginary fears that are bred by blinding isolationism.

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