Normalization of U.S.-Iranian relations
By Najmedin Meshkati & Guive Mirfendereski
January 13, 2000
This article first appeared in Payvand.Com.
On January 16, the U.S. and Iranian national soccer teams will take
to the field at the site of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. In contrast to the
rather reserved and mostly disinterested American sentiment about the game,
the Iranian enthusiasts in southern California and the world over are in
a state of frenzied anticipation and the press in Tehran is full of reports
Last time these two teams met, it was during the 1998 World Cup, when
on Sunday, June 21, 1998, in Lyons, France, the Iranian squad posted a
2-1 victory over the U.S. team. The Iranian believers rejoiced, the American
sportscasters were outright nasty and denigrating in their incredulity
and the politically correct in both Iranian and American communities were
grateful for the civility that had prevailed on and off the field. When
asked why she was cheering for the Iranian team, a Jewish American friend
commented "because the game meant more to the Iranians."
Like in other countries, with the exception of the U.S., soccer's popularity
in Iran stems from a universal global soccer culture that transcends borders
and electrifies its fans across class differences. The game in Pasadena
will be yet another memorable turning point in the long saga of the U.S.-Iranian
relations and a very symbolic event. After some twenty years of animosity,
a high profile and national Iranian delegation is officially visiting the
US. As many in Iran and the U.S. hope, this event will be another side
chat and whisper in the direction of a full blown dialogue aimed at normalizing
relations between the two countries.
The U.S. has learned that its attempts to isolate Iran in the last two
decades have been futile and Iran has realized that without American technology
and know-how the development of its industrial and energy sectors cannot
be sustainable. Differences remain, though. The two should be prepared
to agree to disagree on some issues, however. One such issue may well be
human rights in Iran, another is nuclear technology. Other issues are sure
to find their way into the dialogue. But no issue or disagreement should
be allowed to scuttle the normalization process.
The issue of nuclear weapons must be de-coupled from development of
nuclear energy, just as one would distinguish chemical weapons from pharmacology.
Presently, the U.S. sanctions prevent Iran from obtaining safe nuclear
reactor technology from the West, leaving Iran at the mercy of inferior
Soviet-designed reactors. A Chernobyl-type disaster in Iran could have
untold adverse health and environmental consequences for the Middle East
region. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to expect Iran to forego that option,
just yet. Iran's quest for nuclear weapons is rooted deeply in Iran's geopolitical
vulnerabilities, to which the U.S. itself has contributed handsomely in
As long as other countries in Iran's neighborhood such as India, Iraq,
Israel, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and Russia either pursue or possess the nuclear
option, Iran has no choice but to pursue its independent objective. The
solution to Iran's search for the means to nuclear deterrence will lie
not in the U.S.-Iranian dialogue but in a comprehensive regional interdependent
approach based on universal principles of nonproliferation, safeguards,
test ban, and international inspections.
As Iran and the U.S. begin the slow process of normalization on the
cultural front, the next step in the process should be for Iran and the
U.S. to let the private sector lead the way to better relations. The political
establishment in each country should get out of the way of the business
and commercial forces seeking friendly relations. Historically, where business
has led, political relations often have followed.
To begin with, the U.S. should on its own motion lift the Iran sanctions,
in steps if necessary: first lift the ban on sales by the U.S. private
sector to Iran, subject to the erstwhile U.S. export control regulations,
followed by allowing the U.S. businesses to purchase from the Iranian private
sector, and leading eventually to allowing U.S. investments in Iranian
industrial development projects.
It is also time for replacing in our mind's eye the still portrait of
the blind-folded American hostages in Tehran with a captivating joint picture
of the two teams in Pasadena exchanging their respective national flags.
The game itself, regardless of outcome, should be held up as the paradigm
for the future. This is based on the realization of the basic premise that
Iran and the U.S. are above all else competitors, albeit of mismatched
abilities, in most every area. No longer can one think of relations between
the two as one in which one party views or treats the other as mortal enemy,
irrelevant, or congenitally inferior.
When the last whistle blows in Pasadena on January 16, 2000, it should
signal the end of another storied competition between Iran and the U.S.,
one that is governed by mutually acceptable, uniform and reciprocal rules
ensuring above all mutual respect and fair play.
For the record, the precedent for soccer's role in the U.S.-Iranian
diplomatic relations was set in 1950, when in the midst of the Cold War
the Iranian government extended an invitation to Milton Eisenhower, the
president of Pennsylvania State University, to send the Nittany Lions soccer
team on a goodwill tour to Iran.
Everywhere the Nittany Lions and their coach Bill Jeffery went in Iran
they were showered with flowers and toasted as heroes. Niel See, the manager
of the team wrote, "There is a bit of Bill Jeffery's philosophy which,
I think, covers the diplomatic angel of our tour very nicely. As Bill has
said, 'People have to learn to play together before they can work together.'"
After many years, Iran and the U.S. have started playing together again.
Next phase, working together. Bill Jeffery is watching.
Meshkati is a professor of engineering at the University of Southern
California. Mirfendereski is a lawyer in private practice in Newton, Massachusetts.