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Normalization of U.S.-Iranian relations

By Najmedin Meshkati & Guive Mirfendereski
January 13, 2000
The Iranian

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 and commentaries.

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."

What now?

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 recent years.

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.

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