The other peace process
Tips on how Iran and the U.S. should start normalizing their relations
By Guive Mirfendereski & Najmedin Meshkati
January 6, 1997
The recent conciliatory statements by President Khatami and President Clinton foretell of the possibility that in the near future Iran and the United States may embark on a "dialogue" aimed at normalizing relations.
The U.S. insists that Iran must renounce terrorism, stop opposing the Middle East peace process, and refrain from developing nuclear weapons. If the resolutions adopted at the December meeting of the Islamic countries in Tehran are any indication, Iran may have conceded already on to two of the U.S. concerns with respect to abjuring terrorism and recognizing the legitimacy of the Middle East peace process. These resolutions are binding on the signatories and Iran by signing onto them is obligated under international law to carry them out in good faith.
To further the cause of dialogue, the parties may wish to bear in mind the following:
Do Not Seek Open And Direct Concessions
Neither party should ask the other openly and directly for direct concessions. This would free the process from unproductive arguments and perverse forms of oriental courtesy as to who should do or go first and how far to meet the concerns of the other. Iran knows without some concessions in some areas there will be no chance of reconciliation with the U.S. However, the U.S. concerns should be viewed as objectives to be attained through dialogue; one should therefore resist the destructive temptation to state one's concerns as preconditions to the start of the dialogue.
In the resolutions of the Islamic Conference, the Clinton Administration may find the necessary legal basis or the political pretext for filing the requisite certifications with Congress and lift the sanctions against trade and investment with Iran, all without conceding anything directly to Iran. Meanwhile, the U.S. may also abide by its obligations under international law and free the Iranian assets pursuant to the terms of the Algiers Accords which ended the hostage crisis in 1981.
Restore Common Courtesy
Each government on its own should show proper regard for international protocol. Calling each other names, questioning the other's sincerity to engage in dialogue, characterizing one another as roguish or satanic do not help the situation. The two governments should set an example of civil behavior by the time the representatives of the two nations take the filed in World Cup soccer in France next summer.
Agree To Disagree
Iran and the U.S. should be prepared to agree to disagree on some issues, but they should not allow the disagreements to scuttle the normalization process. One such issue may well be human rights in Iran, another is nuclear technology. Others are sure to find their way into the dialogue.
De-couple Nuclear Energy From Weapons
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. The U.S. deal with North Korea for developing and installing safe light-water nuclear reactors should be replicated with Iran.
Regionalize Nuclear Weapons Control
Iran's nuclear weapon program now appears to be more of a made up political issue in Washington than a technical reality in Tehran. An authoritative study published in the most recent (January-February 1998) issue of the respected Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reports that European officials who have seen secret U.S. evidence of Iran's atomic capabilities call the evidence "inconclusive." 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 play into the same "mutual assured destruction" doctrine that ensured nuclear peace between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The solution to the issue of Iran's search for the means to nuclear deterrence will lie not in U.S.-Iran dialogue but in a comprehensive regional approach based on universal principles of nonproliferation, safeguards, test ban, and international inspections.
Side-step the Salman Rushdie Issue
The fate of Salman Rushdie should be decided in bilateral negotiations between Iran and the United Kingdom, as Mr. Rushdie is a subject of the Queen. The late Ayatollah Khomeini decreed a death sentence on this British author for his blasphemous description of the Prophet Muhammad and his wives. The Rushdie issue is neither a U.S. constitutional law issue as to due process, nor a First Amendment issue of freedom of expression. His writings were perceived as an outright insult on the Islamic faith. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once put it, one's right to motion one's hand in the air stops where another's face begins.
Mr. Rushdie's guilt and the abatement of his sentence are matters wholly within the Iranian criminal legal process, just as the recent conviction of an Israeli woman for the porcine depiction of the Prophet Muhammad was a matter for Israeli law. Even if Iran reduced or quashed the sentence, there will never be a guarantee that someone acting on his or her own will not do in the unrepenting, arrogant, and unapologetic Mr. Rushdie. While the Rushdie affair should be a non-issue, many may ride it in order to derail or poison the talks.
Appreciate The Other's Political Constraints
Neither President Clinton nor President Khatami is entirely free of his domestic constraints in dealing with one another. The memory of the Iran-Contra affair has not faded; that was a cloak and dagger operation whereby the Reagan Administration sold arms to Iran and invested the proceeds in the counter-revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the communist government in Nicaragua all in violation of U.S. law. The hostage crisis, where 52 persons where held in Tehran for an indelible 444 days, first besieged and then finished off the Carter presidency. The last thing President Clinton wants is to take the U.S. foreign policy on another disastrous ride.
President Khatami is facing also hardened images of the Great Satan at work in or against Iran. To illustrate: (i) the CIA supported overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadeq's government, (ii) restoration of the Shah to the throne and backing his repressive, indulgent, and corrupt regime, (iii) admitting the Shah into the U.S. for medical and other forms of sanctuary, (iv) U.S. materiel and intelligence support for the Iraqi war machine against Iran, in a war that thousands lost life or limb, billions of dollars in infrastructure and productive assets were destroyed, and during which Iraq used chemical weapons, (v) the April 1980 penetration into Iran by U.S. helicopters and transport planes as part of Carter Administration's botched hostage rescue mission, which nevertheless showed Iran's vulnerability and U.S. disregard for international law, (vi) downing of the Iran Air Airbus over the Persian Gulf by a jittery and unrepenting U.S. Navy, (vii) indiscriminate destruction of Iranian oil platforms in the Persian Gulf by U.S. patrol boats, (vii) U.S. appropriation of funds to overthrow the Islamic government of Iran, (viii) U.S. support for the United Arab Emirate's position to strip Iran of Tonbs and Abu Musa islands, (ix) continued holding of Iranian assets hostage in violation of the Algiers Accords, and (x) presently, the stationing of the U.S. Navy, with all its might and capability, off Iran and at a distance less than half of Cuba from U.S. soil.
Be Careful With Historical Legacy
In a rapprochement with Iran, President Clinton finally may find the legacy which he so craves; it may prove as propitious for him as the opening to China was for President Nixon. The same cannot be said of President Khatami, however. In 1979, pictures of Iranian and U.S. representatives shaking hands at a meeting in Tunisia prompted mass demonstrations in Tehran and fatally wounded the government of the moderate Prime Minister Bazargan.
This time around, however, Mr. Khatami need not fear the religious right, but rather he should worry about the visceral anti-U.S. resentment which at present makes up a substantial part of the Iranian nationalist sentiment, regardless of the country's religious factionalism and partisan politics. Too much of an opening to the U.S. could earn President Khatami a place next to Mikhail Gorbachev and his infamous national legacy, tarnishing his image and possibly leading to a severe backlash.
Let The Private Sector Pave The Way
Neither President Clinton nor President Khatami can be seen as outmarching the historical/evolutionary process which normalization requires, lest they destroy it, just as the U.S. sponsored quick and dirty Middle East peace process alienated half of the Israeli population, a good number of Palestinians, and countries like Syria and Iran, two major players in the region.
As Iran and the U.S. begin the slow process of normalization on the political and diplomatic fronts, the very first step in the normalization 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 commerce 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 projects. The development of the Iranian private sector in time will prove a reliable check on irresponsible policies threatening one's markets and profits.
The interlocutors in the reconciliation dialogue should bear in mind that talking to one another is okay, talking at each other is unbecoming of both; one need not speak in order to talk, for actions do speak louder than words. But at this stage good words, kind words, would be a pretty good start.
trust -- Interview with former U.S. National Security Council staff
member Gary Sick
* Carter-Iran -- Initiative to support the Carter Center's Conflict Resolution Program
* THE IRANIAN Opnion section
* Cover stories
* Who's who
About the authors
Guive Mirfendereski is a corporate and international lawyer in private practice in Newton, Massachusetts. He has held adjunct appointmnets at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplmacy and Brandeis University. He has advised foreign governments and international organizations on commercial law revision, privatization, and legal reform. He holds a JD from Boston College Law School; a PhD in inetnational law, an MA in law and diplomacy, an MA in international affairs from the Fletcher School, and a BA in government from Georgetown University.
Dr. Najmedin Meshkati is an Associate Professor of Civil/Environmental Engineering and Associate Professor of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. He is an internationally renown expert in the fields of safety and systems management of complex, large-scale technological systems, such as: nuclear power plants, chemicals processing plants, and aviation systems. A graduate of Alboz High School (1971), Sharif University of Technology (1976) in industrial engineering and of National University of Iran in political science and economy (1976), he holds a master's degree in engineering management (1978) and a doctoral degree in industrial and systems engineering (1983) from USC. He is a Certified Professional Ergonomist (CPE) and conducts research in the fields of ergonomics, particularly as it relates to issues of international transfer of complex technologies. (Back to article)