Alternative Iran Policy Advice to Obama

I just watched Iran Debate link on now, and noticed that bunch of people with failed past policy advice are giving each other the illusion of importance! It is good to know that Obama gets and is willing to listen to other ideas, some like the following, which are good for the US. Hopefully he will act reasonably within his power.

Dear President Obama,

I am an Iranian American. Our community was extremely charged up about your candidacy, and with an immense hope for a change in US foreign policy towards Iran voted overwhelmingly for your election. Your victory was not only celebrated by Iranian-Americans, but by almost all household inside Iran who are now anxiously awaiting a real change in US-Iran relations.

It was with great pleasure that we listened to your Norooz message to the Iranian people and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Norooz is a celebration of the arrival of spring, rejuvenation of earth and human spirit; a celebration that ushers the end of an icy and cold winter. Traditionally, family members who might have developed a case of dispute or hurt are encouraged to reconcile. Mr. President, by quoting the words of Iranian poet, Sa’adi, in your Norooz message, “The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of the same essence,” you proved how genuinely you appreciate the spirit of Norooz that now can be extended to the larger family of nations. Those words of Sa’adi are engraved in stone on top of the United Nations building, reminding us that all of humanity is one large family. You underlined that tradition of renewal in the dawn of the “New Day” that behooves every family member to set the grievances of the past aside, and on top of the molten ice of a distressed past, welcome the buds of a new friendship.

There are plenty of urgent reasons to revive a healthy US-Iran relation. Iran by its strategic location; its cultural and economic influence in the region, its historical imprints on many countries of the region, and its sheer size and power, can be an important partner for the US in a tumultuous region of strategic importance to the United States. But, after years of unconstructive policies and missed opportunities, misconceptions and mistrust are abundant and make the road to reconciliation rough. To achieve a steady progress, one must first understand the wrongs done in the past, and build a mutual trust which paves the way for a new era of cooperation for the common good.

US-Iran past relationship and the root of problems

As you are well aware, Iran and the US have had an icy relation for thirty years. For majority of Americans, this difficult relation has been crystallized during the Hostage Crisis following Islamic Revolution of Iran. For most Iranians though, the enmity started by the CIA assisted coup of 1953 which toppled democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mossadeq, and installed Shah to power. Following the publication of Kinzer’s popular book, “All The Shah’s Men,” many in the US learned about the coup, but incorrectly attribute the bringing down a democratic secular regime as the reason for the success of the “unwanted” Islamic Revolution of Iran. This is a very superficial and unfortunate interpretation which tarnishes a clear understanding of Iranian revolution, and the true aspirations of the Iranian people.

In fact, Islamic Revolution of 1978-79 was a continuation of the anti-colonial struggle of Iranian people dating back to the Constitutional Revolution of 1905. It was founded on the rejection of colonial designs on Iran’s natural resources exemplified by D’arcy’s oil concession given to the British in 1901. Then the 1905 revolution in Russia, the other player of the “Great Game” in Iran, provided the catalyst for the Iranian Constitutional Revolution. All the other Iranian struggles of the last century including the “Oil Nationalization Movement” of 1950s, the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, and the present struggle for” Nuclear Energy” have that underlying “anti-colonial” tint for progress and “independence.” It is this unique combination of “anti-colonial” and “class struggle” that gives Iranian revolution a “paradoxical” look in which every strata of the society ironically participated: the intelligentsia, the cleric, merchant class of Bazaar, the comprador, peasantry and the urban workers; all united.

Real understanding of Islamic revolution, not as commonly perceived in the US as a religious backlash of 1953 coup against a secular democracy, is urgently needed. Iranian clergy, with their heavy influence on Bazaar and thus Iran’s commerce, have been an active participant in Constitutional Revolution; Oil Nationalization Movement as well as Islamic Revolution. The former had a more secular façade of National Front of Mossadeq whose strong popular base was Ayatollah Kashani; the latter had a more religious façade of Ayatllah Khomeini who appointed the National Front’s Bazargan as the first post revolutionary leader. Throughout all these struggles, famous religious leaders who did not have an “anti-colonial resume,” were quickly purged from power together with the secular and communist leaders who were perceived as “colonial collaborators.” President Ahmadinejad replaced the popular president Khatami on that anti-colonial platform for insisting on Iran’s right to nuclear energy, and this afforded a relatively unknown political figure an overwhelming victory in the election. Recently, Khatami removed himself as a nominee for the upcoming elections in favor of another candidate from his party who shares Ahmadinejad’s stance on Iran’s nuclear energy. Mr. Khatami understood that Iranian perception of him being lenient on nuclear issue would not give him a chance against Ahmadinejad’s proven stance on Iran’s right to nuclear energy.

Dear President, I read your book “Dreams From My Father,” and I am heartened by a background that affords you to be a compassionate person with a rare humanity. Growing up a portion of your childhood in Indonesia, has given you an immense advantage in understanding the nuances of other cultures, religions, and traditional sensibilities. When you went to Kenya, searching for all of your identity and heritage, your description of the “railroads,” and the internal struggle and soul searching of your grandfather, and you father after him, reminded me that you understand the colonial injustice with your bones, not just on an academic level. I was pleasantly surprised to read a passage from your time in Occidental, when your friend Marcus is reading a book on economics of slavery. You describe an Iranian student who asks Marcus why the slaves did not fight back en masse, and to death. And you turn the question to the Iranian, “Was the collaboration of some slaves any different than the silence of some Iranians who stood by and did nothing as Savak thugs murdered and tortured opponents of the Shah?” That quote reminds me how deeply you understand the real struggle of Iranian people. For an Iranian who is used to associate American presidents with clandestine coups in Iran, or an open call for regime change, a regime that despite all its shortcomings is a representation of the collective will of seventy five million Iranians; that quote brought the fresh air of hope. Hope that an American president indeed understands a nation and its aspirations.

Road to Reconciliation

The path to reconciliation with Iran is indeed bumpy, and there are many from both sides who would like to see that renewal failed. The Iranian regime has lived with the policy of tolerating hardship of isolation and sanctions, and will not give up the status quo of “no war and no peace” easily. In America, there is a plethora of powerful interest groups who are opposed to any rapprochement to Iran; Iranian leadership is not even certain that you would have the required power to overcome the internal politics of the US, and offer a genuine friendship to Iran. This suspicion was reflected in Khamenei’s reply to your recent message.

Advice to initiate a policy towards Iran cannot come from some office in Washington with ties to Iranian opposition groups, and defectors living in the west who have absolutely no popular base in Iran. Most of these individuals are known inside Iran as “collaborators.” Iran’s former history of foreign interventions has made Iranians weary of foreign power overtures with these anti-Iranian elements abroad. And the American side must have learned its lessons from the ill advice gotten from Iraqi opposition groups who helped build the case for Iraq invasion. The arguments of neoconservatives, Ahmad Chalabi, those with ties to the Pentagon “Office of Special Plans,” and academics like Makyia who assured president Bush that “ Iraqi people would embrace the American liberators with open arms and flowers,” did not warn the president of real dangers of the invasion. They did not warn the president of the other kind of “open arms “ once the initial euphoria of the “mission accomplished” would wane, and the dangers waiting for the American servicemen who went to Iraq on false promises and concocted lies.

Your leadership should instead focus on 1) the reasons why a US-Iran cooperation is beneficial for US, and what are the areas that one can work on a common interest; 2) recognize the grievances, and work on those which can be remedied while putting the more intractable issues for a later date; 3) note what policies have failed in the past to achieve those goals, and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

1) The most obvious area that Iran can help the US is in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran has already helped the US in its defeating Taliban in Afghanistan and the establishment of regime of president Karzai. Unfortunately, President Bush included Iran as part of an “axis of evil” right after that cooperation! Your government can emphasize the common interest of US-Iran in preventing Taliban resurgence, and curbing the threat of Al-Qaeda which is the common goal of both countries. Your Norooz message prior to arrival of Iranian delegation to discuss Afghanistan on March 31st was a great start.

Iran and the US similarly share a common interest in a stable and non-militaristic Iraq which would be a healthy partner in regional stability and commerce. The centuries old Iran-Iraq relation goes well beyond the recent enmity that was created by the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Iraqi Shiite leaders have ties to Iran, the Iranian born Ayatollah Sistani being the most prominent one among them. For the religious leaders, Najaf and Qom are interchangeable, and one cannot artificially put a wedge between them. The Sunni and Shiite division although it exists, is also over-emphasized. The massive street demonstrations in Egypt in support of Nasrallah following the Lebanese –Israeli war, was a good example of that. The Persian-Arab conflict has more historical basis, but unless the Arab-Israeli problem is solved with more attention to Arab sensibilities, the Arab street would have more sympathy to the Persian Iran than its own Arab government.

Additionally, the unfriendly US-Iran relation puts severe restrictions in America’s policy in the larger Middle East and South East Asia. The US is pressed to adjust its policy towards Russia and former Soviet Republics in order to get them more on board with America’s policy towards Iran. In many cases, concessions given to these other countries for accommodating a hostile Iran approach, is more costly to the US than any direct approach to Iran itself.

2) The list of grievances is long and it goes far back, but should not be discouraging you. Iran’s list of complaints coming directly from Ayatollah Khameniei in response to your message actually showed the desire on Iran’s part to begin a constructive high level talk.

Starting from the 1953 coup, Iranians consider the US to be constantly on the side of anti-Iranian elements trying to prevent Iran from reaching its potential in the region. They consider US enmity towards Iran heightened by the Islamic Revolution which removed the “US stooge,” Shah. While the US considers the hostage crisis as the epitome of Iran’s bad behavior, Iranians consider US accepting Shah after the revolution an intention to repeat another clandestine coup to bring Shah back to power. Iranians never properly and officially apologized for the hostage taking. Instead, America’s freezing Iranian assets in retaliation for Iran’s bad behavior became the centerpiece of America’s perceived anti-Iran designs.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Iran had legitimate complaints against the US. The US fearing that a victory of Iran would export a dangerous Islamic revolution to other countries in the region; supported the brutal invasion of Saddam Hussein. The US tacit support of Saddam in the form of intelligence, political support by using US prowess in the UN, military support and even provision of material needed for chemical weapons to Iraq which Saddam used profusely against Iranians and his own Kurdish rebels, and the final direct US military involvement in the war in support of Saddam and the downing of the Iranian Air line at the end of the war, are real grievances of Iranian people and government against policies of Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations.

The US policy after the war was no friendlier to Iran either. The sanctions imposed by President Clinton are considered a reflection of the “same” US anti-Iran policy regardless of a Republican or a Democratic US president.

Iranians believe that the problem with the United States stems from America’s “imperialistic arrogance” and “neo-colonial behavior,” its enmity to Iranian “independence” and advancement; an animosity signified by its “double standards.” From Iranian point of view, some of the US grievances against Iran are also one-sided and biased. While the US worries about nuclear proliferation because of a possible diversion of Iran’s nuclear program, the Islamic Republic considers Israel, Pakistan and India who have stockpiles of weapons already, a clear danger. Iranians are perplexed that their country is considered a threat to regional security whereas Iran was one the first signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); Iran has not invaded any country for 250 years, and in fact has been invaded by Iraq in a bloody war in which the west supported Saddam. Iranians cannot understand why Israel, a country with a nuclear stockpile; a country which has invaded all of its neighbors and is sitting illegally on land acquired by force; a country which even refuses to sign to NPT, is not considered dangerous and Iran is.

The US considers Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations. Iran considers Hamas as the legitimately elected representative of Palestinian people, and Hezbollah and Hamas as “freedom fighters” defending their homeland against illegal occupation. US consider Islamic Republic as an obstacle to Arab-Israeli peace. Iran contends that the Arab-Israeli peace initiatives have all failed even before the Islamic Republic was born. Iran attributes the failure rather due to Israeli refusal to accept UN resolution 242 which calls for Israel to 1967 borders in exchange for peace and recognition by the Arabs.

Iranians attribute all of this to a half century of Israeli-centric US foreign policy, and are suspicious that any US president can have the political will or power to overcome the obstacles for a real peace. Some actions of your own young administration also ignite those suspicions. The choice of Hillary Clinton at the State Department and Dennis Ross as the envoy, the fact that you renewed the sanctions imposed on Iran by President Clinton, makes Iranians afraid that you policy towards Iran is a continuation of the enmity of President Clinton, although your tone is different from the belligerent Bush administration. The fact that Stuart Levey, the treasury official who pushed the banks around the world to deny credit lines to Iran, and he is one of the few senior Bush era personnel who remained in power in your administration also raises suspicion about any real change coming from your administration. More recently, the Israeli lobby’s effort in preventing Chas Freeman from the chairmanship of the National Intelligence Council was interpreted in Iran as the Israel lobby’s wish to make sure that another National Intelligence Estimate like that of November 2007 indicating that Iran was not building nuclear weapons, will not be released by the council. The uniform and typical support the Congress offers AIPAC, your refusal to defend Freeman on the face of tough opposition, in line with your silence during the Gaza war makes Iranians worry that you might not have the will to challenge any Israeli-centric policies.

3) One must review the previous Iran policies which failed to give a productive result. All those failed attempts were founded on the wrong premise that “a strong Iran is a bad Iran.” In fact, history shows that a strong Iran has always been a source of stability and security in the region. For thirty years, this wrong assumption has led every American president to take a non-constructive approach towards the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The coercive and militaristic approach to the degree of supporting Saddam Hussein’s war, backfired not only as a mean s of controlling Iran, but it created a monster in Iraq who threatened the security of Kuwait and Saudis and his very own people. The policy of “dual containments” advocated by people like Indyk, Hass and other Clintonites, the imposition of sanctions to weaken Iran’s economy, clearly failed. Its immediate result was only hurting the Iranian people, and in the long run helped the Iranian government become more self-reliant. The Bush policy of “carrots and Stick” in regards to Iranian nuclear program, a language considered by Iranians only appropriate for donkeys, was the epitome of his lack of understanding of Iranian people and their sensibilities. It brought the anti-colonial memories to fore. It solidified the belief that the west is opposing Iran’s progress the same way that it opposed Iran building its railways in 1920, steel mills in 1960, mastery over its own oil industry in 1950 and beyond. Now it was the west opposition to Iran acquiring knowledge in nuclear industry and uranium enrichment, and advancement in space technology.

Dear President, indeed clouds of misunderstanding and distrust have thickened for thirty years, and you are dealt a difficult hand to amend all the long standing issues of contention. However, there are some easier and more immediate issues that can start to remove the clouds of suspicions, and pave the way for a constructive dialogue.

One preventable obstacle is the effort of some in the US to auction ancient Persian artifacts which was loaned to the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute in order to compensate victims of a terrorist act occurred in another place! A decision by the courts to auction these ancient treasures of Iran will undoubtedly create a crisis between Iran and the US. This will severely jeopardize your vision of diplomacy and America’s national security. While terrorism must be condemned, targeting the cultural heritage of an entire people for a terrorist act committed elsewhere is simply wrong and must be prevented. Mr. President, you can prevent this seizure in the same manner that President Clinton stopped a similar action in 1998, and remove a significant cause of future bitterness between the two countries.

Another manageable issue is that of Iranian frozen assets. The monetary value is paltry compared to Iraq war damages that Iran believes were denied because of US actions in the UN. However, release of Iranian frozen assets by the US is of tremendous symbolic value. It has been the centerpiece of Islamic Republic’s demand for any reconciliation. Iran’s helpful actions in Afghanistan and Iraq in return should be an amicable start.

Dear President, Norooz predates US-Iran enmity. It goes back to thousands of years ago when an Iranian prophet Zoroaster, whose teachings were the foundation of not only ancient Iranian culture, but also our common Abrahamic faith. Zoroastrian theme of “Good vs. Evil” was used by President Bush towards Iranian people and regime in a manner that ignited our sensibilities, resulting in a new trough in US-Iran relations. Your Norooz message stroke the opposite chord of Zoroastrian central tenet which is equally engraved in Iranian psyche: “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.” As Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, promptly acknowledged, all Iranians were heartened by your personal Good thoughts and good words which must be well established as a path to the future good deeds. The world, Iranians included, is anxiously awaiting your good deeds.

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