Breaking the Ice

Pushing to end U.S.-Iran silent treatment


Breaking the Ice
by jamal.abdi

Here is one of those policies that makes you scratch your head and wonder how its taken this long for things to get this bad between the U.S. and Iran: American and Iranian diplomats are actually BANNED from making ANY contact with one another without prior authorization.

That's right--while the entire foreign policy establishment in Washington is running around in circles trying to figure out the magic solution to crack the U.S.-Iran riddle--Is it sanctions? Is it more war threats? Is it strikes? Dare we enter negotiations?--the two governments aren't even talking to each other at the most basic levels.

Thankfully, a commonsense and long overdue proposal has been introduced in Congress by Representative Barbara Lee (Democrat, California) and nine other Representatives to dispense with the absurd "no contact" policy on the U.S. side. The bill, the Prevent Iran from Acquiring Nuclear Weapons and Stop War Through Diplomacy Act (H.R.4173) would finally lift the ban on talking to Iran. Not only would eliminating this policy put us in a much better position to resolve the standoff, it will put the onus on the Iranians to take the necessary steps to end their own restrictions on contact with the U.S.

While the silent treatment may be a good tool for passive aggressive teenagers to resolve tiffs with their siblings, it's utility as a tool of statecraft on the world stage is pretty dubious. When you're trying to prevent war, nuclear proliferation, and human rights abuses, it can help to have diplomats who are allowed to do their job rather than a policy of righteous indignation.

Former Ambassador James Dobbins--who has directly negotiated with Iran--argued for lifting the ban in 2009, saying it could "enable both sides to more accurately gauge the other's real intentions, interests and possible areas of flexibility" and eliminate some of the pressure and hype that has undermined high-level diplomacy. "No negotiation can yield results if the two sides feel compelled to hold a news conference every time they meet," wrote Dobbins.

To that end, H.R.4173 would also appoint a high-level U.S. envoy to lead and sustain direct, bilateral and multilateral talks with Iran. The goal would be to actually invest in pursuing our interests that are only achievable through direct diplomacy. These include not just resolving the nuclear standoff and preventing war--pretty important goals in their own right that have no military fix--but also delving into the equally critical issues like human rights that have never been on the table because we're not talking (and when we do, it is for 45 minutes and never broadened beyond the nuclear issue).

Ask Iranians who are actually on the ground whether sanctions and threats of war are doing any favors for Iran's human rights situation. Unlike what you'll hear from neoconservative "experts"--who want to bring freedom to the Iranian people even if they have to kill every last one of them--the current standoff has choked off Iranian civil society. For the grownups in the room, direct talks can ratchet down tensions and open up space within Iran for the human rights and democracy movement to flourish.

H.R.4173 also has another component that makes perfect sense but will upset the pro-war crowd: it takes war of choice with Iran off the table. The bill states clearly that--in lieu of an actual Congressional authorization for war--no U.S. government funds may be allocated to a war with Iran. This may be commonsense and technically already the law of the land; unfortunately, amidst the threat inflation and demonization of diplomacy occurring in Washington and Tehran, commonsense has been altogether too uncommon.

To tell your Member of Congress to sign on to the Lee bill, you can send a message here.

First published in

Jamal Abdi is the Policy Director of the National Iranian American Council, largest grassroots organization representing the Iranian-American community in the US. He previously worked in Congress as a Policy
Advisor on foreign affairs issues. He is based in Washington, DC and blogs at Follow Jamal on Twitter: @jabdi


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