This morning I attended an event held by the Atlantic Council, called “US-Iran Relations: Past, Present, and Future,” that dealt, oddly enough, with US-Iran relations. I know, right? It was a discussion with Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian diplomat and current professor at Princeton, and John Marks, the founder of an NGO called Search for Common Ground, but the vast majority of the time was spent on Mousavian, recounting his experiences on the Iranian nuclear negotiation team and detailing what he thinks US-Iran diplomacy should look like. My newest piece at LobeLog recaps the event.
Mousavian is an interesting guy, and he’s got a new book out, Iran and The United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace, that looks interesting. He certainly, and I guess this almost goes without saying, has a much better grasp of the history of US-Iran relations and the causes of their breakdown from the Iranian perspective than almost anything you’ll get in American media. He’s also kind of a controversial figure, seeing as how, despite being effectively forced into exile by Ahmadinejad (he’s able to come and go again now that Rouhani is in office), he’s continued to represent a sort of quasi-official Iranian viewpoint when it comes to the nuclear talks and to diplomatic relations in general (and since he’s teaching at Princeton he’s obviously, I don’t know, indoctrinating our children or something). Since he’s mostly bothering neocons like Reuel Marc Gerecht (for once I’ll warn you to stay in the boat on that one), I figure he can’t be all bad, and he’s got a very useful alternate perspective from what you are inevitably going to get here in the States. Anyway, he thinks ultimately that America is going about talks with Iran backwards, insisting on dealing with piecemeal issues when the Iranians want (so he says, anyway) comprehensive talks on rebuilding relations:
The solution, as Mousavian sees it, is for the US and Iran to engage in talks on a broad, comprehensive range of issues rather than focusing only on Iran’s nuclear program. He suggests starting with those areas where the two countries’ interests are broadly aligned: the need for stability in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fight against regional drug trafficking, the effort to contain Salafi extremism and to combat Al-Qaeda-style terrorist movements, and the need for security and stability for Persian Gulf shipping.
These talks can be supplemented with what Marks characterizes as informal, “person-to-person” diplomacy, especially cultural and scientific exchanges, perhaps eventually leading to formal apologies — from the Iranians, for the hostage crisis, and from the Americans, for the 1953 coup and the 1988 downing of Iran Air Flight 655. Once rapport has been built on these areas of common ground, the two sides can begin to tackle more challenging issues, such as (from the US perspective) Iran’s support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, its relations with Israel, its ballistic missiles program, and its human rights record.
(In the interest of Both Sides, those talks would also have to deal with Iran’s complaints about America, like how we have military bases encircling Iran, our relations with Israel, etc.)
This may actually be a great idea, and I find myself agreeing with it. There is no justifiable reason why the US and Iran shouldn’t be working together on, say, Afghanistan and the opium trade, since both countries want exactly the same things when push comes to shove: a stable Afghan government that isn’t going to collapse in the face of the Taliban after US forces finally leave, and one that is able to curb drug trafficking rather than, you know, directly participating in it. Then, by working together on these shared goals, the two countries can start to build a rapport and (more importantly) a little mutual trust, which can be rolled over into tackling the bigger issues where the two sides have disagreements. Sounds nice, right? The kicker is that Iran tried to do this after 9/11; they tried to work with the US to take down Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. In appreciation for their help, we declared that Iran was part of the “Axis of Evil,” a designation that we know now wasn’t just vapid militarism, but actually was harmful to long-term US foreign policy interests. Heck of a job, Frummy!
The big problem with this proposal, which Mousavian acknowledges, is that it’s too late to start comprehensive talks, which are going to take a really long time, and get anywhere with them before the clock strikes midnight with respect to Iran’s nuclear program. That’s in the piece.