Tehran, Iran - I'm not sure whether the Iranian government is waiting for Lee Hamilton and James Baker's Iraq Study Group's report with bated breath or not, but it should be. If the rumors are true that the U.S. will offer Iran a grand deal in exchange for help securing Iraq, then it provides Tehran with a golden opportunity to start making demands that would secure its long term interests as well as the Islamic regime's survival.
But these demands should not include Iran's nuclear program. There are so many outstanding issues between the two countries that nuclear negotiations can happen in later phases of the talks. For now, the onus is on the Americans to provide incentives for Iran to talk. The U.S. government must "eat the crow" and talk to people they call the "Mullahs in Iran." There's no one else to talk to there.
The U.S. is in a quagmire and needs Iran's assistance. At the moment, some Iranians think that if they help the Americans finish their job in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Americans will then attack Iran next. Iran will ask for tangible guarantees from the U.S. that this will not happen. The Iranians are also very image-conscious, in fact, to the point of vanity, so any accommodating offer by the U.S. should be made public to satisfy the Ayatollahs' egos.
As an Iranian worried about my country and realistic enough to know that the U.S. interests should be taken into consideration in any deal (by the way, I don't see them necessarily exclusive from each other) I'm begging sober American politicians to push the Bush administration to take trust-building steps to get Iran engaged in a dialog about issues that matter to both countries. I also urge my own government to listen to these propositions when and if they are made.
After the fall of Saddam, Iranian authorities were worried that they may be the next on what to do list of things of the neo-cons who believed that "Real men go to Tehran not Baghdad." So in early 2003 Iranians wrote a letter to their American counterparts offering to discuss the mutual interests of the two countries including suspending uranium enrichment, accepting a two-solution for Palestinians and Israelis and helping the U.S. to secure post-Saddam Iraq. The Americans, high on their "accomplished mission" in Iraq chose to ignore the letter.
Flash forward. Almost four years later. Americans are stuck in Iraq. They need Iran's assistance to get out. Furthermore, the American government has lost any shred of credibility they may had had among Iranians before supporting Israel's bombing of the civilians in Lebanon for one month last July (according to Seymour Hersh, the Lebanon operation was an exercise to attack Iran). Now it seems that it is the Iranian government's turn to overdose on the Americans' failure which they vicariously think of as their own success. I'm just afraid that our government is going to overplay their hand and this absurd hostility will continue indefinitely.
Not unlike their American counterparts, Iranians are masters of losing opportunities. The Iranian government pretends to be revolutionary and Islamic while in essence it is very conservative and nationalistic in its policies regionally and internationally. They helped Americans to get rid of the Taliban but didn't reveal their logistical and intelligence support because they were worried about their image as recalcitrant nation in chief. As a result President Bush, intoxicated by fast victory over the Taliban, found it in himself to include Iran as part of axis of evil (along with Iraq and North Korea). A couple of years later Iranians helped the Americans to get rid of a fellow evil regime in Iraq. I was in south east Iran in March 2003 and could see American planes flying over our heads despite our government's denial that it allowed the American to use its territory.
There are four issues Americans can start having a dialog about with Iran to get the ball rolling: (1) Disbanding the Iraqi-based Iranian terrorist group PMOI (People's Mujaheddin of Iran aka MKO aka NCRI), (2) Lifting sanctions and unfreezing more than 8 billion dollars of Iran's assets in the U.S., (3) Supporting Iran's application to join the World Trade Organization, and (4) Facilitating visa procedure for Iranians visiting the U.S. and free access to the U.S. for Iranian media. Solving these outstanding issues will not endanger American interests in the region. It will embolden progressive forces inside Iran and the region. It's not that these issues can be easily solved, but two countries can start talking about a situation that has become more complicated in the past 27 years because of their inaction.
The Iraqi-based PMOI is a terrorist organization that killed an American citizen in the 1970's and helped Saddam to massacre the Kurds after the First Gulf War. If you think Al Qaeda or Hezbollah came up with the idea of suicide bombing you should know that PMOI pioneered suicide bombing in Iran in the early 80's when they killed a number of Iranian senior officials as well as innocent people. PMOI was in turn ruthlessly punished by the Iranian government. In the mid-80's PMOI moved to Saddam's Iraq and became part of his army. Since then they have been regarded as traitors and lost any sympathy inside Iran. But through a powerful public relations campaign and focused lobbying in Washington they managed to present themselves as a viable alternative to the "regime of mullahs." PMOI was put on the American government's list of foreign terrorist organizations in 1997. But the neo-cons thought that following their success in Iraq they could conquer Tehran with the help of PMOI. As a result the U.S. government gave the members of the terrorist group protection.
As things stand today PMOI members in their base north of Baghdad became more of liability than help to the American forces in Iraq. These days the Kurdish president of Iraq, Jalal Talibani, whose people were killed by the PMOI want them out of there and the Shia Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri Al Maliki, last September asked PMOI to find a new base within six months. It's difficult to prescribe to anything to do with three and something thousand Shia Iranians stuck in the middle of Sunni Triangle but it's time to at least start talking to Iran about the fate of PMOI members. If not for political reasons at least for humanitarian reasons.
After the seizure of the American embassy by Islamic radical students in 1979 the American government imposed sanction on Iran and froze billions of dollars of Iranian assets in the U.S. That included funds which Iran had paid to buy arms and spare parts from the U.S. prior to the 1979 revolution. Realists in both countries have repeatedly asked the United States to unfreeze the assets to show its goodwill. The assets are estimated at about 8 billion dollars not considering the interest accumulated in the past 27 years. The blockage and the sanctions that the American government has imposed on Iran has born no fruit whatsoever except for the loss of innocent lives as a result of substituting Boeings with cheap Russian Topolov airplanes which tend to crash three or four times per year. The sanctions have also hardened the regime's stance against the U.S. and have made many Iranians' think that the American government is not only fighting the regime but the Iranian nation. It's time to at least begin talking about removing the sanctions.
Since 1996 Iran has applied to join World Trade Organization. The Iranian statesmen hoping to join the WTO know that their economy is in shambles. They hope that their membership will result in more integration in the world economy, more privatization, a freer market and not relying on oil as the sole source of income. All the ingredients necessary to build a healthy economy and a democracy. Yet the American government repeatedly vetoed Iran's membership in WTO until last year. This year they need to give a clear signal that Iran can apply to join the WTO. To be a member of WTO will certainly encourage Iran to change its behavior. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can afford making outrageous remarks about the Jewish Holocaust and wanting to wipe Israel off the map because Iran is treated as a pariah state with little to nothing to lose. Iran's accession to the WTO is part of the initial steps to allow Iran to be a legitimate member of international community. A member who has to abide by rules of the game and can be punished if it does not do so.
The last step which concerns me and others like me working with the American media in Iran is the most nonsensical of anything that any U.S. government can ever do. While Washington says that it believes in more cultural exchanges between the two nations it is as difficult for an Iranian to enter the U.S. as it is for vice President Cheney to book a romantic holiday in Havana (or maybe doing anything romantic for that matter). It is equally impossible for the Iranian media to open offices in the U.S. The reporter for Iranian television at the UN can only travel within a 17 mile radius of New York City.
The U.S. administration is just shooting itself in the foot by denying Iranians entry to the U.S. One obvious result is that Iranians learn less about the US. .and believe in their government's anti-American propaganda. The other is that the unimaginative Iranian authorities are reciprocating and deny American media visas and representations in the country. Recently the Iranian ministry of culture and Islamic guidance denied The Washington Post a correspondent in Iran because no Iranian media can have a bureau in the U.S. capital.
As I watched President Bush standing under a gigantic statue of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam the other day I was thinking to myself, "Why should it be so far-fetched to imagine an American president standing under a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini in the Iranian parliament?" After all the Vietnamese killed more than fifty-thousand Americans. For some ridiculous reason the animosity between Iran and the U.S. has remained the only constant in the tumultuous Middle East region in the past three decades. As the American people showed in November 7 elections, they are ready for a change. It is time for the American government to give up the idea of regime change and start talking directly to the Islamic government without any preconditions. Mr. Cheney and company may really like to topple the Ayatollahs. Many Iranian men also would like the newly-divorced Britney Spears to convert to Islam and marry them. For the record, neither is on the cards.
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