For anyone who has seen Argo, a trend from that era has finally ended. No, I am not referring to this look from the movie being acceptable. Instead, I would like to muse on the fact that for more than thirty years, the US has not had a leader to leader conversation with Iran. In other words we have given each other the silent treatment- childish behavior from two grown up countries. This changed September 27th with a phone call between President Obama and the newly elected President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. Their conversation picked up where Rouhani left off when addressing the UN General Assembly just a few days before. In his address, Rouhani emphasized the importance of international cooperation and communication when it comes to solving our most pressing and potentially dangerous affairs and concerns. He also underlined the interconnections between all international actors, stating “Any miscalculation of one’s position, and of course, of others, will bear historic damages; a mistake by one actor will have negative impact on all others. Vulnerability is now a global and indivisible phenomenon.”
Rouhani’s speech to the General Assembly included the usual laundry list of complaints and accusations but was notable for its overall hopeful tone that insisted on trusting in the negotiating capacity of the UN and its most important members. He repeatedly pointed to the obvious advantage of the ballot box over the drone strike or economic sanction when it comes to bringing around meaningful change. Iran is no stranger to sanctions, as it has been the target of many economic sanctions by the UN and others. These sanctions have weighed heavily on the Iranian people and are really quite unfair, given that Iran has signed the Non Proliferation Treaty [unlike Israel] and is cooperating with UN inspectors, says Rouhani. The measures taken to assure that Iran does not acquire nuclear arms have had their own serious consequences, some unforeseen, some completely intentional. Covering all the regional bases, Rouhani mentioned multiple times the “structural violence” being inflicted on Palestinians, the chemical weapons attack in Syria and the lingering effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The entire speech can be found here.
The phone call with President Obama reminds me of another time and trend that predate me- the hotline between the US and Soviet leaders. This emergency phone was critical in keeping the Cold War cold and hopefully this new phone call is an indication of an overall change in tone and direction of our relationship with Iran. At the very least, talking is an improvement over the silent treatment.
Whenever an issue of such importance as nuclear weapons is being discussed, the political realities at home are always a factor for the leaders involved. For a digestible accounting of this and some important details of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, see Fred Kaplan’s article in Slate. The opinions and fears of citizens always play into how their leaders respond to international goings on. Sometimes this means that despite the best intentions and steps towards progress, elected leaders will discount and undercut each other. In this case, the words of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have been particularly counter productive. Spoofing a Russian proverb made famous by Ronald Reagan, Netanyahu said, “When it comes to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, here’s my advice: Distrust, dismantle and verify.”
DIStrust. This is not the way to negotiate. Even if the other negotiating party has a history of obfuscation, threats and inconsistency, the only way to make any progress is to accept their word and then hold them to it. As much as it grates on me to say, Reagan got it right with the policy of “Trust but verify”. Iran and Israel could trade allegations of past wrongdoing till they are blue in the face, but where does that get them? Events in the past cannot be ignored but also cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the current potential. With reports that this very potential is being explored, perhaps Netanyahu will soon be eating his words.