In 2006, Network 20/20 members fielded two delegations to Iran to gain firsthand knowledge and build bridges in the important nation. Our goals were simple: to acquire a better understanding of Iran and Iranians in today’s geopolitical climate, to gain insight into the impact of the twenty-eight year gap in Iranian-U.S. bilateral relations and to make concrete recommendations for reframing issues and reestablishing diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States.
In two separate ten day trips to Iran, Network 20/20 conducted more than 50 interviews, some planned and some spontaneous, in numerous cities and villages. Interviewees represented a cross-section of Iranian society ranging from students, soldiers, and taxi drivers to government officials, mullahs, NGO leaders, and university chancellors.
Overall, we found that despite the strong anti-Western sentiments within the nation as a whole, interest in better relations with the United States remains strong. Objections to U.S. policy do not inspire hostility to Americans individually, and in a few cases U.S.-Iranian medical, environmental, business, and drug prevention collaborations have endured.
While most reformists feel that threats of military force and regime change are counterproductive to their reform agenda, they privately believe that external pressure is critical to forcing the clerical regime to moderate. Keeping the diplomatic heat on the Iranian government for its human rights record and disruption of the Middle East peace process, for example, is an approach many reformists welcome.
Within Iran, political debate persists, skepticism about the government’s motives abounds, and liberal civil society institutions have been tenacious. While Western analysts usually portray the country in terms of a crude division between “reformists” and “conservatives,” the reality is far more nuanced, and political alignments and personal ideology can be fluid.
Our main recommendations to U.S. opinion leaders and policy makers are that:
The U.S. government should reestablish diplomatic relations with Iran.The United States should also avoid mixed policy messages. For example, Congress should not pass legislation that couples support for Iranian democracy with support for regime change.
The U.S. government should build expertise on Iran among its diplomats and support joint projects or exchanges in the less controversial areas of the environment, education, science, public health, and culture working through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), multilateral agencies, or private foundations.
The U.S. government should work with the current Iranian government on issues of political, social, and economic reforms.
Eventually the United States should help Iran, the way it has China, accede to international organizations, including the World Trade Organization.
Congress should hold open hearings on how better relations could be established with Iran. A large pool of expertise on conditions, politics, and attitudes in Iran is present in the United States among Iranian-Americans and among academics, journalists, former diplomats, and some businesspeople. Where possible, experts and opinion leaders should be invited to participate in such hearings on Iran.
In the current highly charged climate, people-to-people relationships need to go beyond simply enacting good will between Iranians and Americans and begin testing out ways of raising the level of the debate between our two countries.
A more detailed understanding of Iran’s politics, history, and current conditions is vitally needed if the significant strands of Iranian society that are open to establishing constructive relations with the United States are to be effectively engaged.