No Talking to the Enemy

Both the U.S. and Iranian governments have been stopped dialogues between citizens seeking peaceful resolution

Brian Beutler, The Media Consortium

About five years ago, a young Iran­ian man became involved with the Cen­ter for Jus­tice and Peace­build­ing at East­ern Men­non­ite Uni­ver­si­ty in Har­ris­burg, Pa., where he joined a pro­gram through which col­lege stu­dents and recent grad­u­ates learn prac­ti­cal skills in con­flict res­o­lu­tion. At the end of his stay, he returned to Iran, where he became a mem­ber of the Iran­ian Min­istry of For­eign Affairs and, via e‑mail, kept in touch with his reli­gious friends in the Unit­ed States.

In August 2006, the man (his U.S. con­tacts wouldn’t name him) called the Men­non­ites to tell them that the recent­ly elect­ed Iran­ian pres­i­dent, Mah­moud Ahmadine­jad, would be com­ing to New York to speak before the Unit­ed Nations Gen­er­al Assem­bly. He bro­kered a meet­ing in a ball­room at Ahmadinejad’s Man­hat­tan hotel. David Culp, leg­isla­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tive at the Friends Com­mit­tee on Nation­al Leg­is­la­tion, was among the approx­i­mate­ly 40 Amer­i­cans who asked the Iran­ian pres­i­dent, among oth­er things, about his country’s nuclear ambi­tions and his thoughts on the Holo­caust. I came away con­vinced he was not inter­est­ed in devel­op­ing nuclear weapons,” Culp said, adding, His thoughts on Jews and the Holo­caust were not very satisfying.” 

Nonethe­less, the meet­ing was a suc­cess. And Ahmadine­jad, intrigued by the con­nec­tion, invit­ed the con­tin­gent to Tehran. Soon there­after, an inter­de­nom­i­na­tion­al del­e­ga­tion of about 15 trav­eled to Tehran and met with the pres­i­dent, with reli­gious lead­ers and with mem­bers of the Min­istry of For­eign Affairs – becom­ing, accord­ing to their hosts, the first Amer­i­cans to step inside the ministry’s build­ing since the Islam­ic rev­o­lu­tion in 1979

It would be fair to call these encoun­ters the begin­nings of a sus­tained dia­logue – and the Amer­i­cans want­ed to con­tin­ue it. With the per­mis­sion of the State Department’s Iran desk, they invit­ed a group of eight Ira­ni­ans to the Unit­ed States. Ear­ly in 2007, the first four of those Ira­ni­ans trav­eled to Dubai to apply for visas – since the U.S. has sus­pend­ed diplo­mat­ic rela­tions with Iran – which the State Depart­ment swift­ly granted. 

Then, sud­den­ly, progress stopped. And in Sep­tem­ber, just days before the dia­logue was to resume, the depart­ment reject­ed visa appli­ca­tions for the remain­ing four Ira­ni­ans – the lead­ers of the del­e­ga­tion. It was among the more strik­ing exam­ples of how the admin­is­tra­tion has thwart­ed attempts to cre­ate pres­sure valves for U.S.-Iranian hostility. 

Crit­ics say these sorts of cit­i­zen-dri­ven dia­logues rep­re­sent the gate­way to more sig­nif­i­cant talks – and may help inter­rupt a vio­lent cri­sis, should one emerge. Engage­ment should not be lim­it­ed to gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment con­tact,” Sen. Chuck Hagel, R‑Neb., insist­ed in a speech ear­li­er this year. We must reach out at all lev­els.” But up and down the line, arbi­trary and eas­i­ly lift­ed bar­ri­ers have stood in the way of doing just that.

There are a lot of bureau­crat­ic hur­dles that inter­fere with the free flow of both peo­ple and infor­ma­tion,” gripes Dr. Norm Neure­it­er of the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence, who has worked on recent out­reach efforts with Glenn Schweitzer of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ence. Schweitzer has been vis­it­ing and host­ing Ira­ni­ans for about eight years and argues that the visa acqui­si­tion process must be made more lenient. Our cri­te­ria for suc­cess is whether the rela­tion­ship [with our Iran­ian coun­ter­parts] can be sustained.” 

Hagel has pro­posed a fix: Re-open a con­sulate in Tehran … not for­mal diplo­mat­ic rela­tions … but a Con­sulate … to help encour­age and facil­i­tate peo­ple-to-peo­ple exchanges. U.S.-Iranian par­lia­men­tar­i­an exchanges would be ben­e­fi­cial to both sides.” The idea remains a polit­i­cal non-starter, however. 

The Iran­ian gov­ern­ment isn’t much help late­ly, either. Sev­er­al influ­en­tial mem­bers of Con­gress – includ­ing Rep. Tom Lan­tos, D‑Calif., Sen. Arlen Specter, D‑Pa., and oth­ers – have expressed strong inter­est in vis­it­ing Iran, but their intents have been thwart­ed by Iran­ian offi­cials’ lack of under­stand­ing and sus­pi­cion of Amer­i­can politi­cians. The Ira­ni­ans have offered only tourist visas, and con­gress­mem­bers trav­el­ing on offi­cial busi­ness require offi­cial visas.” Of course, the visas them­selves are con­trolled by func­tionar­ies of Ahmadine­jad, who isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly allies with the mem­bers of Iran­ian par­lia­ment who could meet their Amer­i­can counterparts. 

As a result, Amer­i­can leg­is­la­tors have been forced to vis­it with Iran­ian offi­cials under extreme­ly con­strained cir­cum­stances, includ­ing a hand­ful of meet­ings that mem­bers have had with Dr. Javad Zarif, the Amer­i­can edu­cat­ed offi­cial who, until ear­li­er this year, was the Iran­ian ambas­sador to the Unit­ed Nations. There are also mur­murs of stag­ing some­time next year an inter­par­lia­men­tary dia­logue in Gene­va, where visas are easy to come by. And pri­vate efforts like those of the reli­gious lead­ers con­tin­ue. But the ques­tions remain: Will the gov­ern­ment block the meet­ings, and will Amer­i­can leg­is­la­tors push hard to make sure that some sort of effec­tive dia­logue emerges?

Bri­an Beut­ler is the Wash­ing­ton Cor­re­spon­dent for the Media Con­sor­tium, a net­work of pro­gres­sive media orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing In These Times.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH