Archive for the ‘Comment’ Category

U.S.-Iran: A Good Precedent

February 23, 2009

The Peace Palace at the Hague. Photo by Docski.

A channel for U.S.-Iranian diplomacy.

Tehran Bureau | comment

About 28 years ago, the United States and the fledgling Islamic Republic of Iran made promises to each other that they put down in writing: “It is now and will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran’s internal affairs,” stated the 1981 Algiers Accords, the executive agreement signed by Ronald Reagan. In return for that promise (among others) the Iranians released the 52 Americans that they held hostage for 444 inglorious days.

The ink was hardly dry before President Reagan and CIA Director William Casey started to fund operations against Iran by different exile groups — one headed by the shah’s former naval commander, then the Paris-based Front for the Liberation of Iran. While the Reagan administration was in secret negotiations with Iran, the CIA was providing a miniaturized television transmitter to Reza Pahlavi, son of the late Shah, for a clandestine broadcast into Iran.

On Sept. 5, 1986, the programming of two Iranian television stations were interrupted for 11-minutes, during which the heir to the Peacock Throne vowed his return. In its response in a radio broadcast, Tehran called the shenanigans a “puppet show” put on by “the terrorist government of Reagan.”

It was an extraordinary show. According to historian Theodore Draper’s book, A Very Thin Line, the United States was entertaining Ali Hashemi Bahramani — an officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hashemi Rafsanjani’s nephew — and so was a fellow by the name of Lt. Col. Oliver North.

Despite the fiasco known as the Iran-contra affair, successive U.S. administrations have adopted some form of its “sticks and carrots” approach in their dealings with Iran. As Iran moderated its ways over the next two decades — after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini — sanctions against it got tighter and U.S. regime-change talk nastier.

When Condoleezza Rice went to Congress requesting $75 million in “emergency funds to promote democracy in Iran,” a reporter from the BBC Persian Service questioned the sanity of such a plan. Wouldn’t this precipitate an Iranian crackdown on its fragile civil society? “Don’t you think that there will be a more sophisticated and better way to approach this issue?” he asked.

Apparently not. The U.S. State Department even posted the full transcript of the “off-the-record” background briefing on its Web site and prominently linked to it from its homepage that week in 2006. Almost on cue, Iranian officials stepped up pressure, clamped down on NGO’s, students, reformists, women rights activists, union leaders, doctors, academics, scientists, students, ethnic minorities, visiting Iranian Americans, journalists and many others, accusing them of being U.S.collaborators.

With the country surrounded by U.S. troops on three sides (in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf), and media stories about alleged U.S.-funded covert attacks against Iran by disaffected minority groups, the Iranian regime’s paranoia hardly needed to be further inflamed by U.S. “sticks.”

It may be that the United States cares so much for the “great Iranian people” it wants them to take up arms against their elected government. Certainly, the sanctions the United States has effected through the United Nations and elsewhere have affected the lives of ordinary Iranians far more than Iran’s own officials or its own Westernized elites.

So far, Barack Obama has maintained these policies, though with some calibration. As his administration makes overtures to Iran, he keeps “all options on the table,” appoints a Democratic hawk — remember Hillary Clinton’s talk of “obliterating” Iran last year? — to head the diplomatic arm of his government. There is now talk of appointing a more hostile hawk– Dennis Ross — as Iran envoy.

But there is a little hope for change (“we can believe in”) from these three tumultuous decades. The Algiers Accords that Iran and the United States adopted as a procedure for resolving disputes after the 1979 revolution has produced the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal. Since July1, 1981, representatives of Washington and Tehran have been engaged in fruitful negotiations. (A prominent international law scholar at Boalt Hall told me, “It’s the most successful example of international law in a century.”)

If the two arch-foes have enjoyed such a good track record in court — an acrimonious forum to begin with — why would diplomacy be a stumbling block?

The United States has stood by the letter of the law in the Claims Tribunal. When former hostages filed suit against Iran, the U.S. State Department stepped in to have it dismissed. And the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the Accords. The United States could show the same level of commitment in diplomatic talks — instead of the old method of “carrots and sticks.” Carrots and sticks is not diplomacy. Imagine the arrogance it carries when the idiom is explained in translation.

President Obama has said he was willing to meet with the leaders of Iran. Why not? Take all options off the table. Sit down to tea. Forget Clinton and Ross. Forget Ahmadinejad, or even a potential reformist president. Obama meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would be a profoundly new and genuine form of diplomacy.

And waiting is the Claims Tribunal, an open and transparent mode of cooperation between the two countries. (It even has its own Web site.) If diplomatic negotiations were newly opened, the Tribunal could be used to develop diplomatic processes.

It is quite possible that the United States could someday acknowledge Iran as an ally. Dropping “carrots and sticks” and adopting open and highest level diplomatic dialogue could accomplish this hope and great change for the Middle East region and the world.

And the Claims Tribunal is a potential starting point. It is a framework for agreement already in place.

Copyright © 2009 Golnoush Niknejad – distributed by Agence Global.

Noruz in Abu Dhabi

December 11, 2008

Desert storm: Emiratis and Qataris flex their muscles (with a little help from their friend).

Abu Dhabi, U.A.E.
Tehran Bureau | notebook

It was back in March, a couple weeks before the Iranian New Year. I had submitted a copy of my passport and press credentials to attend a demonstration of military maneuvers that was to take place at the end of three weeks of exercises between Emirati, French and Qatari forces. When I did not hear back, I was not surprised: though I carry an American passport, it clearly states that I was born in Iran.

Not that it should have been an issue. As officials will tell you, the first joint war games between the three countries had nothing to do with the state of tensions with Iran. Not even when the French-led military exercises coincided with President Nicolas Sarkozy’s tough stance against Iran’s nuclear program. And not even when the exercises were preceded by a visit to Iran by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the U.A.E. and Ruler of Dubai. This was the highest ranking visit by a U.A.E. official to Iran since the revolution 30 years ago.

The day before the exercises were due to take place, I had still not heard back and put in a call. My contact on the other end of the line could not find any of the paperwork I had faxed over more than two weeks earlier. But he clearly remembered my constant pestering and told me to get myself to Bateen Air Base the next morning, where we were supposed to catch a plane to “an island in the Gulf”.

The base failed to appear on the expensive new GPS system that I had just purchased, so I called for a taxi instead. The guards at Bateen were surprised and confused by my appearance. After several calls from the gate, I was escorted to a shuttle bus that was to ferry a small group of journalists to the plane. A contingent of suit-and-tied Frenchmen who spoke their names in hushed tones to the guard were escorted off the minibus when a military attache was unable to locate their names on his list.

“That’s new to me,” said an Arab photojournalist who had arrived from Saudi Arabia. “This is the first time I’ve been on a bus where the brown guys get to stay on, and the white guys have to get out.” We chuckled, as if in admiration for the government of the U.A.E.

We were joined on the plane by Emirati, French and Qatari officers — and later the same group of quiet Frenchmen. The windows from which we could gauge the course of our 45-minute journey were blocked off but I guessed our island was somewhere near the Saudi border. A bigger bus took us to a ceremony on a covered but windy platform. For all the security, my cell phone still worked.

I started chatting with a man who had an American accent in the row below me. He quickly moved the topic of the conversation to Iran. As he continued to escalate his rhetoric, I broke the news to him. “You should probably know that I was born in Iran,” I said. He was visibly shaken. “And they let you in here?” he asked after gaining his composure.

At least he was earnest.

Under a sandstorm warning, with visibility severely limited, it was difficult to understand what was happening in the military exercises: there was lots of dust, lots of machinery and lots of men but the overall objective remained a mystery to me. The simultaneous-translation headphones with which I was provided failed to carry an English translation, apparently not because of technical difficulties either. The interpreter would taper off in the middle of sentences, as if bored or suddenly seized by the realization that the task at hand was beyond his capabilities. Or maybe he couldn’t see anything either.

From what I could make out, there were three friendly countries involved in the exercise. The white country — Qatar — had just signed a business and economic agreement that a fourth country — the “red country” — was angry about, prompting it to invade the whites. The other two countries had come to its aid.

A reporter from Reuters asked during the news conference that followed, “Who is country red?” French General Roger Renard replied, “It’s just a ‘hypothetical’, as in a ‘Hollywood scenario’. Red country is red country.”

“Why had the three countries decided to join forces this year?” I asked. France has long had a presence in the Persian Gulf and has conducted military exercises with both U.A.E. and Qatar separately for a number of years. “We just did,” Gen. Renard said. “It had to happen at some time and it just happened to be this year.”

Iran was unhappy about the exercises, said the reporter who had asked about the red country. The French press attache, sitting to my right, signaled for Renard that he must not answer any “political questions.” Renard tried to dodge the question. “There is always a great temptation to relate an exercise to political matters,” he said. “Our business is to train our people to work together… and to be able to fight together if we have to.”

The threat of a possible war on Iran has been looming at least since the U.S.-led war on Iraq in March 2003, shortly after the beginning of the Persian New Year. It’s been widely covered in the media, so widely I’m not sure what to make of it. Has it deflected an actual strike, or numbed a great number of people to the very idea, thus making an attack all the more feasible.

I was feeling cold and went to stand next to a U.A.E. guard with his back turned to me holding a machine gun. He had found a rare patch of sun and in the desert chill I desperately needed some extra warmth. When he asked me to return to my seat, I remembered the first words of Arabic I had learned as a child in Iranian school the year after the revolution: “Al Shams,” I said, referring to the sun. The guard smiled and made more room for me next to him.