Although the U.S. and Iran have long disputed over a number of issues, there now appears some hope that the two nations might be able to come to a peaceful reconciliation.

Rebecca Griffin is the Political Director for Peace Action West, a grassroots organization of peace activists located in Oakland. She is currently heading up campaigns on Afghanistan and Iran. Along with her colleagues at the Peace Action West, she is working extensively to acquaint American audiences with a realistic view of Iran, correcting misrepresentations of the Persian Gulf country and transmitting the message of peace.

She has written on her experiences in Iran, ancient archaeological sites, Persian cuisine and culture, staying in the home of an Iranian family, visiting the primeval city of Shiraz and a number of other memories during a goodwill trip to one of the world’s main historic civilizations.

Kourosh Ziabari: Like many Americans who have visited Iran over the past years, you have alluded to your perception of the warm hospitality of Iranians who seem to be significantly interested in relations with the U.S. and American people. Correspondingly, many Americans talk of their mutual interest in the culture, civilization and hospitality of Iranians and say no good may come of the continuation of acrimony and bitterness between the two nations. However, the unyielding stubbornness of the two countries’ leaders seems to be a major obstacle on the way of reconciliation. What’s your take on that?

Rebecca Griffin: It’s clear to me from interacting with Americans and Iranians that we have a shared desire for better relations and more cultural interaction. There is inertia at the government level because they are working to overcome thirty years of tensions and stumbling over the first steps to a more open relationship. For the past eight years, the Bush administration demonstrated a lack of understanding of the political dynamics and history between the US and Iran, and insisted on a strategy that was doomed to fail because of preconditions for negotiations, and counterproductive saber-rattling.

There have been lost opportunities over the past decades, but I am encouraged by the Obama administration’s shift in rhetoric and willingness to engage directly with the Iranian government. This is an important time for Americans to raise our voices in favor of better relations so our government has the political will to follow through. In the US, we still have obstacles to a better relationship with Iran in that some members of Congress insist on clinging to a failed approach based in punitive sanctions and hostility. Americans who want to see a peaceful relationship with Iran, which accounts for the majority of us, need to insist that our government implement policies that actually enhance our security and bring greater peace to the world.

There are a number of issues that need to be addressed, but our governments have made the important first step of agreeing to sit down at the table. To make significant progress, they should cover a wide range of issues, including nuclear proliferation, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Middle East peace.

Ziabari: You have accurately mentioned that “crippling sanctions” against Iran merely harms the Iranian people, impedes their path to economic betterment, and decreases their chances of growing financially independent; it moreover sows the seeds of anti-American sentiments. Is there any way, in your view, to undo the past sanctions and allow a more unrestricted trade between the two sides?

Griffin: Broad economic sanctions are certainly a counterproductive approach. Our ideal vision of a future relationship between the United States and Iran involves normalizing relations and lifting existing sanctions so Americans and Iranians can interact freely in the cultural and economic realms. As part of broad talks between the United States and Iran, the US should offer the incentive of lifting current sanctions and opening up trade between our countries.

Ziabari: Many Iranians, even the critics of President Ahmadinejad’s government, are confused and unhappy with the U.S. exercise of double standards regarding global nuclear non-proliferation. They believe that if Israel is entitled to accumulate its nuclear arsenals with 200 warheads, Iran should equally have the right to use nuclear energy. What do you think?

Griffin: This is a sentiment I encountered in talking to many people in Iran, and it’s unfortunate that more politicians in the United States don’t recognize this impediment to overcoming tensions. All countries that have signed the NPT have the right to enrich uranium for “peaceful purposes” and should allow vigorous inspections to prevent illicit weapons activities, build trust, and strengthen the nonproliferation regime. The international community should apply standards around nuclear proliferation in an even-handed way to enhance global security. The Obama administration has made a number of positive moves toward lessening the credibility gap on nuclear proliferation by committing to reduce the US nuclear stockpile and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. These are important steps in the right direction, and our government needs to continue this effort toward eventually eliminating all nuclear weapons.

The United States’ own intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency acknowledge that Iran currently does not have a weapons program, and does not have the technical capability to develop a nuclear weapon in the near future. It is critical to get this information in the public because misconceptions about the imminence of an Iranian nuclear weapon are feeding rash policy decisions and fear-mongering. Our hope is that talks between the United States and Iran can clear up questions about Iran’s nuclear program so we can move away from fear regarding Iran’s nuclear program and focus on efforts to make the world more secure by eliminating all nuclear weapons in every country.

Ziabari: When talking of negotiations with Iran, many American politicians and scholars propose the disputed notion of regime change. They believe that negotiations with a theological regime won’t work effectively, so Iran’s political power should be transferred to secular leaders before negotiations take place. I would like to challenge this idea. The U.S. is one of the most important trade partners and political allies of the Saudi Arabian government. I was there a few weeks ago, and witnessed in person that everything revolves around American investment and money; however, Saudi Arabia is far more undemocratic and autocratic than Iran and the very “pseudo-democracy” which American politicians have confessed exists in Iran cannot be seen in Saudi Arabia at all. What’s the difference?

Griffin: The United States has an unfortunate history of using regime change in an attempt to advance U.S. interests, including of course the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. Despite the clear evidence that democracy cannot be imposed from an outside force, and the moral hazards surrounding subverting the will of the people in the sovereign nation, there are still some in the U.S. who support this kind of approach.

Thankfully, many of these people have been largely discredited. President Obama has made clear statements indicating his administration’s policy is not one of regime change, an important step in moving toward a more productive relationship. It is ultimately up to the people of Iran to determine whether they want to see a new government in place, and the US should have no role in that process.