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.
We need to shift thinking in the United States on the meaning and purpose of diplomacy. During the Bush administration, diplomacy was viewed by some as “appeasement” or something that should only be used as a reward for good behavior. This is a misguided and dangerous approach. The United States needs to view diplomacy as a pragmatic tool used to resolve tensions with other countries and to bring about greater stability in the international community. Smart diplomacy has a history of success, and does not bring with it the dangerous consequences that military action, isolation and economic pressure can bring. President Nixon engaged with China and President Reagan engaged with the Soviet Union despite tensions, and we are safer today as a result. It is clear in weighing the various policy options for dealing with Iran that diplomacy is the only viable option that does not carry dangerous consequences for Iranians and Americans.
Ziabari: Please tell us about your experiences in Iran. How much did your perceptions change after visiting Iran? Could you relate something about the Iranian that is usually withheld from the public by the corporate media? What inspired and influenced you the most in Iran?
Griffin: Having studied U.S.-Iran relations for a number of years and knowing other people who had been to Iran, I thankfully had access to other perspectives than what the American media tells you about Iran. I was excited to be able to personally experience the beauty and warmth of Iran so I could be more effective in persuading Americans that Iran can be a friend to the U.S. and has much to share with the United States.
I can’t imagine that a traveling American could receive a warmer welcome than I received in Iran. From Tehran to Isfahan, Persepolis to Shiraz, I was always greeted with warmth and hospitality. Because so few of us visit, people were often very excited to meet an American. The first question people tended to ask is what I think of Iran and Iranians. When they would follow up by asking me what other Americans think of Iranians, I would explain that most Americans want peace with Iran, but are also dealing with fear because of how our media and politicians portray Iran.
One of my projects while I was there was recording videos of Iranians sharing a message of peace with Americans, and delivering messages from Americans to Iranians. I was moved to see the genuine desire for peace in the Iranians I met. Young and old, they all wanted friendship between the U.S. and Iran and recognized that the obstacles lie with our governments. It was particularly interesting to hear people reflect on the experience of the Iran-Iraq war and how that informed their commitment to peace. In the United States, we do not hear much about this conflict, but it was devastating to the Iranian people. Even teenagers and young people I met, who were small children during the war, carry that burden with them and are passionate about making sure such horror is not inflicted on anyone else, including Americans and their fellow Iranians.
Ziabari: And finally, I’ve frequently heard that contrary to those American people who think of Iran and Persian culture optimistically, there’re a vast majority of Americans who are not even able to locate Iran’s location on the world map. What steps should be taken to constructively acquaint them with Iran? How do you personally contribute to this enlightenment process?
Griffin: Unfortunately, Americans mostly see fearful images of Iran in our media. The ongoing tension between our countries makes breaking through that fear even more difficult. Fewer than 500 Americans travel to Iran every year, and I met several people who had never met an American before when I was in Iran. Without the interaction happening on the people to people level, Americans don’t have much access to another view of the Iranian people and culture.
I have dedicated a lot of time and energy to mobilizing Americans to support diplomacy with Iran by sharing with them a different vision of the country of Iran and its wonderful people. Our organization has worked to share our video messages so Americans can hear directly from Iranians about their hopes for a better relationship with the United States. I have appeared on television and radio sharing my experiences and what they mean for the future of U.S.-Iran relations. I am also going out into communities and sharing stories, photos and insights from my trip so ordinary Americans can build their understanding of Iran, which will hopefully compel them to take action and pressure our government to pursue a stronger, more peaceful relationship with Iran.