Institutionalizing the US-Iran Detente

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have built a personal trust that has enabled diplomacy to begin overcoming decades of distrust, but this promising U.S.-Iranian relationship remains fragile and could disappear once a new president takes office, warn Trita Parsi and Tyler Cullis.

By Trita Parsi and Tyler Cullis

Doubting the power of diplomacy is like doubting climate change at this point. Despite the skepticism Barack Obama faced in the 2008 elections for his willingness to talk to adversaries — including accusations of naiveté from Democratic and Republican rivals alike, Obama’s diplomacy has now both prevented a disastrous war with Iran and an Iranian nuclear bomb and has secured the release of American prisoners held in Iran.

And much more can be achieved if America stays the course — the question is if it can when so much of this success has been built on specific personal relations that have been forged. Since this new budding relationship with Iran has not been institutionalized, what will be left of it when the Obama administration leaves office?

Secretary of State John Kerry (third from right) with other diplomats who negotiated an interim agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, including Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, (fifth from the right) . (Photo credit: State Department)

Secretary of State John Kerry (third from right) with other diplomats who negotiated an interim agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, including Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, (fifth from the right) . (Photo credit: State Department)

Having established a reliable channel of communication between the two countries for the first time in more than three decades, the Obama administration can explore opportunities that have been unavailable to previous administrations. For Obama — who has long argued that the U.S. should be able “to test the possibility that engagement leads to better outcomes” — sailing into such uncharted waters with Iran affords a ripe opportunity to shape a legacy that is growing by the day.

The challenge is to ensure that these channels of communication are not limited to the personal rapport that has developed between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, but will survive into succeeding administrations. Failing to formalize the channel could not only undermine the very real opportunities that spring forth from such direct U.S.-Iran engagement, but could also implicate the sustainability of the nuclear accord itself.

The most natural step — normalizing relations and reopening embassies — is not in the cards for now. But there are measures the U.S. and Iran can take that could help institutionalize this critical relationship.

Step 1: The U.S. and Iran need to establish a strategic dialogue through regular meetings between their respective government agencies.

This will not be a negotiation between the two, but rather a dialogue on various issues of common concern, though not necessarily of common interest.

The main purpose of this dialogue is to better understand each other’s motives in order to preempt misperceptions and misunderstandings. And of course, if areas of common interest can be found, the dialogue provides an opportunity to explore collaboration on those issues.

In 2003, the Iranians offered a three-step negotiation road map for the U.S. and Iran. One of the suggested measures was a strategic dialogue just of this kind. The George W. Bush administration ignored the proposal.

Had the Bush administration accepted the invitation for dialogue, the Middle East would likely look very different today. The U.S. and Iran may have collaborated rather than competed with each other in Iraq — as they did in Afghanistan before President Bush included Iran in the Axis of Evil. If they had cooperated, that may have prevented the collapse of the Iraqi state and the spread of sectarianism. The world may never have known the scourge of the so-called Islamic State, and Syria might not have devolved into a civil war seemingly immune to resolution.

Missing that opportunity in 2003 proved tremendously costly for all sides. Missing it after 2016 may prove even costlier.

Step 2: The legislatures of both countries need to establish their own dialogue.

Some of the harshest opposition to improved U.S.-Iran relations is currently concentrated within the U.S. Congress and the Iranian parliament. The only prospect of undoing some of that mistrust is to begin a process of dialogue — just as the nuclear deal began with discreet talks between American and Iranian officials in Oman.

Ideally, this process will eventually lead to congressional delegations visiting Iran and vice versa and provide the legislatures a formal role in the strategic dialogue between the two countries.

Step 3: Perhaps most importantly, there needs to be increased contact and communications between the two societies.

Whether connections between American and Iranian think tanks or non-policy oriented people-to-people exchanges, such activities have been almost nonexistent in the past three decades.

Here, the problem has primarily been on the Iranian side, where the government has viewed such activities with great suspicion. Just in the past months, there has been a crackdown inside Iran on individuals engaged in such bridge-building. For people-to-people contacts to flourish and enable the two societies to rediscover each other, the bridge builders must feel safe.

While the Obama administration has always spoken about diplomacy with Iran as limited and transactional, the events of the past few weeks show this dialogue has the potential to become transformational. But for that to happen, it cannot be limited to Obama and Rouhani or Kerry and Zarif.

True opportunities to start a dialogue between the U.S. and Iran have only appeared once a decade. Opportunities to change the paradigm of the relationship may only come once a generation.

Trita Parsi is President of the National Iranian American Council. Tyler Cullis is a Policy Associate at NIAC where he provides legislative and advocacy outreach, research and writing, and legal analysis. [This article first appeared at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/trita-parsi/steps-us-iran-dialogue-future_b_9019222.html]

12 comments for “Institutionalizing the US-Iran Detente

  1. Bob
    January 22, 2016 at 08:56

    Parsi and Cullis seem to want to ignore one small stumbling block. The Iranian regime really does want to kill all the Jews. Call me silly but until Iran recognizes Israel’s right to exist you don’t talk with them at all.

    • Zachary Smith
      January 23, 2016 at 00:50

      The Iranian regime really does want to kill all the Jews.

      My, my! Do you also believe only virgins can ride unicorns?

      Israel, as it exists at this moment, is a thieving, murderous little apartheid nation.

      Israel, as it ought to exist, would be none of those things.

      How any outsider could be expected to embrace the current situation is beyond me.

  2. rosemerry
    January 21, 2016 at 16:16

    You are too kind. How often has the Iranian gesture been ignored or refused by the USA, which is the nation which has dropped nukes on cities and supports the rogue Israeli stockpile, while refusing the NPT obligation to reduce its own nuke supply. As for “sponsor of terrorism”, who can do it better than the USA, while Iran threatens nobody.
    Diplomacy is not a word appropriate for the USA actions.

    • Peter Loeb
      January 22, 2016 at 07:14

      THANKS TO ROSEMERRY

      A detailed answer would be long , dull and certainly redundant.

      If one accepts the definition of US-ISRAELI views of who is
      a “terrorist’, about their impunity to kill women and
      children, about their “rights” to steal other’s lands…then it makes
      sense. Of course, all of this is sacrosanct in the context
      of US politics (all parties and candidates). But if your family
      is murdered, if your home is destroyed, if your neighborhood
      is leveled, all that makes little difference. Who is a “terrorist”
      seems to be in the eye of the beholder.

      Reading about the invasions of colonists upon Native
      Americans (aka “indian deaths and INDIAN REMOVAL
      is similarly the projection of colonial violence
      on a victim. [In 1820 there were 125,000 Native American
      east of the Mississippi River. By 1840 there were only
      30,000 left…]

      —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  3. Brad Owen
    January 21, 2016 at 06:47

    These suggestions ignore the “Elephant-in-the-room”. The USA has a “Deep State” problem that has manufactured a near-complete disconnect between the People’s needs, wants, and will, and their government…it’s no longer our government. I think Mr. Lofgren (former Congressional Staffer) summed it up well on Common Dreams; a Deep State Oligarchy has broken our Democracy, and it must be taken down somehow. Only then will articles such as this one make any sense. The problem is much longer-lived than most would suspect. FDR had “his boys” in O.S.S. get the intel on a Movement called the Synarchy Movement of Empire in 1940; it was already working for fifty years, had its’ birth fifty or so years before that, cooked up by some Bonaparte Generals and extreme reactionary elements in Catholic Church. It gave birth to Fascism/NAZIism, gone global since WWII, wants to replace Nation-States with gigantic “privatized” Feudal Estates, abolish Congresses,Parliaments, and democracy in general, and build a global empire reminiscent of Rome’s or Napoleon’s, governed and “run” by Deep State instrumentalities for the defacto “Feudal Lords and Ladies” (financiers, industrialists, commodities cartels, etc…) of this neo-feudal/proto-fascist Empire. THAT is the problem that must be solved before anything concerning The General Welfare of the World can be addressed.

    • Brad Owen
      January 21, 2016 at 09:14

      The solution for this Deep State problem is given on Tarpley.net Jan. 20th Briefing from TWSP and UFAA. FDR’s New Deal threw a monkey wrench into the Deep State machinations. A Newer Deal, summarized by Tarpley, will work. Those representatives of the people who implement it might have to wear flak-vests and helmets though, and “stay in the bunker” for the duration of the implentation.

  4. Marla Lyon
    January 21, 2016 at 02:02

    why do we have to talk to Iran or socialize with them? Can’t we just mind our own business, Or are we after Trade and the Almighty Dollar? When you are at a party must you drink and dance with people you do not care to?
    Privacy, Peace and quiet are things that should be preferred by whom ever wants it.
    Most animals have preferences to who they socialize with, why can’t we humans practice this trait as well. Elephants don’t breed with lions do they?
    To allow our elected officials the represent us all with their wishes is not what the founding fathers had in mind!

    • Bagwis
      January 21, 2016 at 04:25

      There is nothing wrong to talk/socialize with Iran, are you promoting racism?

    • Bob
      January 22, 2016 at 09:02

      From my comment below: Parsi and Cullis seem to want to ignore one small stumbling block. The Iranian regime really does want to kill all the Jews. Call me silly but until Iran recognizes Israel’s right to exist you don’t talk with them at all.

    • Joe Wallace
      January 25, 2016 at 18:20

      Bob:
      “The Iranian regime really does want to kill all the Jews.”

      Jews not only live in Iran, they have political representation.

    • Bob
      January 22, 2016 at 09:03

      Since when is Iranian a race?

  5. Zachary Smith
    January 21, 2016 at 01:17

    Here, the problem has primarily been on the Iranian side, where the government has viewed such activities with great suspicion.

    “Problem”? Given all the other activities of US NGOs, IMO Iran would have been nuts to invite them in. IMO they’d still be nuts to allow them in.

    Fluffing Obama may be something worth trying by Iranian propagandists, but I’d predict it’s a waste of time. He has already slapped on some new sanctions over a trumped-up charge involving missiles. I’ll be mighty surprised if he doesn’t do some more of them before he leaves office.

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