How Can Iran and the United States Normalize Their Relationship After 36 Years of Mutual Satanization?

05/04/2015 04:05 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2016

Two years after his election, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran is about to go down in history as a leader who defused an intense and bitter conflict that could have led to a military attack on Iran. A nuclear deal that the majority of Iranians hope will bring an end to the isolation of Iran, much needed relief from international sanctions, and a new chapter in U.S.-Iran relations is now in sight. If other enemy countries have faced each other on the battlefield and ultimately managed to work out their differences, why is it impossible for Iran and the United States to do the latter?

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Prior to World War II, the hostilities between France and Germany far superseded the more recent enmity between Iran and the United States, and the former two ultimately became partners in the European Community and NATO. The United States and Vietnam were once engaged in military hostilities, yet today they coexist in peace and cooperation. The enmity between Iran and the United States has certainly never risen to the levels of hostility that previously existed between the countries mentioned above. If the countries in question were able to work out their differences, Iran and the United States can surely do so too. Moreover, there is sympathy for the United States among Iranians, and there is apprehension about foreign conflict among Americans. The public at large is ready for an understanding. In a July 2014 public opinion poll conducted by the Program for Public Consultation and the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, 61% of Americans favored a nuclear deal with Iran. There is a highly vocal group in each country that opposes diplomacy and rapprochement between Iran and the United States. However, both groups' policy statements lack the active support of the general public.

After eighteen months of intensive nuclear negotiations, Iran and the United States are inching closer to achieving a comprehensive nuclear agreement by their self-imposed deadline of July 1, 2015. Although more technical work is needed to refine the nature of the inspection and verification system and to institute a synchronized process that will lead to the elimination of all nuclear-related sanctions, the framework agreement of April has paved the way for a final nuclear accord. Such a diplomatic breakthrough will have a significant impact on both Iran and the United States, taking their relationship to a new level. This would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

It is not easy to reverse thirty-six years of mutual satanization. Both Tehran and Washington must deal with vocal domestic opponents who are mirror images of each other. But both Presidents Obama and Rouhani have started a carefully choreographed process of replacing hostilities with respectful language. A month after his inauguration in September 2013, President Rouhani surprised everyone by holding a brief telephone conversation with President Obama. This was the highest level of contact between the two countries since the 1979 Revolution. The major development broke the ice and prepared the ground for an interim nuclear deal, which was signed in November 2013. The historic telephone call was the climax of a dramatic shift in tone between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. After Rouhani's return home, a large group of people greeted him with cheers, and many others expressed their excitement and praise via social media.

Realizing the significance of public symbolism, both Washington and Tehran have engaged each other at the highest levels, with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry holding dozens of meetings and appearing next to each other in front of flags of the United States and Iran. For the first time in thirty-six years, the U.S. Secretary of State held a meeting with the Iranian Foreign Minister in the residence of Iran's Ambassador to the U.N., Ali Khoshroo. Even though, technically, the United States maintains a 20-mile travel limit on the movement of Iranian diplomats based at the United Nations, allowing cameras to film this historic meeting was part of the careful choreography to change Iran's public image.

Rouhani's administration has also engaged in a reconstruction of the United States' image inside Iran. He has had a much more difficult task since he does not control the state-owned television and radio. Rather, the Director-General is appointed by the Supreme Leader and is not accountable to the elected President. Despite this disadvantage, Rouhani and his experienced team of advisers know how to operate within the system. They have used social media and other media outlets effectively to gradually change the narrative of U.S.-Iran relations from that of two countries in permanent crisis to one of two countries negotiating solutions to their current problems. The Rouhani administration has quietly endorsed civil society initiatives that attempt to build bridges in the areas of sports, culture, education, music, and the arts. They have relaxed Iranian visa requirements for American visitors, encouraging more people-to-people exchanges. Moreover, for the past three years, Iranian athletes have competed in several wrestling and volleyball tournaments in the United States, and several universities in Iran are currently pursuing academic cooperation with American universities.

To encourage more civil society interactions with Iran, the Department of State accelerated its International Visitor Leadership Program with the country. Since Iran faces numerous financial and economic sanctions, the State Department had to obtain permission from the Department of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to conduct civil society exchanges with Iran. The State Department has supported a variety of exchanges with Iran. American nuclear diplomacy is conducted side-by-side with sports diplomacy, music and art diplomacy, food diplomacy, and even bodybuilding diplomacy (which occurred when a famous American bodybuilder, Ron Coleman, visited Iran). Search for Common Ground, an independent NGO devoted to improving civil society interactions, recently sponsored several American jazz musicians' trip to Iran.

In a carefully structured choreography, Rouhani and his team have made it possible for American visitors to Iran to receive media attention and press coverage, engaging in an Iranian version of public diplomacy. It is not unusual to see American flags at hotels, in sports arenas when American teams are competing, or at conferences and gatherings. It is a remarkable change when one considers how difficult it was for Iran and the United States to even admit to having dialogue with each other.

Yet the road towards the normalization of relations between Iran and the United States has dangerous turns that could upend the drivers if they are not careful. The American public is still upset about the hostage crisis of 1979-1981, and media images of the burning of the American flag remain in people's memories. The book, Not without My Daughter, became a bestseller and was turned into a film, and the film, Argo, won several awards. Republican critics of President Obama's diplomacy count on this reservoir of negative perceptions to thwart any rapprochement with Iran. By keeping the U.S. Congress engaged, President Obama can deflect some of the criticism and maintain public support for his diplomacy.

Similarly, Rouhani must deal with opponents who have a vested interest in sustaining conflict with the United States. The dispute with the United States is so embedded in the fractured domestic politics of Iran that Rouhani has to navigate the dangerous waters of factional politics very carefully. Some perceive "nuclear negotiations" as a euphemism for broader changes that could result in a major realignment of political forces inside Iran. Others perceive the nuclear negotiation process as one that will inevitably end in the normalization of relations with the United States and the integration of Iran into the international community. Rouhani has powerful cards to play against his opponents and a chance to forge a historic new chapter in the Islamic Republic's foreign policy.

After thirty-six years of mutual satanization, it is easy to advance pessimistic arguments and to be doubtful about a future in which Iran and the United States will no longer be enemies. However, the nuclear negotiations and the prospect of a final nuclear accord demonstrate the fiction of the idea of permanent enemies destined to be in conflict with each other.