It is often the case that the most intriguing conversations do not take place in an office or at a conference, rather they take place at bars or in living rooms where people are most comfortable to speak their minds. It was just this type of conversation, and the recent events surrounding efforts at diplomacy between Iran and the United States, that sparked this piece.
Earlier in the summer, a good friend of mine asked me over beers at my favorite D.C. watering hole, what my thoughts were on the potential for a diplomatic solution vis-à-vis Iran's nuclear program. The question is rather loaded. We're both Iranian, we're both advocates for a diplomatic solution, but more importantly we're both jaded.
To understand where we are now, we have to look at where we came from. It was no secret that Iran and the U.S. have been at odds for nearly 35 years. Until recently, there has been virtually no official contact between the two countries; the lines of communication were severed for obvious reasons. The Iranian regime looked at the U.S. as the Great Satan and the U.S. felt aggrieved by the embassy seizure in 1979. Both sides have a laundry list of complaints which, in all honesty, are all valid.
Over the intervening decades, there have been attempts at détente or rapprochement -- all of which have sputtered well before they got off the ground. One side was willing to dance, while the other refused to leave its seat.
Now with the recent elections of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran combined with President Obama's willingness to go beyond his initial attempts at diplomacy in October 2009 (which were an epic failure for many reasons) there seems to be more space and opportunity for diplomacy to actually take hold. Recent speeches by both at the United Nations General Assembly indicate both a willingness to talk and a shift in perceptions about the other side.
However, I was -- and still am -- cautious. No deal, however much both sides want one, can ever be made overnight. While we don't have much time to begin the process (the window of opportunity is small and will only remain open for a short period of time), it has to be understood that a viable agreement has to be formed over an extended period of time. In other words, while neither side can afford to dither in getting the ball rolling, neither side should expect to sprint to the finish line. After all, we have nearly 35 years of entrenched misinformation, distrust, and virtual cold war.
Congressional leaders should realize this as well, but something tells me scoring cheap political points is far easier than being prudent. Iran is an easy target and Congressional members of both parties will be facing reelection bids next year. The same could be said for politicians in Iran -- at the end of the day, all politics are local.
Given the facts on the ground the hope is, my hope is, that there can be in some way, shape, or form measures to begin to build trust, so that when an eventual agreement does take place it is lasting and there is confidence on all sides that the stipulations therein will be followed.
The process of rebuilding a broken relationship will take time, I told my friend. If we are truly seeking an agreement that is lasting, then we have to be willing to take those confidence building steps over an extended period of time. These steps have to be institutionalized within both countries, so that they can last through inevitable turnovers that occur in both nations. Three years is enough time to begin the process and build enough confidence for an agreement to be made.
The process won't be easy. There will be spoilers of all shapes and sizes. Both sides have to be prepared to take the inevitable body blows that come part and parcel with this course of action. The question is will both sides be strong enough? Will they succumb to the desire for a quick and instantly gratifying, but unsustainable, solution? Or will they take the long road and find an enduring settlement?