Howard Baskerville -- An American Hero Iranians Love

President Obama has pledged to take a new approach to America's decades-old animosity with Iran. He has offered to extend a hand if Iran 'unclenches its fist', and the Iranians have signaled that they welcome a dialogue based on 'mutual respect'. The signs are hopeful and the tone is promising, yet no one is under any illusions. The obstacles to detente remain formidable.

Fortunately for the new administration, the political establishment in Tehran has recently demonstrated a keen interest in history. Both the president and the Supreme Leader have called on the US to apologise for 'past crimes' against Iran - citing everything from support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s to the CIA's role in the 1953 overthrow of Mossadeq. These are all legitimate grievances, and one hopes the time will come for apologies on all sides. But as long as we're talking about history, the Obama administration might be interested to know that there is a rather important anniversary coming up in the calendar - one of those once-in-a-generation opportunities to make a powerful symbolic gesture to Iran. Obama would be wise not to ignore it.

April 19th marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Howard Baskerville, a 23-year-old American missionary who has gone down as one of the most unlikely heroes of Iranian history. In 1909, as millions of Iranians were fighting for constitutional government and representative democracy, Baskerville abandoned his missionary work to join their struggle. Inspired by the patriotism and suffering of the citizens of Tabriz, where he had been teaching English, the handsome young Nebraskan led a group of his students on a midnight sortie against the reactionary forces of the Shah's elite Cossack brigades. His reward was a swift bayonet through the throat.

On his death, Baskerville became an instant hero - not only in Tabriz, where thousands flocked to an emotional public funeral, but all across Iran, where he quickly became known as 'our American Lafayette'. For decades after his death, he was revered by Iranian nationalists, who turned his grave into a monument to American friendship and solidarity. To this day, a mysterious stranger occasionally lays fresh flowers on it.

In the United States, Howard Baskerville is virtually unknown. But to generations of Iranians, his name has become synonymous with everything they love about America - the can-do spirit, the idealism, the commitment to liberty. And strangely, his appeal seems to have transcended political differences. As recently as 2003, the authorities in Tabriz erected a statue of Baskerville, and the clerical establishment in Tehran, after a little debate, decided not to interfere in the decision. Baskerville was declared a shahid - a martyr to the cause of Islamic liberation, and the highest honor the Islamic Republic can confer. He is the only American to have been so recognized.

Today more than ever, it would be a mistake to leave the interpretation of Baskerville's legacy entirely in the hands of the mullahs in Tehran. His sacrifice was more than just 'martyrdom' - it was also a fierce demonstration of a traditional American commitment to democracy in the face of tyranny. More to the point, the rapid approach of the 100-year anniversary in April presents the Obama administration with an exceptional opportunity to make a symbolic gesture - not only to the Iranian government, but directly to the Iranian people themselves.

Such a gesture could take many forms. It could be a memorial service arranged by a US embassy in some mutually acceptable location, such as Karachi or Geneva, to which Iranian historians are invited to speak. Or better yet, a well-worded line inserted into the big speech on the Middle East that Obama has promised to make in his first 100 days. Whatever its form, though, it needn't seem like a bizarre or politically expedient gimmick. In 1959, the US embassy organized a large ceremony in Tabriz to mark the 50th anniversary, with dignitaries and journalists coming from both Tehran and the United States. So there is a clear and existing precedent - and a consistent message.

But the real advantage of a Baskerville observance this spring is that it goes beyond the language of 'carrots' and 'sticks' that has so badly rankled Iranian pride. And it does so in a way that neither compromises the integrity of America's demands about nuclear energy, nor hands a PR coup to Ahmadinejad in the weeks before the presidential elections in June. Instead, it walks a deft middle road - acknowledging an area of pre-existing common ground between the two governments, while signaling subtly to Iran's disaffected electorate that the US stands ready to renew its tradition of opposing despotism and autocracy. It brings Iran's people on side, without making the regime feel threatened or undermined.

What could be more in tune with Obama's style? With his carefully calibrated messages, the new president has shown a willingness to listen and find unexpected common ground between seemingly implacable foes, and promised fresh, creative solutions to problems once thought hopelessly polarizing. A Baskerville tribute of some sort could check all those boxes, and prove an unexpected starting point for that elusive conversation of 'mutual respect'.