THE BLOG
09/30/2013 04:51 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2013

A Call for Public Diplomacy Between the U.S. and Iran

So it finally happened. Wow.

Last week, as the world speculated whether President Obama and President Hassan Rouhani might encounter one another on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly or even exchange a handshake, another, more substantive meeting between Secretary of State Kerry and Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif led to something that hasn't happened since 1979.

Iran and America spoke.

To put things in perspective, the last time these two nations talked directly to each other the Love Boat was a television hit, disco was king and people in China wore padded blue suits. For an Iranian and American president to exchange greetings in the other's language (Rouhani reportedly told Obama "have a nice day" and Obama closed with "khodahafez"), is not simply historic, for those of us old enough, it's almost unimaginable.

After decades of acrimony and hostility, proxy wars, crippling economic sanctions and threats of direct military confrontations, there at last seems to be the possibility of a new way forward. And while no one has any illusions the road ahead will be without bumps, these developments, and the positive tone surrounding them, are a welcome and promising start.

More high-level meetings are scheduled to be held in Geneva in October and the Iranians have outlined an ambitious push for a resolution of its nuclear program in a short time frame, but can we really afford to leave it all to the politicians?

Diplomacy shouldn't be limited to women and men in far away world capitals, meeting in closed-door sessions, cautiously revealing little but carefully sculpted statements cloaked in vague language and platitudes. Genuine, international relations must include ordinary citizens for we, after all, are the ones with the most to gain or lose in matters of war and peace.

Even at this delicate stage in the U.S.-Iranian thaw, the American public too should reach out to Iran. By taking the initiative to forge our own new relationship with Iran, we can send the message that we also want peace and aren't just "along for the ride."

We may not yet be able to apply for a visa to Iran and jet off to Tehran, but we can begin to create a new reality by demonstrating good will, respect and sincerity while also letting our leaders know that we want and expect positive results.

Friendship can start with something as simple as honest curiosity and a touch of humility. Instead of talking about how different Iran is, try asking yourself what we have in common. What is it about Iran that interests you? Is it the fact that Iran is home to one of the world's great civilizations? Is it its history of gardens, or perhaps the vibrant, dynamic people who, despite decades of isolation from much of the world, are tech savvy and keen to interact with other countries, especially the U.S.?

So how to connect?

Social media is a good place to start. There are some 17 million Iranians on Facebook and many on Twitter too. UK-educated President Rouhani tweets at @HassanRouhani and Iran's Foreign Minister Zarif, who studied in Denver and whose children were born in the U.S., tweets as @JZarif.

Other civilian Twitter accounts well worth following include Trita Parsi (@tparsi), president of the National Iranian American Council and journalists like Roxana Saberi (@SaberiRoxana), Thomas Erdbrink (@ThomasErdbrink), Jason Rezaian (@jrezaian) and Jasmin Ramsey (@JasminRamsey). There are countless others.

One new book that will appeal to anyone interested in getting to know the Iranian people, is author Hooman Majd (@hmajd)'s forthcoming The Ministry of Guidance Invites you to Not Stay in which Majd and his American wife and infant son spent a year living in Tehran at the height of very bad relations with the U.S. His account of life in Tehran is deeply insightful, unexpected and frequently amusing.

On Facebook, check out Israeli Ronny Edry's Israel-Loves-Iran page where Israelis make it clear they too want peace with Iran (and vice-versa). Other, similarly spirited peace-themed short videos like One Wish for Iran, Love Israel demonstrate how Israelis and Iranians can express mutual respect if not outright affection for one another.

What does all this have to do with Hawaii? Plenty.

Long recognized as a bridge between East and West, Hawaii blends Asian and European cultures. Perhaps, to a degree, the same could be said of Iran.

The "Aloha Spirit," which we in Hawaii love to tout so much, actually means something, or at least it should. When we say Hawaii has something it can teach the world, here's a situation where we can show that we have the foresight, the demeanor and the will to extend our open hands with warmth and real aloha to the people of Iran.

Nevermind that Hawaii is nearly 5,000 miles from Washington and New York. Going the other direction, Honolulu is just a couple flights from Tehran via Tokyo or Seoul.

Does all this good will mean Waikiki will soon be awash in Persian sun-seekers? Not likely any time soon, but that's not important. Nor does it matter if you live in Washington, Wisconsin or Waipahu. As Americans we should make the effort to reach out to Iran and show them that we want better relations as much -- no, more than -- our government. The job of repairing a three-decade tear in U.S.-Iranian relations is too important to leave to the politicians and in the end we must realize that our people are not so different after all.

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