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Dear President Ahmadinejad and President Obama: Support Generation Y Diplomacy

Posted: 02/09/09 12:46 PM ET

Dear President Ahmadinejad and President Obama,

I write to you as an Iranian, as an American, as a young person, and most importantly, as an advocate for dialogue between Iran and the United States.

Like the more than 150 million Iranians and Americans that were born after the 1979 revolution, I scarcely remember the events that set our two countries on the path of confrontation. Having inherited this legacy of hostility, however, many of us reject the idea that a clash between the "Great Satan" and member of the "Axis of Evil" is somehow inevitable.

You have both publicly stated your support for U.S.-Iran dialogue, and your governments are examining ways to launch such diplomacy. But dialogue between our two countries need not wait until Tehran and Washington sit down at the negotiation table.

You can begin the process of dialogue by facilitating exchanges between young Americans and Iranians -- those who will gain the most from such interactions, yet have the least knowledge and understanding of the other.

Unlike our parents' generation, few if any young Americans have ever been to Iran. And while many students are rushing to learn Arabic or Chinese, only a small handful is learning Farsi. At the same time, young Iranians struggle to get tourist and student visas to the U.S. To even apply, they must travel to Dubai or Turkey -- a difficult obstacle for the majority of Iranians. Therefore, most young Iranians resign themselves to learning about the U.S. through movies they watch on illegal satellite.

Given the stakes right now, it is unacceptable that the next generation -- our future leaders -- know so little about the other. By allowing us space to come together, you are making a relatively inexpensive investment in the long-term security of our countries.

This is not to say that the political and geo-strategic differences between the U.S. and Iran are not real. They are. "Citizen diplomacy" will not and should not replace official government negotiations. However, an exchange between young Iranians and Americans can accomplish a great deal by helping build a foundation of understanding and respect, which is essential to sustain future agreements.

I have experienced first-hand how rewarding it can be to bring these young people together. In 2004, I co-led a delegation of American students to Iran for a dialogue exchange. The university in Tehran had never hosted Americans before, and the Americans had never traveled to Iran. For some of them, this was their first trip to a Muslim country. The two groups of students debated and discussed issues as diverse and as difficult as Abu Ghraib, terrorism, the role of the media, women's rights and art. On some issues we had clear differences, while on others we found common ground. Ultimately though, the process helped us gain a more nuanced and respectful understanding of the other.

Other groups have organized similar Iranian-American exchanges, including a successful program with wrestlers. (This month, the State Department planned to send the USA Badminton team to participate in a tournament in Iran, but were denied visas last minute). However, a spattering of such exchanges is insufficient. Real progress demands that both countries make a serious commitment to the idea of youth dialogue.

A series of concrete steps will help open the door for more frequent exchanges. First, President Obama, you can follow through on nascent discussions to open an interest section in Tehran, which could process student and tourist visas for young Iranians. President Ahmadinejad, you can allow the interest section to open and protect it as you would any diplomatic mission.

As a next step, both your governments can partner with local museums, professional organizations, and sports leagues to organize a series of youth conferences and exchanges. Bring promising young American mountain climbers to trek the Elborz Mountains. Welcome an Iranian youth orchestra to play at Carnegie Hall.

Both your countries greatly value higher education. Allow these institutions to play a more robust role in facilitating dialogue. In the U.S., increase funding for Farsi language and Iranian studies programs at American universities. In Iran, design formal study abroad programs for American students. Both your governments can establish academic fellowships for students from the other country.

Similarly, establish cultural centers in each other's capitals that will promote an exchange between young artists and musicians.

Down the road, when formal negotiations between the U.S. and Iran begin, the State Department and Ministry of Foreign Affairs can create an official exchange program in each country similar to the State Department's International Visitor Leadership program.

But until then, simply open the channels for young people to interact with one another. This means ensuring their safety and security as they travel back and forth. Make clear to your citizens that you support this type of people-to-people contact, and publicly encourage those who wish to learn from the citizens of the other country.

President Obama and President Ahmadinejad, if you are truly committed to dialogue, allow the young people from your countries to get to know each other. Remove the obstacles that keep them apart. These smart, motivated and innovative young people will find ways to interact, to learn from another, and ultimately to break apart the fear and misunderstandings that have developed between the Iranian and American people.