President-elect Obama pledged he would engage with Iran without pre-conditions. As a recent "experts' statement" chaired by Ambassadors Pickering and Dobbins has argued, talking with Iran would lower tensions in the region; help stabilize Iraq; facilitate Iran's cooperation in helping to stabilize Afghanistan; and facilitate peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and Syria. The experts say direct, unconditional and comprehensive negotiations are most likely to succeed, and that we should adopt policies to facilitate contacts between scholars, professionals, religious leaders, lawmakers and ordinary citizens.
The Obama Administration can take concrete steps immediately to facilitate these contacts. We can open a "U.S. interests section" - low-level diplomatic representation - in Tehran. For the first time in many years, the U.S. would have diplomatic representation in Iran. Even the outgoing Bush Administration indicated that it wanted to do this. The U.S. has an "interests section" in Cuba; Iran has an "interests section" in Washington. There is broad agreement in Washington that there should be more interaction between Iranians and Americans. If there were a "U.S. interests section" in Tehran, Iranian students would no longer have to travel outside Iran to apply for visas to study in the United States, making it easier for Iranians to study here. We can also allow direct passenger airline flights between Tehran and New York.
These steps would bring immediate benefits in making it easier for Iranian citizens to travel to the United States; they would also be first steps towards greater diplomatic engagement between Iran and the United States.
There are some troubling signs on the horizon. Reports that Dennis Ross is apparently being considered for a new position to coordinate outreach to Iran suggests that there is some magical thinking going on among some of the advisers to Obama - a belief that pursuing the failed policies of the past will produce different results.
Momentum needs to be generated for a true break, a clear indication that the U.S. is going to put real diplomacy first. Not simply a re-packaging of existing demands, but a real willingness to negotiate. Taking simple, concrete moves to thaw relations is an important first step.
Change.org is soliciting suggestions that they will present to the new Administration. You can vote for "Take Concrete Steps to Engage Iran" here.