Argo and U.S.-Iranian Inertia

03/03/2013 06:08 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2013

After watching the Academy Award-winning film Argo last week, I was reminded of a meeting I had in Brisbane Australia in 2006 at the "Earth Dialogues' event organized by Mikhal Gorbachev. Two prominent Iranian women were chief guests at this event and hailed from very different parts of the political spectrum: Nobel laureate human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, and the former Vice President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Masoumeh Ebtekar (the first woman to hold such a high rank within the Islamic republic). They were invited to this event together, despite their political differences on Iran's governance trajectory, because the organizers were interested in seeking how environmental issues could lead to convergent conversations.

During the presidency of Iranian President Muhammad Khatamai (1997-2005), who was considered a reformer within the parameters of sharia, Ebtekar's ascendancy to the vice presidency was seen as a sign of gradual transformation of the theocratic republic. Yet, viewers of the film Argo will remember her in other terms. Though her character was not well-developed, Ebtekar was the unnamed character in the film seen in press briefings for the Iranian student movement in a clear American accent. In 1980, Ebtekar was quite a radical member of the Islamist youth movement and even time spent in the United States during adolescence had not moderated her views of "the great Satan." Yet, almost two decades later she emerged as a reformist within theocratic Iran alongside Khatami and used her credentials as a scientist to advance an environmental agenda within Iran that transcended theological absolutism.

Yet this gradual transformation could not be sustained as a reform trajectory, and since 2005 Iran has sunk back into a more conservative theocratic plight. Even the protest movements in 2010 and 2011 which held much promise did not gain traction and the country seems ever more entrenched in its suppression of dissent. Shirin Ebadi, who had endured the regime for two decades and tried her best to practice a moderated form of activism for women's rights has been forced into exile in London. Ebtekar is now a member of the Tehran City Council and continues her environmental work through an organization called The Centre for Peace and the Environment. She has won accolades such as being named a "Champion of the Earth" by the United Nations Environment Program and writes a blog regularly titled "Persian Paradox" (which is hosted on an Australian server site).

Notwithstanding their inability to make lasting political change in Iran so far, Ebadi and Ebtekar continue to work towards normalization of Iran's relations with the world along different parts of the political spectrum. Despite being championed by the West, even Ebadi has her own misgivings with the United States. Due to sanctions against Iran, Ebadi had to litigate against the U.S. government to allow her memoir to be published in the United States.

To their credit, the makers of Argo acknowledged some of the historical opportunism on the part of the United States, which led to radicalization of educated professionals such as Ebtekar. Fundamentalist forces capitalized on the public's anger at past injustices of the West, and manipulated sentiments of fear and fury to entrench theocracy. Yet, the United States seems to be now capitalizing as well on the same kind of dichotomous narrative of good and evil towards the Iranian government that will only perpetuate an impasse.

Hollywood has given prominence to Iran in the past two years, a foreign film award for "A Separation" in 2012 and best film award for Argo this year. The start of John Kerry's tenure as U.S. Secretary of State has motivated some tentative movement on Iran's willingness to consider dialogue with the United States as noted by the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations in New York recently. Yet, the wrangling over Senator Hagel's confirmation as defense secretary shows that hawkish voices on engagement with Iran are still quite dominant.

If the United States is willing to engage Myanmar despite its problematic human rights record, or Vietnam, with which it fought a bloody war that left over 60,000 Americans dead, surely the American government can engage with Iran as well. No doubt such engagement will need to have defined parameters but can't be framed as a dictation exercise. Just as Aung San Suu Kyi used her international stature and feminine grace at diplomacy to facilitate U.S. engagement with Myanamr, Ebadi and Ebtekar might be able to do the same for U.S. engagement with Iran. Perhaps the Canadians who continue to have diplomatic ties with Iran could also play an important role in this regard just as they did in 1980. Yet unlike the plot of Argo, which missed an opportunity for nuanced character development, the story of American relations with Iran cannot afford to end with an escape from engagement.