Iranian Nobel prize laureate Shirin Ebadi has long argued that the United States and Iran need to have a dialogue with each other at three different levels: between their executive branches, between their civil societies and between their legislatures.
While the George W. Bush administration has opposed direct contact with the Iranian executive branch, and while its "Iran Democracy fund" has rendered civil society exchanges more difficult, according to prominent human rights organisations, Tehran bears overwhelming responsibility for the failure to initiate a parliamentarian dialogue between the two countries.
But change may be in the air. The new speaker of Iran's parliament, the Majlis, is the former nuclear negotiator who resigned over President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's inflexible position on the nuclear file, Ali Larijani.
The election of the former hawk-turned-relative pragmatist has been interpreted as a blow to Ahmadinejad and an indication that the conservative camp in Iran is growing increasingly impatient with their hardline president. Larijani's more flexible posture on the nuclear issue, his relatively tempered rhetoric and his declared openness to talks with the U.S. has fueled speculation that if he were to successfully challenge Ahmadinejad in the March 2009 presidential elections, a significant opportunity for U.S.-Iran diplomacy would emerge.
But even if he were to remain the speaker of the Majlis, Larijani will enjoy opportunities to pursue unprecedented parliamentarian diplomacy. There has been no shortage of efforts to connect Iranian and U.S. lawmakers. The willingness to initiate such a dialogue -- and willingness to accept the political risk it entails -- has been much stronger on the U.S. side, however.
In September 2000, several U.S. lawmakers attended a meeting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for parliamentary speakers. The purpose was to get a chance to converse with the then speaker of the Iranian Majlis, Mehdi Karroubi, who was in New York for the U.N. Millennium summit.
Among the U.S. lawmakers attending the reception at the Met were New York Democratic representatives Gary L. Ackerman and Eliot L. Engel, as well as Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations. The Iranian delegation included the sole Jewish lawmaker in the Iranian Parliament. Among the many issues discussed was a U.S. proposal to increase formal exchanges between the two legislatures. The Iranians never gave a firm commitment.
In October 2001, only a few weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a few U.S. lawmakers headed by Republican Senator Arlen Specter invited the then Iranian ambassador to the U.N., Hadi Nejad-Hosseinian, to a private dinner in a Senate chamber -- the first visit of a senior Iranian diplomat to the U.S. Capitol since the 1979 revolution.
Among the several lawmakers attending the dinner was also Ambassador Nejad-Hosseinian's daughter-in-law, a U.S. citizen. Though the Iranian diplomat did not meet with any administration officials during his visit, the dinner could not have taken place without the permission of the Bush administration. The Iranians never reciprocated the invitation.
In August 2003, a Republican lawmaker and a senior Democratic Senate staffer participated in a Track-II meeting in a European capital with Iranian foreign ministry officials. Though the lawmaker acted independently from the Bush administration, U.S. officials hoped that Tehran would permit an Iranian lawmaker to attend the meeting as well in order to elevate it to an official parliamentary exchange. No Iranian lawmaker attended the meeting, however.
In January 2004, the Bush administration gave the green light for a second dinner invitation to Iran's U.N. ambassador to a Congressional dinner in the Capitol building, only a few doors away from the speaker's office. The discussions with Ambassador Javad Zarif centred on developments in Afghanistan and Iraq and the need for U.S.-Iranian cooperation, but also on a proposed trip by congressional staff to Tehran as a prelude to a visit by members of Congress.
Though the Iranians initially were positive, and though travel preparations were made on the U.S. side and a group of half a dozen staffers were selected to go on what would have been a groundbreaking visit, the Iranians withdrew their invitation in the last minute, citing political circumstances in Iran.
U.S. lawmakers did not cease to extend invitations to their Iranian counterparts, however. In 2007, a senior Democratic senator arranged for Ambassador Zarif to visit the Senate and meet with a dozen high-ranking lawmakers. A few months later, several U.S. Congressmen sent an invitation via the Iranian U.N. mission to the Iranian speaker of the Majlis, offering direct parliamentarian dialogue.
After a few months, Haddad Adel, the recently ousted Majlis speaker, sent a two-page reply, mostly citing Iranian grievances with U.S. foreign policy while avoiding a direct response to the U.S. invitation. Instead, the last paragraph in the letter indicated a general openness to exchanges without making any specific commitments.
The greater U.S. interest in parliamentarian exchanges is partly due to the nature of the U.S. political system with its independent branches. For U.S. lawmakers to operate outside of official U.S. foreign policy is not uncommon, nor has it been inconsequential. Personal diplomacy by U.S. lawmakers has paved the way for openings to countries like Vietnam and Libya.
Iranian lawmakers, however, don't share this trait of operating in the foreign policy realm independently of their executive branch. In recent years in particular, the Majlis has been in lockstep with Ahmadinejad on this issue due to Haddad Adel's political ties and alliance with the Iranian president. Haddad Adel's lukewarm reaction to the U.S. invitation to parliamentary talks was partly due to internal Iranian rivalries: the exchanges of letters had been facilitated by the Iranian U.N. Mission under the leadership of Ambassador Javad Zarif -- a key opponent of Ahmadinejad.
With Larijani as the new speaker of the Majlis, the Iranian legislature is now headed not only by a political rival of Ahmadinejad who seems eager to counter the Iranian president, but also by someone who over the years has begun to appreciate the utility -- and necessity -- of diplomacy.
Trita Parsi is the author of Treacherous Alliance -- The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S., a Silver Medal Recipient of the Council on Foreign Relations' Arthur Ross Book Award, the most significant award for a book on foreign affairs.
Follow Trita Parsi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/tparsi