03/12/2012 01:14 pm ET Updated May 12, 2012

How Romney's Evil Iran, Congress's Crippling Sanctions and Obama's Unexhausted Diplomacy Are Taking Us to War

Evil is back. Mitt Romney, in his op-ed last week on Iran, resurrected President George W. Bush-era evil finger pointing towards Tehran. What a surprise. And what fertile Congressional ground in which to lay this "evil" egg given Congress's consistent support -- save for a few brave Members -- for crippling sanctions that are causing shortages of basic food supplies, shuttering hundreds of local businesses, and forcing working Iranians to take 2-3 jobs to afford the skyrocketing prices of, well, everything.

Members of Congress like to think sanctions only hurt the ruling clerics, but no, the biggest impact of sanctions is inevitably on the Iranian majority. This is why even the opposition in Iran condemns the sanctions. We saw this play out in Iraq. Have we learned nothing? Our sanctions on Iraq resulted in the deaths of millions, devastated infrastructure and were condemned as genocidal by UN officials controlling the sanctions who ultimately resigned in protest. Never mind the fact that the sanctions bolstered significant support for Saddam. The parallels for Iran are too poignant.

But back to Mitt Romney's evil comment: This renaming of Iran is intentional. It permanently embeds ideological monikers in the hearts and minds of Americans and dehumanizes a country and its people. Evil is something morally reprehensible, sinful, or wicked, but does Iran fit the bill? While I realize that any counterargument to Romney's dehumanizing declarations will be equally subjective, I feel obligated to elucidate discrepancies based on my time in Iran.

When I was there on a religious delegation a few years ago meeting with ayatollahs in Qom, rabbis running Tehran's synagogues, Zoroastrian priests, the Armenian Christian Archbishop in Esfahan, parliamentarians, non-governmental organizations, and reporters, an alternative narrative arose -- one of tolerance and respect, albeit far from perfect, that contradicts the evil narrative. In fact, once the clerics in Qom learned that my father and grandfathers were Mennonite preachers the newfound respect for our meeting and for me was exceptionally palpable.

Contrary to what previous White House officials have implied, Iran is not an extremist Islamic state trying to establish a region-wide order reminiscent of a 7th century caliphate, but rather a state characterized by diversity of thought, secular and religious, although rights for the Baha'i community still need attention. With estimates of 20,000 non-governmental organizations active in Iran, it is clear that civil society has established a foothold. Don't get me wrong; Iran's green revolution received an inexcusably violent reaction from the government but I would counter that "evil" is still not an appropriate, nor helpful, alternative narrative.

So what was Romney talking about? Was Romney referring to an evil that pervades internal and external governmental affairs? Internally, although critics of the government risk fines or imprisonment, Iran's domestic policies vis-à-vis protests are at least on par with China and Saudi Arabia, two countries still maintaining solid trade relations with the U.S. while consistently intimidating their dissidents. And yet we're not castigating these two countries. Externally, as Iran's president faces admonishment by his parliament, past presidents, and the Supreme Leader for his impetuousness and distasteful, undiplomatic statements, Iran has not invaded any neighboring country in the last century and remains more compliant with Non-Proliferation Treaty inspections than nearby nuclear weapons states like India, Pakistan or Israel.

Romney's "evil", then, must be targeted at countries unwilling to cozy up to U.S. interests. If Iran denationalized its oil supply -- something U.S. nemesis Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez receives flak for not doing -- would "ally" replace the term "evil"? A country refusing to be cozy to the U.S., attempting to build a healthy domestic infrastructure, and benefiting from its own natural resources, commits itself to isolation by Western superpowers.

Perhaps evil pertains primarily to Iran's nuclear ambitions? Since the nuclear issue is a key sticking point in U.S.-Iran relations, let us explore this further. According to the UN, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, of which Iran is a member, "promotes cooperation in the field of peaceful nuclear technology and equal access to this technology for all State parties, while safeguards prevent the diversion of fissile material for weapons use." Iran is a member of this treaty -- which nuclear weapons owners India, Pakistan and Israel refuse to ratify -- and declares that all nuclear initiatives are for peaceful purposes. Along these lines, the Supreme Leader Khamenei issued a fatwa recently against nuclear weapons, stating categorically their impermissibility within Islam.

Swing by the nuclear facility in Natanz, as I did, or analyze Iran's energy infrastructure and one understands that nuclear energy remains one of Iran's only available sources for energy generation. And while previous guarantees posited by Russia to assist Iran in nuclear development are laudable, these offers essentially fetter Iran's potential for competitiveness in the international marketplace. More recently, Turkey and Brazil in 2010 secured a fuel swap deal -- wherein Iran would export low enriched uranium in exchange for higher enriched uranium (thus bypassing a developmental stage critical in the weapons process) -- as part of the diplomatic process. But President Obama, who was already building momentum for harsher sanctions, torpedoed the deal. On this front, we have not exhausted all diplomatic means and we should.

Lastly, if the name-calling stems from a frustration with America's slowed agenda in the Middle East, in light of some souring of the democratic spring, then Iran still does not fit the bill since it was the U.S. that overthrew Iran's democratically elected leader, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, in the 1950s. (Mossadegh nationalized Iran's oil, displeasing British and American oil interests.) After dethroning Mossadegh, America's influence in Iran's political affairs through the 1970s precipitated the revolution of 1979. As a result, what prevails is a clarion call for justice and fairness -- two tenets of Shia Islam that arguably spurred the development, post-revolution, of health clinics and schools in every town.

Consequently, Iranians feel that U.S. enforcement of international treaties is far from just and fair. From their perspective, how can the U.S. speak of human rights abuses in Iran when Guantanamo, CIA prisons in Europe, and Abu Ghraib all breached international conventions? How can the U.S. promote democracy in Iran when the CIA overthrew Iran's democratically elected leader? How can the U.S. discourage Iran's treaty-protected rights to legally develop nuclear technology, when allies like India, Pakistan and Israel proceed to abrogate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty's authority?

These incongruities in U.S. policy, however, do not prevent Iranians from distinguishing between a U.S. government and its populace. From my experience in Tehran, Qom, Shiraz, Esfahan, and throughout the country, they are overwhelmingly generous and gracious to American citizens. Whether in the street, synagogue or shrine, Persian hospitality is ubiquitous. I felt very much at home, welcomed not by a people and a government that was evil, but by an Iran that assumed a natural brotherhood and sisterhood between two nations' peoples. The only regretful aspect, remarked Iranians, was that cordial ties could not be nurtured more frequently, as it is difficult for Iranians to travel to the U.S. and vice versa. This separation process is a stage in the dehumanization process and prevents U.S. citizens from realizing that Iran is not an evil country.

Opportunity for tangible improvement in U.S.-Iran relations rests in high-level dialogue, which has yet to happen and is a no-brainer that each country has yet to realize. The U.S. could find a powerful ally in Tehran. But standing in the way of constructive dialogue are two governments, one in Washington D.C. and one in Tehran. And both love to propagandize.

Protecting U.S.-Iran relations from propagandizing polities is critical. Americans must not be complicit in the polemics and positioning practiced by the Mitt Romney campaign or by the U.S. Congress. Encouraging Washington to end the sanctions on Iran and engage in more diplomatic gesturing will produce substantial results in the U.S. government's capacity to negotiate with Iran. An impartial and just enforcement of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its co-signers is also necessary if the U.S. is serious about negotiating with Iran. Anything less, will be rightly perceived within Iran as unjust and unfair. Anything less, like Romney's reification of the evil narrative, will only take us closer to war.

Michael Shank is an Associate at the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, on the board of the National Peace Academy and in the PhD program at George Mason University's School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Fellow Michael on Twitter.