Wednesday, December 18, 2013

U.S.-Iran: Time to Exchange Ambassadors?

Now that a confidence-building agreement has been reached,  further negotiations with Iran will continue unless the Israeli government,  Congressional hawks,  or Iranian hardliners manage to throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings.

 But it is also time to consider further steps to improve relations with Iran.

The lack of official diplomatic relations with Iran  has not prevented us from making this deal.  But this agreement may signal an opportunity to end the abnormal situation that has existed since 1980:  the lack of an Iranian ambassador and  embassy in Washington and of  official American representatives in Tehran.

Of course the seizure of our Tehran embassy in 1980 and the prolonged captivity of our diplomats made it impossible to continue normal diplomatic relations at that time.   International law and custom  long had required countries to respect diplomats even when war breaks out with their country.  Thus Japanese and German diplomats were allowed to leave the U.S. after Pearl Harbor and American diplomats were free to come home.  The  refusal or perhaps inability of the Iranian government to free the Americans immediately was a gross violation of the basic rules of the game.

But that was a third of a century ago.  The U.S. recognized the Communist regime in China in 1979,  only 30 years after the Communists came to power there.   Actually, our mutual isolation began eroding right after President Nixon’s dramatic visit in 1972.  It is now generally agreed that this trip was one of Nixon’s finest accomplishments. 

While the time may not yet be ripe for President Obama to visit Tehran,  we can hope that he is quietly exploring the possible recognition and exchange of diplomats with President Rouhani.  For political reasons both in Washington and Tehran,  any such agreement might have to be phased in gradually, as it was with China,  but it would be good to get the ball rolling as soon as possible. 

Diplomatic recognition implies an obligation not to try to bring about “regime change” in the other country, whether in our own interests or for humanitarian purposes.   Our track record in such adventures (think of IraqAfghanistanEgyptLibya, and probably Syria) is dreadful and we should learn something from that record.

Secret negotiations about mutual recognition are probably going on, but what can Americans and Iranians do in more public ways to improve our relations?  Is it time for an American ping pong team to  visit Tehran?  Or for an Iranian sports team to play in the U.S?  An exchange of symphonic orchesta concerts?  High school or college students  spending a semester living with families in the other country?  

Perhaps all of the above.  And while we are at it,  we ought to encourage the Iranian and Israeli governments to think about similar exchanges and, ultimately,  mutual diplomatic recognition.    Perhaps a few hundred Iranian students in Israel would alleviate Israeli fears, since any Iranian attack would kill these students too.  Likewise Israeli students in Iran could reduce Iranian fears, while the person to person contacts could reduce stereotyping and demonizing of the other country.

And maybe,  just maybe,  President Obama may end up in Tehran sometime.  After Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip,  we shouldn’t be too quick to assume that anything is impossible.

This piece has run in the Adrian, Michigan Daily Telegram and the Corvallis, Oregon Gazette-Times.

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