Less than two weeks before the deadline to approve the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, posted a video on YouTube imploring American supporters of armed intervention, who had successfully depicted the agreement as total capitulation, to reconsider. The world’s leaders, he asserted, must exhibit “the wisdom to set aside illusions and the audacity to break old habits” in order to achieve any lasting diplomatic solution. But, hawkish critics of the deal — and there are many — were bombastically resentful, clinging stubbornly to the notion that Iran is and always will be an irredeemable adversary of the United States. Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and two-time presidential candidate, claimed controversially that Obama, in his orchestration of the agreement, was “naïve” and was allowing the Iranians to effectively “take the Israelis and, basically, march them to the door of the oven.” Eric Bolling, the Fox News commentator, questioned, genuinely, “Why [war with Iran] would be a bad idea…Wouldn’t it be a good idea to make sure the [Iranians] don’t succeed in their goal of ‘death to America’?”
Though these particular voices represent the political right, American aversion to Iran is a deeply entrenched in our nation’s worldview and transcends party affiliation. In February, Gallup found that 57 percent of Americans — nearly half of all Democrats and 90 percent of Republicans — disapprove of the nuclear deal made with Iran, while only three in ten Americans support the agreement. More broadly, close to four-fifths of Americans still dislike Iran, despite the passage of the deal, and only 14 percent view the country favorably. Of course, some of the distaste is rooted in the 1979 revolution, during which young Islamic revolutionaries stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took its employees hostage. Just months before the embassy attack, the Shah of Iran — an immensely unpopular and self-serving dictator installed by Western intelligence agencies — escaped to Egypt in the face of mounting resistance to his inept rule. Iranian anger had been simmering since 1953, when American and British intelligence operators replaced a democratically elected president, who enjoyed communist support and nationalized the country’s oil fields, with the Shah.
But much has changed since the 1980s, when the hostages were released and the American conception of Iran as a theocratic, radical, and destabilizing Islamist state was immutably solidified. Jihadism, as a movement, has metastasized tremendously, spawning groups like the Islamic State and Boko Haram, who are unsparing in their brutality and unprecedented in their geopolitical ambition. American relations with historical regional allies have soured, as the United States energy sector, bolstered by fracking and natural gas extraction, reduces its reliance on Middle Eastern oil. (For example, President Obama, just recently, called Saudi Arabia a “free rider” nation, denouncing its propagation of proxy conflicts with Iran. Former Saudi intelligence head Turki al-Faisal responded bitterly in the Arab News.)
In light of the Middle East’s dangerous metamorphosis, it’s time for America to reassess its traditional allies and rethink its old rivalries. Contrary to popular belief, Iran and the United States both boast a sophisticated culture and society, remain committed to democracy, and possess an vibrant desire for regional stability. Karim Sadjadpour, a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, testified to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2013 that, “Iran is one of the few countries in the Middle East where America’s strategic interests and its commitment to democratic values align, rather than clash.” The United States, if it wishes to mitigate and begin the process of reversing decades of misadventures in the Middle East, must recognize this central reality and comprehensively amend its policy towards Iran. It will take political courage, and the will to accept electoral losses, to admit that Iran is better for the world as an American partner than it is as a Western enemy. But the benefits of this struggle are worth it: Friendship with a nation that has, for a half-century, known only indignation; good will on a continent long saturated with sectarian animus; and peace in a region that has, since the colonial era, borne witness to ceaseless spells of vehement inhumanity.
It is true that Iran isn’t perfect. The country’s record on human rights is abysmal – unfair trials, unreliable access to lawyers, disproportionate punishments, and the severe moderation of print and online speech continue to suffocate Iranian society. Executions in Iran have skyrocketed by over tenfold between 2005 and 2015, while the government continues to sponsor debilitating pro-Shi’ite insurgencies all over the Middle East, including in Yemen. (In fact, as early as 2012, Iranian special forces were smuggling small arms and heavy weapons to the Houthi rebels.) But further isolation of Iran from the world through renewed sanctions and hostile suspicion is not conducive to the cultivation of peace. An Iran that has access to the global order — trade, culture, and conventional diplomatic channels — is an Iran less hell-bent on upending that order.
Before the nuclear deal, American policy towards Iran hinged principally upon the imposition of sanctions. Since 1979, the legal and economic sanctions on Iran put into effect by the United States have devastated the Iranian economy, leading to elevated inflation, high unemployment, and the alarming depreciation of Iran’s currency, the rial. The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, implemented in July 2010 by the Obama administration, unleashed the most pain by cutting Iran’s access to the equipment, services, and resources needed to facilitate its exports of oil. The ultimate objective, of course, is to “inflict crippling, unendurable economic pain over there,” as noted by Representative Gary Ackerman (D-NY).
It will take political courage, and the will to accept electoral losses, to admit that Iran is better for the world as an American partner, rather than a western enemy.
American policymakers had hoped the sanctions program and the resultant slowdown would force the Iranian government, effectively controlled by the theocratic Supreme Leader Khamenei, to surrender to western demands. But this hasn’t happened; it should be obvious to the world’s leaders that sanctions are not a fruitful mechanism of international persuasion. After all, the primary victims of the sanctions are ordinary Iranians, particularly women and young people. And, naturally, this is had led to serious confusion regarding American intentions. The International Civil Society Action Network, in a 2012 report titled, tellingly, Killing Them Softly, observed: “Not surprisingly many Iranians are left questioning if the banking sanctions are intent on forcing Iran’s rulers to come to the negotiating table or if Iranian society and the country’s infrastructure at large are being deliberately targeted and weakened.” Such popular discontent has only emboldened the anti-American hardliners in charge of Iran’s government. Khamenei asserted in 2012 that, “The only effect that these unilateral sanctions will have on the Iranian people is that they will deepen the hatred and enmity towards the West in the hearts of our people.”
The past few years have shown with definitive clarity that the conventional approach to Iran — sanctions, sanctions, and more sanctions — does not work. Ironically, most experts of international relations prescribe an opposite course of action: Greater commercial ties and material connections to Iran, not fewer, they believe, will better engender national reconciliation. The Atlantic Council’s Iran Task Force, for instance, recommends that the west “introduce new measures to augment people-to-people ties, support Iran’s democratic evolution, and facilitate trade.”
The United States has a lot to gain by unshackling Iran’s economy. Currently, Iran boasts an incredible array of vast natural resources: the world’s largest reserve of zinc, second largest reserves of copper and natural gas, and fourth largest reserve of crude oil. Its workforce is educated — young people aged 15-24 enjoy a literacy rate exceeding 98 percent, and the Institute of International Finance forecasts an accelerated growth rate of 6 percent by 2016. And, most importantly, Iran is the most diversified oil-producing country in the Middle East. Despite faltering oil prices, Iran’s manufacturing industry — known for automobiles, home appliances, and pharmaceutical products — is expected to become an enormous attraction for global investors in the near future. If the United States can spearhead investment in Iran, and work carefully to appeal to its moderate political leaders, the financial gains from Iran’s emergence as the world’s eighteenth largest economy will be extraordinary.
But the upside of restored relations extends far beyond balance sheets. A substantive partnership with Iran can be an immeasurable boon for the United States in its crusade against terror and jihad in the Middle East. Iran views the Islamic State, for instance, with as much revulsion and frustration as Americans do. In fact, as early as December 2014, Iran and the United States, both conducting airstrikes against strategic targets, were de-facto — but not publicly acknowledged — allies in the fight to curb the Islamic State. And, it just can’t hurt befriending a society that, throughout history, has wielded substantial influence from Italy to India. Iranian poetry, even from medieval times, has maintained its considerable popularity, topping the bestseller lists even in the United States. Iranian filmmakers, who routinely win awards at film festivals in North America and Europe, captivate audiences around the world despite stringent political restrictions at home. Persepolis, written by Marjane Satrapi, a Frenchwoman of Iranian descent, is widely lauded as among the best graphic novels of the twenty-first century. Americans ought cash-in on this cultural exchange, not reject it.
Zarif, the Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister, concluded his 2015 YouTube message with an amusingly Confucian piece of advice: “As in politics as in life, you can’t gain at the expense of others.” The time has come for the United States to retire its antipathy for Iran and to see the country for what it is: A new frontier, both for Americans and mankind everywhere — one that promises peace and prosperity in a part of the world that desperately needs them.