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Resuming Civil Discourse with Iran

The following text, Resuming Civil Discourse with Iran, was the keynote speech delivered by John Limbert, a senior foreign service officer, at the Middle East Institute's 11 February conference on "The Iranian Revolution 20 Years Later: Retrospect and Prospects." Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding co-sponsored the conference.

Ambassador Suddarth, Ambassador Mack, Professor Esposito, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for that kind introduction. Today it is good to be among friends. It has been about eighteen years since a group of young people, who called themselves Moslem Student Followers of the Imam's Path, decided that they had had enough of me and my colleagues at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. They put us on a bus, took us to Tehran's Mehrabad Airport, and thus ended 444 days of somewhat unusual and unexpected Iranian hospitality. More important than that event, today of course marks twenty years since Iranians overthrew their monarchy and decided collectively that they should, at long last, be masters in their own house. What they have yet to decide, however, is exactly which Iranians should be masters and in what kind of house. Judging by the recent news out of Iran, that discussion continues, vigorously if not always peacefully. During today's program I am very much looking forward to hearing the insights of our scholars on these events and what they mean for us. We should pay close attention to what these experts say.

Today also marks about twenty-one years since, in one of my least enlightened moments, I volunteered to go to Tehran and work in the embassy. My mission, and that of all of us there, was to deal with the new reality in Iran, and to rebuild a relationship with whatever form of government replaced the monarchy. In my own mind, our mission was to repair the imbalances of what had been a most unhealthy and misguided relationship between the US and Iran and to build something better. But that was not going to happen.

Was I stupid, was I naïve or was I both to think that we could rebuild something on the ruins of our previous relationship? I was certainly wrong, but I still take some comfort in the fact that I had a lot of company­both Iranian and American­in my illusions. After all, many well-educated and enlightened Iranian friends had marched and shouted for an Islamic Republic that would end up rejecting them and their values. Or, as the scholar Shaoul Bakhash put it in the dedication of his excellent book, "They loved the Iranian revolution not knowing it would not love them back."

Our liberal-minded Iranian friends­whom we counted on to contain the revolution's excesses--proved to be helpless in political turmoil. They were too much like us: they could write penetrating analyses and biting editorials, but lacked the stomach for the brutality that wins revolutions. Could our enlightened friends (or could we) throw acid, break up meetings, beat up opponents, trash opposition newspapers, or organize a street gang? I think we had all forgotten Voltaire's description that history is the sound of hobnailed boots going upstairs and slippered feet going downstairs.

Today I would like to share with you some observations about the state of Iranian-American relations. My theme is how to end twenty years of futile accusations and name-calling and restore civil discourse between our two countries. I speak, not as someone involved in day-to-day Iran policy, but as someone involved with Iran and Iranians for the last 35 years.

This past Thanksgiving I visited southern California, where I saw first-hand evidence of the state of those relations: I saw a large, well-educated, and energetic Iranian-American community, which in that area alone numbers about half a million. We can thank the Islamic Republic for their presence: after the shocks brought by war, forced social change, and economic collapse, large numbers of Iranians-­who had traditionally never thought about emigrating--accepted Ayatollah Khomeini's invitation ("And for those who cannot adapt to life in an Islamic Republic," he said, "the doors are open.") Those who took his offer have enriched our society with their talents as doctors, engineers, businessmen, and university teachers­and as the scholars we will hear today.

As for me, I first visited Iran as a student in 1962, and subsequently lived there as a Peace Corps Volunteer high school teacher (for two years), a university instructor (for four years), an on-the-streets diplomat (for about ten weeks), and, most recently, a prisoner-cum-guest of the Islamic Republic. From the beginning, I felt drawn to the warm spirits, agile minds, and rich culture of a people who have somehow maintained their distinct identity­their Iranianess­through thousands of years of a bloody history.

So who are these people whose revolution got me into so much trouble and who have demanded so much of our attention these last twenty years? And who are these people whose revolution brought down one American President and came within an eyelash of bringing down another? The Iranians have been called the French of the Middle East, but I like the writer Terry O'Donnell's idea that Iranians share many traits with the Irish: a history of military defeats and of long subjugation to outside powers; a rich culture of poetry that celebrates loss and sorrow; fractured politics that have often led to vicious civil strife; a fierce sense of identity tied to a religion which powerful neighbors see as heretical; and a difficult relationship with their own clergymen, who both uphold that religion and try, with very little success, to keep their countrymen thinking less about 'eshrat (hedonism) and more about 'aqebat (their fate in the hereafter).

So what does all that mean to us today? For one thing, it means we had better realize that, in the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran, we are not dealing with a collection of bumpkins who just happen to have money, oil and weapons. We are dealing instead with the heirs of a great cultural tradition who have today chosen beards over neckties in order to emphasize the Islamic part of their identity. As Americans, we may not like Iranian political leaders who claim to be doing what God tells them to do; but we should not underestimate them. We should remember how just a few years ago, in the infamous arms for hostages deal, the clerics in Tehran outwitted Ronald Reagan's inner circle and humiliated his best and his brightest.

It also means that, in dealing with Iran, we had best be careful in our judgments and be cautious in our actions. An easy formulation like "rogue state" makes a good sound bite, but neither makes for workable policy nor explains a complex reality.

So, with that introduction, where do we go with our relations today? I think that today both we and the Iranians have a choice. We can choose to continue twenty years of finger pointing, laying-blame, and name-calling. We can continue to score debating points and call for the other side to "change its behavior" or to "apologize" for this or that misdeed. Or we can choose a better way. We can recognize that such actions, while making us feel right and moral, lead nowhere beyond the mindless repetition of formulas. We can choose to take the first steps toward addressing our differences and replace shouting with civil and serious discourse.

Let me be clear about this choice we have. To emphasize the point and prevent any misunderstanding, I will repeat the above in Persian.

[Persian text #1]

Amid the conflicts and confusing signals out of Tehran­like the recent murder of the politician Dariush Foruhar and his wife, and the attack on a visiting group of Americans--there are signs of change. There are signs­many reported in the last months' newspapers­of a break in the twenty-year cycle of mistrust. There are signs that Iran may want to end its 20 years of revolutionary anger, start observing the accepted rules of state inter-action, and rejoin the international family. There are signs that once again we could start talking to instead of yelling at each other.

How should we respond to these signs? In responding, I would first ask that we recall just who we are dealing with. Then I would suggest three principles that could keep this delicate process moving in the right direction.

First, let us stay focussed on our basic interests and goals. Our first goal should be to reestablish civil discourse with a large, populous, and resource-rich state of the Middle East. Of course we have more long-term goals and will need to achieve more than simply starting to talk. We want Iran to stop doing what we find objectionable in supporting terrorism, opposing the Middle East peace process, and pursuing development of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles. Those three aims, however, are not first steps or preconditions. Ideally, they will be the outcome of a dialogue that today has not even begun.

Barring a miraculous conversion in Tehran, however, the first step toward the above is to stop shouting and start talking. Resuming civil discourse also offers Iran the chance to bring its stated concerns­its so-called "red button issues", such as alleged US efforts to subvert the Islamic Republic, economic embargo, Iranian assets, and Iranian military equipment­to the same table. If we and the Iranians are interested in addressing our problems and not in posturing for its own sake (and this is a very big "if"), then resuming civil discourse offers both of us what twenty years of trading accusations has not: the chance to voice concerns with some assurance that the other side is listening.

Once again, I will repeat the above in Persian for my Iranian friends.

[Persian text #2]

Second, we should move slowly and carefully. The roads are littered with the wrecks of previous, ill-fated private and public "gestures toward Iran," the latest being the visit of those American businessmen who in November found themselves pawns in a raucous game of Iranian chess. (Did you know that in Iran chess is a contact sport?) In today's edgy political atmosphere, competing Iranian factions can and will inflate and exploit the most innocuous action or statement to suit their partisan aims. Anti-American rhetoric has been a staple of the Iranian menu for too long to disappear easily.

In current and future exchanges, the US should not press too hard or be too eager. We should be in no hurry. Let us listen, consider, and weigh our actions carefully, asking ourselves, "Does this serve our goal of re-opening civil discourse?" For its part, Iran has deep economic and political problems after years of isolation, war and truly dreadful leadership. Both President Khatami's soothing tones and his calls for a "dialogue among civilizations", and the harsh, defiant rhetoric from others in Tehran reflect the same reality. The reality that the Islamic Republic needs to change­to exchange ideology and slogans for jobs, schools, and orderly contact with the outside world--if it is going to survive.

Third, let us stay out of Iranian quarrels. We have been burned so often by getting ourselves stuck in Iranian disputes, that by now we should have learned to stay out of the ongoing factional fights in Tehran. "Looking for moderates" or "bolstering moderates" is neither our job nor our interest. If groups advocating "Islam with a Human Face" win in Tehran, that is good, but it does not change our basic interest. Iranians may care deeply about whether men can wear neckties and how much hair women can show. We don't. For our part we should be ready to deal with almost anyone­moderate, zealot, or, if we can find one, a moderate-zealot­who can make and keep commitments on subjects such as terrorism or Middle East peace. At all times we should remain wary of approaches from well-spoken, self-appointed mediators, who would, for reasons of their own, ensnare us in ruinous political battles that are none of our business.

I realize that up to now most of my views have been negatives: stay out of this; don't do that; and stay away from this or that person. We can do better than that, however. I will note some official steps we are taking and suggest some unofficial steps we can take­that will encourage a change of atmosphere and move toward breaking the downward spiral of mistrust in our relations.

On the official level, I would point out three things:

First, consistent with our security concerns, we are modifying the time-consuming and all-inclusive name checks for visa applicants. Indiscriminate checks have made more work for our own officers and have harassed legitimate travelers. They have also contradicted our statements that we have no quarrel with ordinary Iranians.

Second, we have changed the tone of our public statements. We have eliminated references to"rogue state" and "Iranian behavior". Such language is the language of tutelage, not of statecraft. Language matters, and deeds can follow words. If we would like Iran to rejoin the community of nations and act like a state pursuing its legitimate interests, we can speak as though it might do so one day.

Our officials are speaking to an Iranian audience, including through the Persian-language media.

Echoing President Khatami's statements during his January 1998 CNN interview, President Clinton has sent Now-Ruz and Eid-e-Fetr greetings to the Iranian people. Assistant Secretary Indyk has spoken to the Persian Service of Radio Free Europe. And then-Congressman Lee Hamilton, ranking Democratic member of the House International Relations Committee, had a long interview with the Persian-language newspaper Abrar. With these measures we will continue to test if the

Iranians are serious about holding "a dialogue of civilizations" or if that is just puffery.

If we want to see if Iran is serious about a call for dialogue between peoples, we can go beyond the official. Sports are one area, and film is another where first exchanges have already taken place without the sky falling. But there are other areas where experts from outside of government structures can talk to each other with direct benefit to both sides. Experts can talk about combating narcotics, anti-earthquake design and construction, the role of religion in political life, and the medical effects of chemical warfare. They will find they can learn from each other's experiences.

If we ever get to serious talks, however, we will need to go beyond such topics, and move to air out old grievances in a neutral, scholarly setting free of blame and recrimination. The aim would not be to discover who was at fault. Rather it is to say, "We recognize that these events matter to you." Such topics could include Mossadegh and the oil nationalization crisis of 1953; Carter, the Shah, and the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79; and the hostage crisis of 1979-81. Such exchanges will be difficult and painful for both sides, but properly done would be preferable to letting old sores fester.

In her speech to the Asia Society on June 17, Secretary Albright said that the United States is ready to explore further ways to build mutual confidence and avoid misunderstandings with the Islamic Republic. "As the wall of mistrust comes down", she said, "we can develop with the Islamic Republic, when it is ready, a roadmap leading to better relations."

Better relations? Of course. But when and how? If we are going to have such relations, both sides have to see them as preferable to the last two decades of sterile rhetoric. Both sides have to see them as worth the price of facing domestic political criticism of "being soft on the enemy." Frankly, the signs from Iran today are not promising. In response to Secretary Albright's talk of developing a road map, Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi recited a tired list of Iranian grievances in his recent speech to the same Asia Society. A UN official with long experience in Iran told me simply, "Kharrazi blew it." All signs are that we will not see those better relations today or tomorrow. In the case of Iran, we should think less of today and tomorrow, and more of a longer term. In the scope of Iran's long history, a twenty-year estrangement is very little. I believe that we can look forward to something better ­ if we are not in too much of hurry to get there.

Recent events in Iran remind us that the road to ending that estrangement will be long and twisted, full of false steps as Iranians work out their own internal disputes. The process of settlement will not be easy while Iran is still in the aftermath of its revolution and arguing over the answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this talk: who will be masters in what kind of Iranian house? Restarting dialogue will be a challenge as long the Islamic Republic uses the weapons of street gangs, violence, and exclusion to wage war on Iran's own rich and tolerant history.

There is another voice of Iran­a voice we have heard in such beautiful films as the Oscar-nominated "Children of Heaven" and "Under the Olive Trees" and which we will hear from many of the scholars here today. This is a voice of tolerance, love of learning, hospitality, and treasuring of human diversity. This same voice has recently drawn so many, including Madonna and UNSCOM chief Richard Butler, to the beautiful verses of Mowlana Jalal al-Din Rumi. Recently, however, this voice has remained silenced under twenty years of the shouting of goon squads, and the mindless chanting of slogans. As long as those intolerant currents prevail, and as long as anti-Americanism stays on automatic pilot in Tehran, restarting civil discourse will be very difficult. If Iranians themselves, however, can reassert a different and more humane part of their own history and at the same time can come to terms with that long-hated phrase "national interest", we can look forward to a very different relationship in which listening will begin to replace trading insults.

Thank you for your attention.


Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form