President Barack Obama is reminding the world that no matter how grave the threat, America will not be defined by enmity but by friendship.
The stakes behind Obama’s policy of engagement with Cuba and Iran could not be higher. A transformation of U.S.-Cuban relations can be the harbinger of change throughout the Americas. And a breakthrough with Iran could drain the swamps of fundamentalism spreading war and poverty in the Islamic world.
Beyond the obvious gains of advancing peace and security, the collapse of the barriers dividing the world into hostile camps — a North-South dichotomy in the case of Cuba and an East-West dichotomy in the case of Iran — can be as dramatic as the collapse of the Berlin Wall.
As America mends the festering wounds of the Cold War, the moment is ripe with possibility. But, as Obama has cautioned, hope has to be tempered with history.
Recognizing that sanctions weaken civil society, Obama argued that restrictions on remittances made Cubans living in Cuba “more dependent on the Castro regime” and “isolated them from the transformative message carried by Cuban-Americans.”
In response to Obama’s overtures, Cuban President Raul Castro signaled his willingness to discuss everything, including political prisoners, freedom of speech and human rights. At the Non-Aligned Movement’s meeting in Havana on April 29, Castro adopted a hard line but reiterated that “we are ready to talk about everything.”
Obama’s diplomacy is also transforming anti-Americanism in Iran. Obama’s ability to cast America’s relationship with the Iranian people in a new light is making it much harder for fundamentalists to demonize the United States as “the Great Satan.”
Invoking the words of the Persian poet Saadi, “the children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence,” Obama celebrated Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, and praised the humanity binding Americans and Iranians together. He asked Iranians to imagine “the promise of opportunity for our children, security for our families, progress for our communities and peace between nations.”
Although the hostage crisis of 1979 casts a long shadow, Iran’s decision on Monday to release Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American journalist charged with spying for the U.S., was more than “a gesture of Islamic mercy.” With the Iranian presidential elections scheduled for June 12, even hard-liners recognize that anti-Americanism does not translate into votes.
Unemployment and inflation are a much graver threat to the security of the Iranian people than the United States. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians do not have access to proper medical care, housing, food, clothes and other basic goods and services. Frankly, neither Iran’s nuclear program nor the imprisonment of Iranian-Americans resolve Iran’s economic decline.
Iran’s leaders must recognize that it is not the threat of American sanctions but miscarriages of justice, governance and democracy that are crippling the Iranian people and economy.
Judicial misconduct exemplified by the Saberi case has a price tag: the flight of Iranian talent and capital. At a conference for Iranian expatriates in Tehran (April 14-18), deputy minister of commerce Mehdi Ghazanfar inadvertently highlighted the cost of religious and political persecution.
According to Ghazanfar, while Iran’s non-oil exports were projected at $11.58 billion last year ($165 per person), the number of Iranians residing abroad stood at 3 million to 5 million, with a total estimated capital of $1.3 trillion ($260,000-433,000 a person).
Change begins with imagination. After 30 years of enmity and estrangement, it is time to undo the legacy of the hostage crisis, accept Obama’s offer of friendship and abide by Iran’s human and civil-rights obligations under the U.N. charter.
Like Cuban-Americans, Iranian-Americans pray for a future where we can exchange our bounty and blessings for the benefit of our adopted and ancestral homelands.
Khosrow B. Semnani, an Iranian-American philanthropist, is the chairman of Omid, a nonprofit devoted to promoting a better future for the Iranian people.
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