Consistency and Vision Needed in US-Iran Policy

Peace Advocate May 2023

The Iranian art of protest: Five women without hijab sharing a public park bench with a man. Photo taken in Shahmirzad, Iran by Doug Schermer.

By Tom Huf

Since the pause or more likely the permanent demise of the Iran nuclear deal and the upsurge of protests over the past year for women’s rights and freedom of speech, the issues surrounding Iran and the whole Gulf region have multiplied.

The Biden administration’s strategy of insisting on changes – rejected by Iran – to the original agreement as a condition of US reentry into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the official name of the Iran nuclear accord) has failed. The corollary key incentive in that agreement, which was to reintegrate Iran’s economy into the larger one of the region and world, has been sidelined, as US-imposed sanctions continue to eliminate any opportunity for mutual respect and leverage for peace.

Domestic political impediments – both in Tehran and Washington D.C .– have created a new, more challenging landscape for any path forward. After a pause in punitive responses to the widespread protests, Tehran has resumed executions of protestors. The Parliament is debating new hardline measures to double down on Hijab requirements, among other invented social control measures that have nothing to do with Islamic beliefs. On Capitol Hill, the Republicans are now initiating new poison pill legislation to block any diplomatic outreach to Iran.

However, the path to peace is not entirely blocked. It is increasingly important for those of us in the peace community to follow events in the region and to push for a peaceful and just solution. We can’t allow the US’s militarized foreign policy regarding Iran to proceed unchallenged. Here is my take and quick summary of some important threads.

In addition to the events in the Gulf region, we also need to start paying attention to the Iranian American Diaspora. There are activists in the US working to position themselves for a possible regime collapse triggered from the bottom. A top-down revolution is less likely. There are monarchists rallying around Reza Pahlavi – the former Shah’s son. There are human rights activists hoping to foster a turn to a secular and democratic government. There are also activists who are communicating serious threats to existing groups such as the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) for their past support for removing sanctions.

Although the executions and brutal suppression of protests have left the streets in Iran’s cities quiet for now, the uprising is not over. It has exposed the vulnerability of the Islamization of government and has encouraged dreams of a return to a secular country that respects its Islamic roots and cultural diversity. The failed dream and mantra of the 1970s and 80s Iranian political optimists for a peaceful path that was “neither east nor west” has resurfaced among some opposition groups as a non-threatening avenue for significant change that manages to avoid a violent revolution.

Counter to the hopes for change, the response of the current government has been to double down on their narrow definition of political Shia Islam that comes with strict prescriptions of thought and behavior. It appears that the leadership has been seriously challenged and fears its own demise. Whether the promising direct talks between Iran and the Saudis are partly a result of effective Chinese peace-brokering, the US pulling back, or a combination of several factors, they are what Trita Parsi has been advocating as the next steps for the countries in the region: to take charge of their own destinies. This could transform and possibly start to demilitarize diplomacy in the region.

The Norwegians have taken this opportunity to again host very quiet talks with the press spotlights turned off. This encouraging peace effort echoes the type of discreet diplomacy they practiced in the aftermath of the failure of the Oslo Accords, when they hosted talks between Palestinians and Israelis. Those talks were not, as hoped, a precursor to a new Oslo Accord ll agreement, but they had some small successes.

With the unique exception of the JCPOA, the US has in the past decade largely abandoned our prior pretense of being an honest, even-handed broker in the region. Whether in the Israel / Palestine conflict or the conflicts between Iran and its neighbors, our actions and words have greatly reduced our leverage to solve problems.

This myopic diplomacy did not start with the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, but it did shine a spotlight on our lack of a long-term strategy for peace and prosperity in the Middle East. Our inept, tough-guy position with regard to the resuscitation of the JCPOA is another example of a Washington that fails to respect the fundamental needs and cultural and domestic frameworks of Iran and others in the region. Allowing international affairs to be dead ended by domestic politics has left us and the Ra’isi regime in Tehran with fewer cards to play.

The much-touted Abraham Accords normalizing relations between Israel and the U.A.E., Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco may have opened some possibly constructive conversations among those countries, but their fundamental premise was to circle the wagons to further isolate Iran. Those accords and our cruelly punitive sanctions regime are seen by all for what they are: continuation of a divide-and-conquer approach to the region that guarantees continued conflict and sells more weapons. America, Iran, and the whole region deserve better.

Tom Huf served in the Peace Corps in Iran – in Babolsar-Sari, Mashhad, and Tehran – from 1967 to 1971. He was Harvard University planning manager for the Northern Iran Research University in Mazanderan from 1974 to 1978. He is a member of MAPA’s Middle East Working Group.