Sunday, June 19, 2005

Iran: Our's lost opportunity at reconciliation

Like many Westerners, the name "Iran" brings back unpleasant memories to me of a glaring Ayatollah Khomeini on the TV screen, chants of "Death to America", the ordeal of American hostages being held in the American embassy in Tehran, and oppression of women. However, while many of us in the West continue to be haunted by these memories, Iran has made some progress over the past two decades.

Eight years ago, Iran elected a reformist president, Mohammed Khatami, whose vision for Iran included warmer relations with the West along with political reforms. As late as 2000, Khatami extended an olive branch through the US news media, speaking of the desire to establish cultural exchanges with the US in an attempt to improve relations.

Then, 9/11 happened, and Iran was lumped into the "Axis of Evil" in Bush's post-9/11 speech, sending Khatami a message telling him where he could shove his olive branch, and putting Iran/US relations back by several years. And now this week, Iran is going through another presidential election, and Khatami is blocked by Iran's constitution from seeking a third term. Our failure to improve relations with Iran during Khatami's presidency is really a missed opportunity: the two finalists in this week's Iranian presidential election are Hashemi Rafsanjani (who has been president of Iran twice previously) and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hardline former mayor of Tehran, neither of whom are likely to be more sympathetic to the West than Khatami.

There is an old saying, medicine goes down better with a spoonful of sugar than a spoonful of salt. Iran is like this. If we want Iran to modernize, the best way to accomplish this is to be supportive to Iranian leaders like Khatami who are promoting modernization. By lumping Iran into the "Axis of Evil" and shoving Khatami's olive branch back in his face, we only succeeded in allowing Iranian hardliners to further marginalize Khatami, further setting back the clock in terms of Iranian internal reform, and Iran's relations with the West.

Hashemi Rafsanjani has been running on a platform of better relations with the West. I only hope he means it, and that our leaders in the West do not give his entreaties the same response we gave Khatami's.