Where is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when we need it?
Iranians like America: We should take advantage
As the U.S. Senate deliberates on legislation that would require the Obama administration to submit any nuclear agreement with Iran to Congress, lawmakers would be wise to also implement policies that would support and engage one of the United States' greatest assets in the Middle East - the Iranian people.
Following the pronouncement of the framework agreement last month between the P5+1 and Iran, ecstatic Iranians took to the streets to celebrate the breakthrough in the nuclear negotiations. Social media erupted, in favor of the deal and Iranians began posting "selfies" in front of the image of Barack Obama on their TV sets.
The impromptu celebrations were not related to the fact that their country will get to keep its civilian nuclear program, but rather for the glimmer of hope that life in Iran will get better and its days as an isolated nation are numbered. "It was as if someone had blocked my airways, but I can now breathe," explained one celebrant from Tehran.
Iran is unique in the Middle East, in that it maintains a sizable young, urban and highly educated population that has favorable views towards America. A survey conducted in 2012 by Israeli political strategist Yuval Porat, shows that the Iranian people tend to hold liberal and democratic values. Iran also exhibits a high rate of social media and telecommunication users despite government attempts to block them. Figures from Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance show that 9.5 million Iranians use the popular mobile telecommunications application, Viber. Likewise, 8.5 million Iranians are using Facebook through the use of virtual private network technology to circumvent government censorship.
These statistics show that Iranians want to engage with and connect to the world. While the U.S. trade embargo does not prohibit exports of certain telecommunication software and hardware incident to personal communications, Silicon Valley has been slow in offering their products and services to Iran. Policymakers should continue to encourage access to communication tools for the people of Iran and establish a mechanism for their payment.
One way to achieve this is by establishing new banking ties between the U.S. and Iran. A 2013 report from the Atlantic Council recommended establishing a direct banking link for permissible transactions with Iran as a means of directly engaging its people. Such a channel could enhance the flow of food and medicine to Iran, as well as facilitate personal and family remittances in a manner that is more transparent and safe.
The report also recommends that the U.S. attempt to engage the Iranian people in academic, cultural, and sports exchanges. Such exchanges with Iran will uphold positive features of American society and help cultivate the good will of the Iranian people towards America.
In order to facilitate these exchanges, the U.S. should also consider opening a limited diplomatic post in Iran. Within that post, a public affairs section could facilitate educational and cultural exchanges. It may also process non-immigrant student visas to young Iranians. As the potential future leaders and innovators of Iran, it is of particular importance that Iranian students are allowed to study and have a positive experience with America.
The idea of establishing an American-staffed Interests Section in Iran was first considered by the George W. Bush administration and had the support of then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. A report published by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) found that American-staffed interests section in Tehran could help inform policy formulation and execution by assessing and reporting on realities on the ground. It would help advance and explain U.S. policy to ordinary Iranians and enhance U.S. broadcast programming to Iran by conveying a more accurate feel of the Iranian street.
As Karim Sadjadpour, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Middle East Program, has often noted, Iran is one of the few countries in the Middle East where America's strategic interests and its commitment to democratic values align. Whether or not the U.S. and its international partners reach a final comprehensive agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, policymakers have a number of options that would directly engage the Iranian people and serve U.S. national interests.
Ghorban is the director of Government Affairs and Policy for the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA). Volmar is the legislative/research assistant for PAAIA.