President Trump seems to be reconciling with Saudi Arabia. Why does he not do so with Iran? The re-election of President Rouhani shows that Iranians want a more open society and normal relations with the world. Why, then, did President Trump declare that Iran should be isolated until its regime is changed?
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which bars Iran from building nuclear weapons and was agreed upon by the Obama Administration, European partners, and the UN, seemed to promise an end to decades-long hostility and sanctions. But after taking office, President Trump and his team increased the rhetoric against Iran, imposed new economic sanctions on Iranians and Iran-related firms, and issued the notorious executive ban on travel from Iran and several other Muslim-majority countries. Such action and rhetoric are unfortunate and dangerous.
We have no illusions about the Islamic Republic of Iran. One of us recently organized a meeting in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia that would provide training in political leadership for young Iranian women planning to run for office. Upon their return home, participants were interrogated and one detained. Because so many Iranians, including dual nationals, have been arrested or harassed, we have not been back to Iran in years. But the state’s crackdown on dissent within Iran should not be confused with terrorism abroad or assaults on sovereign states. Iran was not the country that produced the suicidal killers of September 11, 2001; neither does Iran produce jihadists wreaking havoc on European cities.
Over the course of nearly four decades, there have been occasions when the U.S. and Iran have had common interest. After the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 1996, both countries opposed them – Iran because of the Taliban’s anti-Shia stance, and the U.S. because the Taliban harbored Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda militants. In the wake of 9/11, Iran officials and citizens expressed condolences and the government of then-president Mohammad Khatami tried to initiate a rapprochement and cooperation with the Bush administration against al-Qaeda. One of us, a member of Iran’s reformist parliament at the time, recalls the widespread sympathy toward the U.S. following the 9/11 tragedy. However, Iran’s offer was rebuffed, and Bush’s Axis of Evil speech angered the authorities. In retaliation, Iran released the Mujahideen warlord Gulbeddin Hekmatyar, who had been under supervision in Iran, enabling him to return to Afghanistan and start attacking the new U.S.-allied government of Hamid Karzai. By 2006, the Taliban had resurfaced in Afghanistan and its destructive armed rebellion continues to this day.
It should be noted that Iran opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq – even though it had been invaded by Iraq back in 1980. Paradoxically, the invasion worked in Iran’s favor, given that a Shia dominated government came to power in Iraq and has been in place ever since. But the growth of regional terrorism, especially in the form of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, which was founded by a former Iraqi prisoner held by the U.S., has caused alarm. Today, many policymakers in both Iran and the U.S. agree that a priority should be to eradicate ISIS, starting in war-torn Syria, where neighboring countries (not Iran) have led an overlong campaign to destabilize the Syrian state by arming rebels. Why, then, does the Trump Administration demonstrate such hostility toward Iran rather than work with Iran to end the chaos?
While campaigning for office, Donald Trump repeatedly maligned the JCPOA as one of the worst in American history. We believe that the multinational agreement should remain in place. As Iran-born feminists and advocates for human rights and peace, we have good reason to be critical of the Iranian regime’s record on citizen rights, but we believe Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif when he declared that “Iran will never start a war.” We are confident in the JCPOA and indeed hope for a world free of nuclear weapons. We would urge President Trump to shift from confrontational rhetoric and hostile measures to a new policy agenda that would normalize travel, trade, civil society exchanges, and diplomatic ties. Such an agenda would enable Iran and the U.S. to work together and with allies to create conditions for the defeat of terrorism and the return of peace and security to the Middle East and North Africa. It also would help end the paranoia within the Iranian political establishment that generates the harassment of civil society actors.
Fatemeh Haghighatjoo is a former member of Iran’s parliament (2000-2005).
Valentine M. Moghadam is professor of international affairs and sociology, Northeastern University; member, MAPA Executive Board and Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom.