While the current standoff between the United States and Iran over that country's uranium enrichment program is often portrayed as a clash of cultures — the West against Islam — the truth is much more complex. That depiction mistakes politics for culture, rhetoric for reality.
A more accurate picture requires looking at the relations between the two countries through different lenses: one, the political relations between the two governments; the second, the more personal attitudes of the people toward each other. The former, with the threats of sanctions and even war, receives the most attention; the latter could hold the most promise for a possible resolution.
There was a time when relations between the United States and the Iranian government were mutually beneficial. That honeymoon period began in 1953 when Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, was in power. A good friend of the United States, the shah purchased U.S. weapons and signed important oil contracts with American companies. He also became a close ally of Israel in the Middle East.
But in 1979, the shah was overthrown and the Islamic Revolution marked the beginning of a new chapter of political relations. Later that year, hostages were taken at the U.S Embassy in Tehran, an event that led to the complete rupture of political relations between the two countries and to U.S.-imposed economic sanctions against Iran that continue to this day.
Relations between the American and Iranian people today are markedly different from their governments'. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians live in the USA. These people are decent U.S. citizens; most of them are educated, and many have prosperous businesses. Many young Iranians wish to visit or emigrate to the USA, seeking out its first-rate universities, its social, civic and creative freedoms as well as its economic opportunities. The people of America have always been welcoming to Iranian immigrants. American visitors to Iran, in turn, are warmly welcomed by the Iranian people.
This is not true, however, across all of the Middle East. That is because the United States has protected and defended the actions of the rulers of non-democratic, Islamic governments in the Middle East and has forgotten the people who must live under those regimes. As a result, many people of the Middle East distrust the U.S. government, for there is a proverb that says, "My enemy's friend is my enemy as well."
In Iran, however, the feelings of the people for America are the opposite because the U.S. government has never supported nor defended the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Therefore, its people are not sensitive to the rhetoric of the U.S. government.
Many Iranians clearly understand that the cultures and people of the two countries are separate and distinct from their respective governments. This is the reason that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is more popular among the young Arabs than among the young Iranians.
The U.S. government must realize that the positive feelings of the Iranian people will continue only if it does not initiate a military attack against Iran. The Iranian people are exceedingly proud of their 2,500-year history and culture. Iran as a country is larger and greater than its rulers and exists apart from any government in power at any particular time.
If America attacks, however, Iranians will unite, forgetting their differences with their government, and they will fiercely and tenaciously defend their country.
That is why misguided commentaries from even supposed experts such as Princeton Middle East scholar and author Bernard Lewis are irresponsible. Lewis recently wrote that an atomic Iran would most probably use atomic weapons against Israel and America. Lewis even outrageously predicted that Aug. 22, a date that corresponded on the Islamic calendar with the date in which Muslims commemorate the night of prophet Mohammed's prophetic mission — could be a possible time for an Iranian attack on Israel.
The government of the United States must listen to those who are more enlightened with regard to Iran's issues and the complexity of U.S.-Iran relations. It is only then that it can reach informed, realistic and sustainable decisions regarding its differences with Iran.
The differences between the governments of Iran and the United States must end one day, and the sooner this takes place, the better.
The American government must accept the fact that Iran is the most important country in the Middle East because of its strategic location, population, wealth, natural resources, army and scientific achievements. It cannot be talked down to or treated as if it's a powerless Third World country.
And the Iranian government must also accept the fact that after the downfall of the Soviet Union, the United States is the one and only superpower — a reality that should preclude pejorative political remarks. Only through recognition of these facts can a solution for resolving the conflicts be reached.
The conflict must be resolved through direct negotiations. Negotiations must be explicit, overt and to the benefit of the people, not to the governments, of these two countries. These negotiations must be engaged at three levels in both countries: the executive, the legislative and among their respective citizens through non-governmental organizations.
With a realistic viewpoint, any difference can be resolved. Let us gaze into the future instead of dwelling on the past.
Shirin Ebadi, a lawyer in Iran, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her efforts on behalf of human rights and for democracy, which she continues today. She also is author of the book Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope.
1941: Iranian Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi comes to power; he replaces his father, who was forced into exile.
1951: Mohammed Mossadegh, considered something of a rival to the shah, is elected prime minister. He nationalizes the oil industry in defiance of Great Britain and, ultimately, the United States.
1953: President Eisenhower approves a CIA-assisted coup that overthrows Mossadegh. The shah regains power and establishes close ties to the United States.
1968: Iran signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
1979: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ousts the shah and creates the Islamic Republic of Iran. On Nov. 4, Iranian students take 52 Americans at the U.S. Embassy hostage.
1980: A U.S. commando raid intended to free the hostages ends in failure; eight U.S. servicemen are killed in the helicopter crash. The shah dies of cancer in Egypt.
1981: Iran releases the hostages after 444 days and shortly after Ronald Reagan is inaugurated as president.
1984: The U.S. State Department designates Iran a state sponsor of terrorism.
1989: Ayatollah Khomeini dies.
1997: Pro-reform cleric Mohammed Khatami wins presidential elections by promising to ease social restrictions and improve ties with the United States.
2001: Khatami is re-elected.
2002: President Bush describes Iran, Iraq and North Korea as "the axis of evil" in his State of the Union speech.
2004: Secretary of State Colin Powell issues a warning about Iran's growing nuclear program and urges international sanctions.
2005: Hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is elected president.
April 2006: Iran announces it has successfully enriched uranium.
June 6: The United Nations Security Council, with Germany, offers Iran a package of incentives to suspend uranium enrichment or face possible sanctions.
July 31: The Security Council passes a resolution calling for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment by Aug. 31 or face the threat of international economic and diplomatic sanctions.
Aug. 31: Iran ignores the Security Council deadline to freeze enrichment.
Source: The Associated Press; USA TODAY research.
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