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In international diplomacy, gestures matter. This is particularly true for efforts to promote real diplomacy between the United States and Iran.
For three decades, the United States has mostly pursued an “Iran cooties” policy. We can’t meet with Iranian leaders, because someone might interpret that to mean that we think that the Iranian government is “legitimate.” OMG! We might get Iran cooties!
It sounds ridiculous, and it is. And it has a real cost in human lives. Because of the “Iran cooties” policy, it’s harder to use diplomacy to help end wars in the Middle East, like the Syrian civil war or the war in Afghanistan.
On Tuesday, President Obama has an historic opportunity to end the “Iran cooties” policy. Iran’s newly elected, pragmatic, pro-diplomacy President Hassan Rouhani is going to be addressing the United Nations General Assembly. So is US President Barack Obama.
USA Today reports:
The most discussed part of President Obama’s trip to the United Nations next week is something that is not on the schedule.
Will Obama say hello to – or even meet with – the new Iran President Hasan Rouhani?
As of Thursday morning, the official US position is that President Obama is “open” to meeting President Rouhani at the UN. A meeting hasn’t been planned but could happen, senior officials told The Wall Street Journal.
Iranian leaders have been putting out strong, consistent signals that they want meaningful dialogue with the United States. The New York Times reports:
In a near staccato burst of pronouncements, statements and speeches by the new president, Hassan Rouhani; his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif; and even the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leadership has sent Rosh Hashana greetings to Jews worldwide via Twitter, released political prisoners, exchanged letters with President Obama, praised “flexibility” in negotiations and transferred responsibility for nuclear negotiations from the conservatives in the military to the Foreign Ministry.
“They’re putting stuff out faster than the naysayers can keep up,” said Gary Sick, an Iran expert with Columbia University. “They dominate the airwaves.”
A striking example of the “Iranian charm offensive” is how President Rouhani deflected a reporter’s question that baited him to say something critical of President Obama:
Mr. Rouhani, asked in the NBC News interview if he thought Mr. Obama looked weak when he backed off from a threat to conduct a missile strike against Syria over a deadly chemical weapons attack outside Damascus on August 21, replied: “We consider war a weakness. Any government or administration that decides to wage a war, we consider a weakness. And any government that decides on peace, we look on it with respect to peace.”
If President Obama meets with President Rouhani Tuesday, it will send a strong signal to the world that a different relationship between the United States and Iran is possible. It will build momentum for peace.
Shouldn’t the American people weigh in? We’ve shown in the last few weeks that public engagement can help stop an imminent war. Could public engagement promote diplomacy to help prevent war in the future?
MoveOn.org thinks the people should weigh in. MoveOn is promoting a petition urging President Obama to meet President Rouhani at the UN on Tuesday.
The Ploughshares Fund also thinks the people should weigh in. They persuaded Iranian-American comedian Maz Jobrani and Jewish-American comedian Elon Gold to make a video for peace.
My favorite thing about the video is the way Jobrani and Gold gently follow (in a PG-rated way) the Lenny Bruce-Dick Gregory line that you can help detoxify ethnic tensions by making light of the toxicities. Like when President Obama said his dog was going to be a mutt, “just like me.” You’re like, wow, did President Obama really say that? He sure did. And, miraculously, the earth kept spinning on its axis.