This week, as John Kerry’s Secretary of State confirmation hearings plodded along in the Senate with expectedly boisterous criticism of Iran, NYU hosted the pre-eminent scholar and Iranian presidential candidate Hooshang Amirahmadi for a discussion on U.S.-Iran relations. I met with Amirahmadi prior to the event, and I found in him one of the few hopes of a return to normalcy that Iran, currently in a spiraling economic crisis orchestrated by U.S.-led sanctions, desperately needs.
An eloquent speaker and American citizen, Amirahmadi described an Iran that is ravaged by political infighting, particularly among the conservatives of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ruling party, whose political legitimacy derives from the 1979 Revolution. He likens the Iranian Revolution to a diplomatic wall between Iran and the United States, and he argues that each side can only see through the prism of that landmark event. Indeed, the last 30 years have devastated U.S.-Iran relations, with the U.S. arming both sides of a war that killed an estimated one million people, including 400,000 Iranians, and a fierce denouncement of Westernization by Iranian theocrats.
In many ways, the United States is no better than Iran, politically speaking. Both countries face a rancorous base of entrenched conservative politicians who swear the other side is Satan incarnate and who are working against the general will of both populations. American officials kiss the feet of Israeli diplomats, and our president foolishly talks of war against a nation whose middle class has been destroyed by a feel-good policy that has barely scraped the knee of the insularly rich ruling class. We pat ourselves on the back because we believe we are finally not indiscriminately killing innocent people; instead, we indiscriminately starve them to death, an idea coincidentally endorsed by the Israeli government. But as Amirahmadi, founder of the conciliatory American-Iranian Council, correctly notes, “The Islamic Republic of Iran will never be brought to its knees by U.S. sanctions and destabilization policies.” For once, this is not nationalistic grandstanding; America believes Iran to be on the brink of destruction, but Iranian leaders are as resolute as ever. At some point the United States will reconsider the ineffective, destructive policy of sanctions. By then, it will be too late. After we have starved innocent people into believing theocratic propaganda against the West, peace will be unattainable.
It is not lost on either Amirahmadi or myself that the current catalyst of our diplomatic dissonance is Ahmadinejad’s irrational pursuit of nuclear enrichment. But Amirahmadi accurately believes that the United States has fundamentally misunderstood the political and cultural fabric of Iranian society, a disturbing trend that has caused critical failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. He likens post-revolutionary Iran to a bus, “riding towards an initially great destiny. The fighting within the bus [factionalism] has changed its direction increasingly from that great destination to a great cliff.” It appears that America is desperate to give Iran its final push off the precipice.
But while our trustworthy and well-respected representatives continue to mistake trash-talking and forced impoverishment as any sort of respectable foreign policy, Amirahmadi offers himself as a new driver of the Iranian bus. He and I both see hope embodied in the new generation of Iranians, who have little affinity for theocracy and who do not bear the scars of the Revolution and subsequent wars. He strives to be the Deng Xiaoping of Iran, preserving the system but changing the country. He recognizes the deep interconnections of Iran’s challenges and calls for a leader who is a “bridge-builder, peacemaker and economic manager.”
A renowned professor of economic development and an intellectual who has dedicated his life to studying and promoting U.S.-Iranian relations, Amirahmadi says calmly, “It just so happens I am that person.”
A version of this article appeared in the Jan. 30 print edition. Sameer Jaywant is opinion editor. Email him at email@example.com.