The Promise and Peril of Gestures of Peace

I was about to publish the piece below one day ago. It was based on a press conference of the Iranian Foreign Ministry on Sunday, July 21, 2013. But just two days later, the same Foreign Ministry spokesperson contradicted his own statement that America had been invited to the inauguration. This is a highly unusual development that I will analyze below, and the story may still be unfolding. But first read this piece:


Return the Gesture: Invite President Rowhani of Iran to the White House 

Hasan RowhaniThe Foreign Ministry of Iran has invited the European Union and the United States
to attend the inauguration of President Rowhani on August 4. The evidence of history suggests that the smart thing for the United States to do is seize the moment and quickly return the friendly gesture. The White House should invite President Rowhani to the White House on September 21, the Iranian day established by former President Khatami to celebrate a dialogue of civilizations.

Here is why this makes political sense. Political history suggests that the space between two nations in conflict is always filled with something, bad gestures mostly. There is never a vacuum. Spoilers on the right of either government and bystander nations benefiting from the conflict will always push for more conflict and will provoke bad gestures involving some kind of demonization of the other side.

When there is a moment of courage, however, and one side makes a friendly gesture, it is vital to return that gesture quickly and decisively, in order to create a momentum of change. Gestures of this sort are historically the way to open nations to a better atmosphere for hard negotiations on the most divisive issues.

This is what Kennedy did in 1963. As leading conflict analyst Louis Kriesberg has observed, Kennedy narrowly escaped nuclear war with the Soviet Union in October of 1962. In June of 1963, eight months later, he made a historic speech calling for a reexamination of the Cold War, and made a voluntary gesture of suspending nuclear tests. By August of 1963, just three months after that speech and gesture, an historic treaty on test bans was signed by the warring nations.

Chris Mitchell, another senior conflict analyst, recommends the following criteria for successful gestures: the gesture represents a major change from the past; it is novel; it fits into the target’s orientation; it is made in an undeniable manner; it involves costs and risks for the initiator; it is made unconditionally and voluntarily; it is made so that it would be difficult or impossible to reverse; and it is structured so that the other side can easily respond positively.

The response gesture that I recommend is novel, and fits the target’s orientation by acknowledging in an unprecedented fashion the positive accomplishments of a previous Iranian president, Khatami, who attempted to open up a better chapter in Iranian/American history. Now is the chance to re-open that hopeful era. The gesture would be undeniable coming from the White House, and invite some risk for the White House in the shadow of a Congress that has been dominated by only military thinking on Iran and a punitive fixation.

Gestures are not intended to be a substitute for negotiations nor a capitulation on core areas of disagreement. They are meant to move the parties from an atmosphere of war to an atmosphere of constructive fighting that acknowledges the value of a nonviolent set of outcomes with an adversary that is opposed but respected.

The big losers from an exchange of gestures between these two countries is whichever political interests in the U.S., Israel or Iran, that are gaining from a war atmosphere between the United States and Iran. The big winners from an exchange of gestures and a new set of negotiations are many: all the intelligence officials and analysts from the United States to Israel to Europe who believe that a confrontation with Iran in the Persian Gulf would be catastrophic for the world economy and the personal security of Israelis and Americans; the people of Iran who are suffering from sanctions severely affecting them but not affecting the militant right in Iran; the people of Israel who are living in fear of a major nonconventional confrontation with Iran and distracted from their more immediate economic and security interests; the people of America who are already suffering severe cutbacks in all their services and educational systems due to the most costly misadventures in American military history in Iraq and Afghanistan; the people of Syria who desperately need a more constructive American/Iranian/Gulf States/Russian dialogue on de-escalation of all the most violent forces that have been unleashed in Syria; the people of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East who desperately need a de-escalation of Sunni-Shiite confrontation in the region.

A major change in the forty-year old American/Iranian confrontation will be a major game changer in global history, and the White House should lead the way on seizing this fleeting opportunity.

But now we have a situation of a good gesture creating the opposite effect by its being withdrawn at the last minute. This is a lesson in what NOT to do if you are a foreign ministry.

We do not know at this point why the Foreign Ministry contradicted itself on such a critical issue. We can only speculate. It is possible that this is a reality check on the promise of Rowhani’s reformist presidency. He may have a mandate to reform domestic and economic policy, but he may have been slapped down early by Supreme Leader Khameini when it comes to the United States. We cannot know for sure, but the statements by Khameini in the presence of Rowhani at an Iftar on Sunday certainly suggest that Khameini is sticking to his line of America as untrustworthy.

One thing is certain and interesting. The Foreign Ministry was keenly interested in opening up Iran to the whole world, but was apparently slapped down when it comes to the U.S. That means that there is great struggle going on in the inner circles about the next stages of managing the possible warming of Western relations.

Struggle in a foreign ministry is good. It suggests that there are winds of change. It suggests also that, although this withdrawal of a good gesture is a debacle for Iran’s image, it means that a very clever American policy would make it harder for reactionary forces at work here (in both countries!) by increasing the pressure and power of positive gestures. This will weigh in on a fluid situation, and add great weight to those in the Iranian Foreign Ministry who are pressing for a new page in American Iranian relations.

© Marc Gopin