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Wednesday, Oct 05, 2022
Outlook.com
Outlook.com
Opinion

The Importance Of Gestures

It seems that Iran is trying to offer an olive branch. Here's to hoping for wiser voices to prevail in the policy debate in America.

The Importance Of Gestures
The Importance Of Gestures
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

Perhaps more than anything, diplomacy is about gestures. In interpreting them, we rely on our knowledge of the other, on the symbolic value of the gesture itself, on whether there is hidden meaning behind the gesture and of course on whether the gesture was directed at us or someone else. With the forthcoming UN general assembly, a series of gestures, some contradictory, have been made by Iran and America which could potentially have serious and lasting consequences for peace and stability not only in the greater Middle East but in the world.

As Iran prepares to arrive in New York under the stewardship of Hasan Rouhani, it has decided to release a number of political prisoners. There will be those who will argue that Rouhani’s move is a calculated move to bring about goodwill at the UN and others will argue that it is in keeping with a man who said in his election campaign that “a strong government does not mean one that limits the lives of people.” Meanwhile, American authorities have decided to seize a high-rise building in Manhattan that they claim is an asset of the Iranian Melli Bank in keeping with the current American policy of suffocating Iran financially.

Although the timing of the American move and indeed its efficacy might be seen as unnecessarily provocative, it seems that beyond this sabre-rattling perhaps things can inch forward with Barack Obama recently admitting that he has been exchanging letters with his Iranian counterpart. In 2009, Obama had stated that his administration was committed to pursuing ‘constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community…and an engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.’

A few months after Obama’s direct video address, I sat in Damascus watching the results of the Iranian elections. A Syrian friend thought out aloud: ‘I find it very strange,’ he said, ‘that the Iranian people are now being supported and all these countries are rushing to make speeches about freedom and liberty but tomorrow if these protests come to nothing, then it will be these very people who will be punished. In fact, you know they might even get us, as a way of getting to them’

Four years later my Syrian friend’s words could not ring truer and one can only wonder at how punishing a population with crippling sanctions can ever be construed of as grounded in ‘mutual respect’ or a form of ‘engagement’ that is not premised on threats.

The sanctions continue their silent but deadly assault. As food prices, fuel prices, medical supplies and basic living costs spiral in Iran, some voices have emerged in the West which are calling for a review of the efficacy of sanctions. These voices range from Obama’s former deputy assistant secretary of state John Limbert, who was also one of the hostages in US embassy in Tehran in 1979, to Thomas Pickering a high-ranking diplomat in the State Department. A number of think tanks and policy houses have also called for a reassessment of the way in which sanctions are used and prominent amongst them are the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Atlantic Council and the American Federation of Scientists. Of course there are still prominent hawkish voices too like that of the retired General James Mattis who while deposing to the Senate Armed Services Committee said that he was ‘paid to take a dim view of the Iranians’ and that the armed forces had 'what it takes to make it the enemy’s longest day and their worst day.' In Iran too, Rouhani, in a carefully worded speech, asked the Revolutionary Guards to stay ‘above’ politics.

The problem then is one of perception, the way in which the other is viewed and a matter of trust that people come to the negotiating table to negotiate and have not already adopted an inflexible position. It seems that one of the hardest things, whether at the level of the individual or indeed of institutions, is to be able to view scenarios and situations from the others point of view and in this, language in the broadest sense plays a key role. As a crude example, ‘rights’ and its Arabic/ Persian equivalent ‘huqooq’ implicitly have their own particular historical genealogies and contexts. Unless both parties are able to place themselves in the others shoes then, inevitably each interprets what they want according to their own paradigm. Thus, Rouhani’s recent reiteration of Ayatollah Khamenei’s old position that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic, may perversely not resonate in America where both Democrats and Republicans see nuclear weapons as a logical projection of the state’s power.

The current ‘Western’ suspicion of the Iranians was not one catalysed by the Islamic Revolution in 1979, although perhaps exacerbated by it, but was there even before during Dr Mossadegh’s government, which was decidedly nationalist and not Islamist. Fans of perennial struggles and teleological history might even read this back onto the Ancients but that would be a tad fanciful.

The fact of the matter is that for all the jingoistic rhetoric and vitriolic statements, the common person is the one who suffers and this is the issue which should be first and foremost on the minds of both the Americans and the Iranians as they decided on a course of action. In the mad scramble for power, an entire people are silently suffering while the noose of ‘smart’ sanctions is tightened more and more. Sanctions rarely, if ever, lead to domestic political change. It is therefore important that for some times now this has been acknowledged and highlighted by a number of important voices that inform the policy debate on Iran in America.

One of the most important points that needs to be tackled, if there is a possibility of talks, is to address how sanctions can be lifted. Of course, worries about the domestic political and financial ramifications of this, necessarily restrict diplomacy to back-channel talks, but the problem in these is that both parties inevitably end up second-guessing the other and therefore not really reaching any tangible conclusion. Keeping in mind recent events and even the rather brief and apparently ‘inadvertent’ lifting of internet restrictions in Iran recently, which some speculate was an ‘experiment by the new administration,’ it seems that the republic is trying to offer an olive branch. It seems that the Americans might even take a hold of this opportunity as US officials have said that although a meeting has not been planned the two heads of state might meet each other when they address the UN general assembly. One can’t predict the future but one has to at least view it with optimism and hope that a drive to reduce the suffering of individuals, who are far removed from the world of political machinations, will ultimately catalyse a sensible direction in policy.


Ali Khan Mahmudabad is a PhD student in History at the University of Cambridge who writes a fortnightly column for the Urdu Daily Inqilab

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