In the fall of 2008, a few weeks after the election of Barack Obama, I got an unexpected call from the Iranian government. Would I like to attend the 15th annual Press and Media Festival in Tehran? They had never invited an American before.
I didn’t know what to make of it. But the chance to get a visa to Iran does not come every day, so I persuaded my editors to pay for the trip. For a week, I manned the “America booth” at the cavernous exhibition hall in the Imam Khomeini Grand Mosalla Mosque. Three letters — USA — hung innocently above my head, next to “Germany” and kitty corner from “France.”
Onlookers stared. “It’s unbelievable,” one man stuttered. Crowds formed. Cameramen took video. “This is my first time to see the American flag in public when it was not on fire,” a young female journalist told me.
People waited in long lines to leaf through copies of The Boston Globe. They asked me for maps, guides to US universities, wildlife magazines. One man gave me a poem he had written about Oprah. People asked the same questions: “Is Obama going to make a friendship with us?” “How do American people view Iranian people?” “How do you see our exhibition? Isn’t it grand?”
Not everyone was thrilled with my presence. A bird-like young man, who appeared to be a member of the voluntary Basij militia, lurked for hours, taking notes. The festival’s organizers, from Iran’s Ministry of Information, seemed visibly agitated. Sure, they had gotten permission to set up the “America booth.” But they could still get in trouble for it.
Iranians who want to make peace with the United States are locked in a bitter struggle with those who don’t. Gestures of friendship are controversial. What if the Americans don’t reciprocate? Making peace is fraught with risk. Belligerent speeches are not.
Here in America, politicians make the same calculations. Sanctioning Iran is popular. Negotiating with Iran is not. Like Iran, Congress is divided between those who want serious talks and those bent on military strikes.
Just as the election of Obama sparked hope in Iran back in 2008, the election of Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, sparks hope in America. Rouhani, who campaigned on a promise of improving ties with the West, offers the best chance we have seen in years of brokering a deal. The broad outlines are already known: If Iran curbs its nuclear program, America will lift sanctions.
And yet there are hawks who don’t believe in a deal. On Wednesday, just days before Rouhani’s inauguration, the House of Representatives passed a bill that not only tightens sanctions, but removes Obama’s ability to waive sanctions even if a deal is reached. One hundred thirty-one House members signed a letter asking for the vote to be postponed until the administration had a chance to test Rouhani’s seriousness. But the bill marched forward anyway. Only 20 members had the guts to vote against it.
“Coming at the time it did, it made us look like we are not for negotiation,” said Worcester Democrat Jim McGovern, one of the few couragous “no’’ votes. If it becomes law, Obama would not be able to negotiate a deal without permission from Congress. “It makes it more difficult for any talks to succeed,” McGovern said.
So we remain locked in a diplomatic game of chicken, two drag racers aimed directly at one another, waiting to see who will blink first. The sanctions keep coming. And next month, Senator Lindsey Graham plans to file a bill seeking authorization for the use of military force. The more Americans talk of war, the faster the Iranians build their centrifuges. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why. We invaded Iraq, a country that didn’t have a bomb, but left nuclear-armed North Korea alone.
Every time I hear talk of military strikes on Iran, I think of the 15th annual Press and Media Festival. I wonder how the people I met there are faring, now that their currency lost half its value. I think of the day I visited the Milad Tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world. Tehran, a megacity of 18 million people, sprawled out to the horizon. Down below, mothers and fathers sat in traffic, teenagers drank non-alcoholic lemon beer in hookah bars. They were ordinary people, not so different than you and me, living their lives and hoping for a better future.