Commentary

Dunsmore: Iran’s new president could help ease U.S.-Iran tensions

Editor’s note: This op-ed by retired ABC News diplomatic correspondent Barrie Dunsmore first appeared in the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Rutland Herald Sunday edition. All his columns can be found on his website, www.barriedunsmore.com.

After torrents of bad news, President Barack Obama got some relatively good news earlier this month, when contrary to most expert predictions, the people of Iran elected as their new president a cleric considered a moderate by Iranian standards. Hassan Rouhani is a vast improvement over the outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad whose economic and foreign policies Rouhani himself has frequently criticized. Of course the real power in Iran remains with the Supreme Spiritual Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the president, especially if he has strong public support, can be influential. And as Iran and the United States seem to be inexorably moving towards war over Iran’s nuclear aspirations that could be significant.

Hassan Rouhani is 64. He has a doctorate in Law from Glasgow Caledonia University in Scotland. In addition to his native Persian he is said to be fluent in Arabic, English, French, German and Russian. That could make him far more international in his outlook than most Iranian leaders.

Rouhani captured more than 50 percent of the vote, defeating five candidates considered more conservative, by highlighting these objectives during the election campaign:

  • Protect civil rights and try to get the release from detention of political prisoners.
  • Improve the economy and get international sanctions lifted.
  • Get the international community to ”acknowledge the rights” of Iran to have a nuclear program.
  • Restore diplomatic ties with the United States.

Whether this makes Rouhani a “true reformer,” ”a moderate” or a “pragmatist” is now being widely debated. But it certainly seems that his victory is something of a defeat for hardliners including those of the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Perhaps one of the ways to begin to heal that wound, would be to be perfectly frank about the things your country has done that make Americans hostile toward Iran – and to acknowledge some of the things my country has done over the years that might make you feel the same way about us.

I was taken by a phrase Rouhani used in his first public appearance after the vote While he expressed a desire to reduce American-Iranian tensions, he described those tensions as “an old wound that must be treated.”

That “old wound” is actually a series of wounds that each side has inflicted upon the other going back more than half a century. A few years ago, I fantasized a letter that President George W. Bush might write to his Iranian counterpart. In rereading it, it occurred to me that such a letter from President Obama, might now be appropriate. This letter too is fantasy — but the facts are real.

Dear President- elect Rouhani,

I congratulate you on your impressive election victory, which could represent an important change of direction for both of our countries. You have spoken of your desire to see an improvement in relations between us, but “an old wound that must be treated,” could preclude that.

Perhaps one of the ways to begin to heal that wound, would be to be perfectly frank about the things your country has done that make Americans hostile toward Iran – and to acknowledge some of the things my country has done over the years that might make you feel the same way about us.

These are my major worries:

1. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (and my own spies) you are continuing to reprocess uranium as fast as you can. You are enriching a large supply of uranium to the 20 percent level which we both know is just a short step from weapons grade. As this is the key ingredient in making nuclear bombs, I have to assume that is your intention, and as I have stated publicly, we will not tolerate this.

2. Concerning your increasing involvement in the Syrian Civil War — I understand that President Bashar Assad is your longtime ally. But sending your proxy into Syria – the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah – is an escalation that could turn the Syrian conflict into a full scale Shiite-Sunni sectarian war. Let me assure you, the United States has absolutely no desire to see such a war- but if there is one, you can expect we will do what’s necessary to protect our interests and allies.

3. Americans have not forgiven Iran for its support of Shiite militias in Iraq, whose roadside bombs killed and maimed thousands of American troops serving there.

4. We still hold Iran responsible for the 1983 terrorist bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Americans. A lot of my people also won’t forgive Iran for holding those 52 American diplomats hostage back in 1979.

These are previous American actions or policies which I concede could cause the Iranian people to harbor resentments against us:

1. My country did interfere in Iran’s internal affairs by helping engineer the coup in 1953 that overthrew your elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossedegh and installed the Shah. It wasn’t all about oil, although his nationalizing the Anglo-American Oil Company was a factor. But amidst the Cold War, we were mainly worried about Mossedegh’s links to the pro- Soviet Tudeh Party and fears he might take Iran into the Soviet orbit.

2. The United States did tilt toward Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war — a war that may have cost a million lives. We gave battlefield intelligence with satellite photos to Iraq. And we provided weapons, including the chemicals that were illegally used against Iranian forces (and later Kurdish civilians.)

3. In Afghanistan in 2001-02 Iran did try to help us with the overthrow of the Taliban and the containment of al-Qaeda, but that cooperation was ended by the then neo-cons in the White House.

4. In July 1988, the U.S.S. Vincennes did shoot down one of your airliners, killing 290 people including 66 children. The captain said it was an accident but our own investigations found the captain to be a little trigger happy.

There you have it. I have my reasons to mistrust your country — and I appreciate that you would be equality suspicious of our intentions. It is clear to me that we have good reason to talk seriously and to end this more than 30 year blood- feud. God willing, we can.

Yours sincerely,
Barack H. Obama

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