When the U.S. and Iranian presidents took the stage at the United Nations General Assembly last week, they extended some olive branches to one another.
President Obama directly addressed some of Iran’s grievances, noting that they had been victims of a chemical weapons attack (in 1988), stating that the United States is not trying to overthrow the Iranian government and clarifying that the U.S. is willing to allow a peaceful nuclear program in Iran. He also said that resolving concerns around Iran’s nuclear program could lead toward a relationship “based on mutual interests and mutual respect,” something that Iran has long sought.
In addition, a few weeks ago the U.S. announced it was lifting some restrictions on athletic exchanges and humanitarian work with Iran. While it is yet to be seen how much this will impact the work of organizations like Mennonite Central Committee , all of these gestures together signal a significant and positive step forward on the part of the U.S. government.
In his speech at the UN, Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, stated that Iran has no intention to develop a nuclear weapon and called for diplomatic talks to resolve their differences with the U.S. He also said that “Iran poses absolutely no threat to the world or the region.”
Many U.S. legislators are not convinced. Members of Congress have continued to express skepticism about Iran’s motives and have vowed to increase sanctions. A sanctions bill that passed the House overwhelmingly earlier this year is likely to move through the Senate this fall. In addition, several Members of Congress have indicated their intent to introduce legislation in the Senate and the House authorizing the use of force against Iran.
Continued congressional resistance to diplomatic progress with Iran misses the many areas in which the United States and Iran could find useful common ground. The most urgent of these is a political solution to the devastating civil war in Syria—a solution that will require that all parties who are involved in the conflict have a seat at the table.
Rather than continuing to relate harshly with Iran, Members of Congress would do well to direct their energies toward supporting diplomatic efforts to resolve differences with Iran. Peace will depend on the peoples of our two countries getting to know one another better, which hopefully can happen as restrictions on contact are relaxed. But it will also depend on governments that have long been at odds being willing to extend many more olive branches toward each other.
To learn more about Iran, order What is Iran? A Primer on Culture, Politics and Religion from MCC.