Can Washington rethink Iran?

The Washington Post | Jason Rezaian: During the Obama administration, critics of the president’s engagement policy with Iran constantly complained that journalists and analysts with little knowledge of Iran were parroting the White House line. I can’t speak to that, since during that time I was reporting from Tehran (and later sitting in prison for doing that job).

But I can write about what I’m seeing in Washington now: namely, a moment when cheerleaders for President Trump’s Iran policy hail his approach as supporting the aspirations of the Iranian people — without ever explaining how.

What’s more, it appears that the Trump administration — primarily through its sanctions, which are having the effect of drastically limiting contact with the place — wants to cut off any informed study of Iran. And that makes the “Rethinking Iran” initiative, a series of events organized by the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), all the more valuable. The aim of the program is to challenge conventional notions of life in Iran.

“U.S. policies against Iran, even if you don’t want to concede that they’ve failed, have not produced the desired results,” Narges Bajoghli, the SAIS professor who developed “Rethinking Iran,” told me. “To have a more robust relationship between the U.S. and Iran, even if it remains cold, it’s imperative for us to have a fuller understanding of the country, its policies and society,” she added.

While U.S. officials and commentators always pay lip service to the Iranian people, the reality is that both the regime in Tehran and the administration in Washington see Iranians as collateral damage in their power struggle. Actual insight into the lives of Iranians remains mysteriously absent.

The “Rethinking Iran” program spans a wide range of topics, from Iran’s Jewish community to the fashion industry. And yes, politics is part of the mix as well.

In the absence of direct contact with Iran and Iranians, such gatherings fill an important void — and particularly at a moment of growing tensions. We need scholars and commentators who can claim some actual knowledge of contemporary realities in Iran to inform the discussion, and the SAIS program aims to do this.

” ‘Maximum pressure’ aims to bring Iran to its knees in the minimum amount of time,” Ali Vaez, International Crisis Group’s Iran project director, said in his opening comments, in reference to the Trump administration’s strategy for dealing with Tehran. That was about as succinct and accurate a description of White House Iran policy as you will find.

But it isn’t only the current White House that finds itself almost entirely cut off from the realities of the country. We also needed windows into Iran during the Obama administration, but they were few even back then.

The situation improved a bit as President Barack Obama launched his policy of engagement in the run-up to the nuclear deal. A flurry of journalists, scholars, investors and tourists arrived in Tehran and began to reimagine a country that had been reduced by the American imagination to hollow stereotypes.

The dividends of this period were varied. The most important, in my opinion, was a shift in how ordinary Americans viewed Iran. For the first time, we managed to start separating the Iranian people from their leadership. In my book about my imprisonment in Tehran, I write about this period at length, because I was there chronicling it from up close in a way that few other observers had an opportunity to do.

This was no full opening, no reversal of course for an authoritarian regime that counts on the supposed word of God to maintain its power. But neither was it business as usual.

The run-up to the nuclear deal was a period when Iranians felt empowered to speak their minds and make demands. The most urgent concern was the incredible damage caused by years of sanctions on the country’s economy.

People were focused less on their freedom and civil rights — as previous rounds of protest I witnessed in 2003 and 2009 were — and more on the desire for a better economic future. I saw firsthand how economic turmoil has the effect of diverting a people’s political aspirations toward self-preservation.

That period was short-lived. Now, once again, the Iranian people have their backs against the wall, and we again lack real insight into what’s happening there.

Missing from the current policy discussions are even the slightest signs of an intention to empower the Iranian people. There are plenty of ways that we could help with that. But so far the Trump administration and his State Department have only taken steps — from the travel ban to criminalizing military conscripts — to make life more difficult for Iranians.

Many who support Trump’s Iran policy complained this week about U.S. media outlets giving generous amounts of airtime to Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to push Tehran’s agenda. I agree. Instead we should focus attention on the actual concerns and desires of the Iranian people and current social and political trends in that country. And this is the job that the SAIS program and others like it can do.

Let me say it very clearly so that there can be no doubt: I would like to see a secular democracy in Iran where all people — men and women, of all ethnic, religious, political and sexual orientations — enjoy the rights and privileges of equal citizens.

It’s up to the people of Iran to make that happen, but we can help them get there. Right now, though, we’re getting in the way.