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US-Iran relations should focus on faith-based diplomacy

Interfaith diplomacy and cultural engagement could improve US relations with Iran.
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In November 2013, the United States and Iran reached a long-sought interim agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The tenuous arrangement reached at last year's Geneva talks potentially signals a new chapter for the future international negotiations looming on the horizon. Despite the political rapprochement that many on both sides consider a marked success, there is certainly still more work to be done. 

To build a viable relationship with Iran that has a chance at genuine longevity, one that is based on mutual trust and understanding, the United States should consider taking efforts rooted in faith-based diplomacy more seriously. This policy option would reduce tension on both sides over time, while simultaneously building confidence and acuity within an often unstable global partnership.

In Iran, religion is a major social tenet and a primary motivation for political action. The government and political systems are rooted in religious laws and values; nearly everything about daily life is carried out through the lens of religious ritual. It stands to reason, then, that if Iran’s clerics have been extremely effective at mobilizing both the Iranian public and even political figures within the government to engage Iranians as a whole, the leaders of other world powers should start with a religious frame of reference. Despite this, US diplomats and policymakers often ignore and dismiss the type of cultural engagement that incorporates religion outside of the Western purview.

This non-inclusive approach, which seems to discount a religious context entirely, is evident even when looking at proportion of the US government’s budget allocated to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), think tanks and institutes aimed at helping Iranian dissidents. Interfaith diplomatic initiatives, however, have occurred as well, but these efforts can only take on so much. The International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD), for example, sponsored a reciprocal visit of Iranian religious leaders and scholars to the United States in 2005. Prior to that, nine American religious leaders representing the three Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Islam and Judaism made the trip to Iran in 2003. In addition to visiting a number of Islamic centers — both Shiite and Sunni — and various places of worship, the delegates interacted with a number of high-level US officials, university scholars and think tank personnel.

What would happen if the US government reached out to Iranian conservatives through a form of cultural engagement that was instead backed by a deeper understanding of how others view the world and assign their priorities? This would be a more comprehensive and productive way for US policymakers to bridge the gap between Iranian conservatives and their Western counterparts.

The US foreign policy regarding Iran has historically oscillated between containment and disengagement. The result has been a protracted estrangement and anti-Americanism among Iran's Principlist and conservative factions. As a result, faith-based diplomacy will likely play a critical role in reinvigorating official relations, building trusting and lasting relationships between world powers, deepening understanding and socializing new and cooperative states of mind.

Faith-based diplomacy is a track-two form of diplomacy that utilizes non-state actors such as NGO officials, religious leaders and citizens who are working to integrate the myriad dynamics of religious faith — holy texts, spiritual and community practices, traditions — with international conciliations. Although this mode of diplomacy is not recognized as an official diplomacy track, it is no less vital to successful and long-lasting peace-building efforts.

In an era of increased connectivity, it is often the faces and actions of everyday "citizen diplomats," and not the powerful elected officials of Washington, who represent the United States worldwide. The personal interactions, face-to-face meetings and casual correspondence from Americans both at home and abroad are what most significantly imprint a global recognition upon others. It is through these citizen-to-citizen relationships that minds and attitudes are changed, that authenticity and integrity are established and that exchanges become productive dialogues that move a conversation forward. Without this form of on-the-ground diplomacy, we are left with stilted moments that stagnate conciliatory movement.

As the long-deteriorated relationship between Iran and the United States indicates, a lack of clear communication regarding each country's priorities, concerns and expectations increases the potential for misunderstandings, thus heightening tension and resulting in conflict. For instance, Iranian clerics have always been cynical toward the West, particularly the United States. The reality, though, is that most have never traveled abroad and interacted with Western foreigners directly, let alone within the comfort of their own environment. Consequently, this mode of diplomacy represents the preferred approach, leading to a deep and salient process of socialization through frequent face-to-face dialogue with the Iranian clerical establishment.

Unfortunately, each country's respective domestic pressures compound the difficulties as well. Take, for instance, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who seems to think that the public would view a compromise with the United States as a counterproductive show of weakness. With greater efforts expended through channels of faith-based diplomacy, perhaps the powers in the Middle East would be less likely to view conciliation with the West as an action that undermines legitimacy and fans the flames of rivalry, and instead as one that promotes partnership.

Faith-based diplomatic efforts would increase opportunities for cross-cultural learning and engagement. Even in considering the way language and ideas are translated from West to East, this becomes an important cause. As ICRD President Douglas Johnson explains, when the West discusses secularism, individuals in the Middle East may interpret that as atheism instead. Although what we mean is the freedom to worship according to personal preferences, this ideal may become associated with moral corruption from the Middle Eastern perspective.

Faith-based diplomacy also enables the tackling of a variety of subjective obstacles as a joint undertaking, since both sides have developed myopic views of each other. These oversimplified images have intensified distrust, dehumanization and de-individuation of the "other" for more than three decades, resulting in disrupted communication, reduced empathy and the continued fostering of win-lose thinking. Meanwhile, traditional negotiation and mediation approaches are less than adequate in addressing these subjective factors.

The act of bringing trusted clerics and political figures who have a finger on the pulse of the Iranian public to spend time in the United States — to allow an opportunity for these individuals to focus on mediation and mutual understanding — would be a boon to the United States and would more than likely change opinions of the West for the better. In Iran, our home country, we believe that if our fellow citizens were able to search more deeply, what they may find is that many Iranian reformists, journalists and intellectuals who now call the United States home once also claimed the conservative camp as their own. These changed individuals may explain that one of the most critical factors leading to their ideological shift was meaningful contact with Western civilization and culture, and a continuation of this effort might open the door for us to aid today’s conservatives in becoming tomorrow’s reformists.

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