The promise of reconciliation with Iran

Commentary: The Islamic Republic's stability can benefit the Middle East -- if the United States allows it

Hassan Rouhani (C), president of Iran and former top nuclear negotiator, speaks during a campaign rally in downtown Tehran on June 8, 2013.
Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images

Being pessimistic about prospects for peace in the Middle East has always been easy. Never in the last half-century, however, has violent turmoil there been so widespread. An astonishingly brutal civil war is consuming Syria. Attempts to consolidate democracy in Iraq, Libya and Egypt have given way to bloody repression and anarchy. Yemen is collapsing amid surging militancy and U.S. drone strikes. Threats of sectarian conflict hang over Lebanon. Tensions between Israel and Palestinians remain high.

There is one startling exception to this bleak panorama: Iran. Often portrayed in the West as a rogue state where seething dissent is brutally repressed, Iran is in fact remarkably stable. It could even become a stabilizing factor in the Middle East -- if the United States would allow it.

Over past decades, whenever Iranian leaders were in a conciliatory mood, American leaders were hostile. When Americans were interested in considering compromise, Iran was dominated by rejectionist hard-liners. Now, for the first time, both countries have leaders who seem eager for reconciliation.

In the last few weeks, the new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, has hardly let a day pass without a new overture. His foreign minister is set to meet Secretary of State John Kerry at the United Nations this week. There was even talk that Rouhani and President Barack Obama might arrange an "accidental" hallway meeting when both delivered speeches yesterday, although no meeting took place.

The news has disturbed some Iran hawks, who insist that it is foolish to believe anything Rouhani says. Yet many Americans, possibly including the Obama administration, are intrigued and eager to test Rouhani's good will.

This would be wise. Reconciliation between Washington and Tehran could produce great strategic gains for both sides. Iran can help stabilize both of the countries on its borders that the United States has invaded, Iraq and Afghanistan. It can promote a negotiated settlement in Syria. It may even be able to nudge its friends in the region toward better ties with Israel.

At least as important, however, is the power of Iran's example. A return of Iran to the family of nations would be a tribute to the remarkable maturity of Iranian society. Arab countries could not fail to notice.

When popular uprisings began erupting through the Middle East a couple of years ago, some commentators wondered when Iranians would rebel. That was never a possibility. The reason is simple. Iran will not have a revolution because it has already had one -- and learned a terrible lesson from it. Iranians know that no matter how bad a Middle Eastern regime may be, overthrowing it violently may well lead to something worse.

Iran's message to the Arab world is profoundly stabilizing: often it is better to bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.

Arabs launched their jubilant uprisings without understanding this painful truth. They were utopians. Iranians are not. They have built the Middle East's first post-utopian society.

This is a result of Iran's most traumatic national memory. In the late 1970s, almost the entire society rose up to overthrow Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi with the conviction that a better regime would follow. The opposite happened. As a result, Iranians have lost their taste for revolution and violent conflict. That is why Iran will not fall into the bloody upheaval that is consuming Syria, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Iran's message to the Arab world is profoundly stabilizing: Often it is better to bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of. Seeking incremental change within an essentially corrupt political system is preferable to confrontation, even if it brings meager results.

In 2009 Iranians went to the polls in the hope that their Green Movement would bring new openness to their country. Many believed the election was stolen, and spilled out onto the streets of Tehran to protest. They were brutally repressed. But although most were outraged and disgusted, few if any wished to escalate their resistance. Instead they returned to their homes and waited for the next opportunity to petition peacefully for change.

"Nobody can prevent us from having democracy in our country," a merchant in the Shiraz bazaar told me when I visited Iran in 2010. "It is our wish and our right. But it will take time. You cannot change a very strong government in a few months." In Isfahan a man who sympathized with the postelection protests said he was glad they ended. "They were not going to achieve anything, and continuing them would just mean more people hurt or killed or put in jail," he reasoned. "What is the point of that?"

Unlike many Westerners, Iranians do not believe that every problem has a solution. They accept an imperfect world -- even a brutally imperfect one. This maturity explains the remarkable calm with which they face their difficulties.

Not all Iranians believed this year’s election would make a difference. Many would have preferred a wider range of candidates. Nonetheless, they took advantage of the limited choice available to them and poured out to elect Rouhani, the most reform-minded of the establishment candidates. The result so far has been promising.

Because of Iran's intervention on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria, its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its colorful denunciations of Israel under past presidents, it is often depicted as a troublemaker. It could be a calming influence instead. For the first time, there are signs that some who hold power in Washington recognize this.

Iran today is not happy, prosperous or free. It is, however, stable -- and probably on the path, however slowly, toward a more open and just society. Iran should be America's partner in the Middle East, not its enemy.

Even more important is the role Iran could play as an example to the rest of the Muslim Middle East. Not for nothing has this nation survived for twenty-five centuries. Its people have learned profound lessons. Their neighbors could learn much from them.

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