In the 1950s, pushed by Cold War militants like Dulles, Americans came to see China as the face of barbarism. For the last 34 years, Iran has played that role in the American mind. Now the long US-Iran conflict finally appears to be easing. If it does, part of the reason may be that the Obama administration’s response to the arrest of three Americans in Iran in 2009 was far more adroit than Dulles’ response to the arrest of Downey and Fecteau in 1954.
The current negotiations between Iran and the U.S. were preceded by extended secret talks. According to an Associated Press report, "It was efforts to win the release of three American hikers who had strayed across the Iranian border which led to the clandestine diplomacy. Oman’s Sultan Qaboos was a key player, facilitating the release of the hikers in late 2010 and 2011 and then offering himself as a mediator for a U.S.-Iran rapprochement."
One of the hikers, Shane Bauer, who spent more than two years imprisoned in Iran, has written of his satisfaction at learning that “our tragedy led to an opening between the United States and Iran.” Without his case, he has speculated, “just maybe, the U.S. and Iran might still be nowhere near a solution to the nuclear issue.”
Comparisons between the capture of Downey and Fecteau in the 1950s and the arrest of Bauer and his companions four years ago are not precise. The hikers were not charged with working for an intelligence agency. Yet the difference in their fates is instructive. Downey and Fecteau spent many years in harsh confinement because of the rigidity of the U.S. government, and became symbols of a frozen conflict. The hikers were not only released after far shorter prison terms, but may have been catalysts for reconciliation.
The connection between negotiations and prisoner releases is especially timely in the wake of revelations earlier this month that an American who disappeared in Iran in seven years ago, Robert Levinson, was connected to the CIA. It would be unwise for American negotiators to link the Levinson case directly to talks on the nuclear issue. If Levinson is alive and in Iranian custody, however, his case could be subject to bargaining as the U.S.-Iran climate improves.
Had Secretary of State Dulles and President Dwight Eisenhower been bolder and more imaginative in the 1950s, they might have not only freed two captive airmen, but used their case to explore prospects for a new relationship with China. Their successors have been more adroit. American diplomats have finally been given free rein to engage Iran. By turning the arrest of Americans into an opportunity, they have proven the power of creative diplomacy.