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Algiers Accords: A Good Precedent?

23 Feb 2009 16:281 Comment
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The Accords, which resolved the hotage crisis, provides a channel for U.S.-Iranian diplomacy.
By GOLNOUSH NIKNEJAD in Boston

About 28 years ago, the United States and the fledgling Islamic Republic of Iran made promises to each other that they put down in writing: "It is now and will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs," stated the 1981 Algiers Accords, the executive agreement signed by Ronald Reagan. In return for that promise (among others) the Iranians released the 52 Americans that they held hostage for 444 inglorious days.

The ink was hardly dry before President Reagan and CIA Director William Casey started to fund operations against Iran by different exile groups -- one headed by the shah's former naval commander, then the Paris-based Front for the Liberation of Iran. While the Reagan administration was in secret negotiations with Iran, the CIA was providing a miniaturized television transmitter to Reza Pahlavi, son of the late Shah, for a clandestine broadcast into Iran.

On Sept. 5, 1986, the programming of two Iranian television stations were interrupted for 11-minutes, during which the heir to the Peacock Throne vowed his return. In its response in a radio broadcast, Tehran called the shenanigans a "puppet show" put on by "the terrorist government of Reagan."

It was an extraordinary show. According to historian Theodore Draper's book, A Very Thin Line, the United States was entertaining Ali Hashemi Bahramani -- an officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hashemi Rafsanjani's nephew -- and so was a fellow by the name of Lt. Col. Oliver North.

Despite the fiasco known as the Iran-contra affair, successive U.S. administrations have adopted some form of its "sticks and carrots" approach in their dealings with Iran. As Iran moderated its ways over the next two decades -- after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini -- sanctions against it got tighter and U.S. regime-change talk nastier.

When Condoleezza Rice went to Congress requesting $75 million in "emergency funds to promote democracy in Iran," a reporter from the BBC Persian Service questioned the sanity of such a plan. Wouldn't this precipitate an Iranian crackdown on its fragile civil society? "Don't you think that there will be a more sophisticated and better way to approach this issue?" he asked.

Apparently not. The U.S. State Department even posted the full transcript of the "off-the-record" background briefing on its Web site and prominently linked to it from its homepage that week in 2006. Almost on cue, Iranian officials stepped up pressure, clamped down on NGO's, students, reformists, women rights activists, union leaders, doctors, academics, scientists, students, ethnic minorities, visiting Iranian Americans, journalists and many others, accusing them of being U.S.collaborators.

With the country surrounded by U.S. troops on three sides (in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf), and media stories about alleged U.S.-funded covert attacks against Iran by disaffected minority groups, the Iranian regime's paranoia hardly needed to be further inflamed by U.S. "sticks."

It may be that the United States cares so much for the "great Iranian people" it wants them to take up arms against their elected government. Certainly, the sanctions the United States has effected through the United Nations and elsewhere have affected the lives of ordinary Iranians far more than Iran's own officials or its own Westernized elites.

So far, Barack Obama has maintained these policies, though with some calibration. As his administration makes overtures to Iran, he keeps "all options on the table," appoints a Democratic hawk -- remember Hillary Clinton's talk of "obliterating" Iran last year? -- to head the diplomatic arm of his government. There is now talk of appointing a more hostile hawk-- Dennis Ross -- as Iran envoy.

But there is a little hope for change ("we can believe in") from these three tumultuous decades. The Algiers Accords that Iran and the United States adopted as a procedure for resolving disputes after the 1979 revolution has produced the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal. Since July1, 1981, representatives of Washington and Tehran have been engaged in fruitful negotiations. (A prominent international law scholar at Boalt Hall told me, "It's the most successful example of international law in a century.")

If the two arch-foes have enjoyed such a good track record in court -- an acrimonious forum to begin with -- why would diplomacy be a stumbling block?

The United States has stood by the letter of the law in the Claims Tribunal. When former hostages filed suit against Iran, the U.S. State Department stepped in to have it dismissed. And the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the Accords. The United States could show the same level of commitment in diplomatic talks -- instead of the old method of "carrots and sticks." Carrots and sticks is not diplomacy. Imagine the arrogance it carries when the idiom is explained in translation.

President Obama has said he was willing to meet with the leaders of Iran. Why not? Take all options off the table. Sit down to tea. Forget Clinton and Ross. Forget Ahmadinejad, or even a potential reformist president. Obama meeting with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would be a profoundly new and genuine form of diplomacy.

And waiting is the Claims Tribunal, an open and transparent mode of cooperation between the two countries. (It even has its own Web site.) If diplomatic negotiations were newly opened, the Tribunal could be used to develop diplomatic processes.

It is quite possible that the United States could someday acknowledge Iran as an ally. Dropping "carrots and sticks" and adopting open and highest level diplomatic dialogue could accomplish this hope and great change for the Middle East region and the world.

And the Claims Tribunal is a potential starting point. It is a framework for agreement already in place.

Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau - distributed by Agence Global.

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1 Comment

Hi *****, I've been following your blog and I really find it interesting. I love reading articles from a fellow Iranian abroad. Btw, this Norouz, send flowers to your loved ones in Iran via ParsaFlora http://parsaflora.comNikou

Mos and Nikou / March 18, 2009 11:52 AM