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A Hard-Won Victory for American Soft Power

by REZA MARASHI in Washington, D.C.

26 May 2011 23:55Comments
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A quiet but powerful shift in U.S. policy toward Iran.

[ comment ] Following President Obama's speech on the Middle East and North Africa last week, most pundits and politicians have focused on his reiteration of America's long-standing insistence -- and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's unwavering refusal -- that Israel adhere to the U.N.-mandated 1967 borders with a future Palestinian state. However, against this backdrop, America made a small but powerful change to its Iran policy that received far less national attention. Last Friday, one day after the president's speech, the State Department utilized its affable Persian-language spokesman to roll out a landmark policy shift: repealing the single-entry visa policy for Iranian students that prevented them from leaving the United States throughout the duration of their studies. Easily the most positive step forward on Iran policy since the president's 2009 Nowruz message, these changes will allow Iranian students studying in the United States to obtain multiple-entry visas. For the first time, they can attend academic conferences abroad, or travel home for family emergencies, weddings, and funerals, without risking the inability to reenter the United States. As Iranian students and the Iranian American community have long reiterated, the overall benefits of this policy shift are clear. Less obvious but strategically vital, however, are the benefits to U.S. foreign policy.

Let me be clear: seemingly small policy changes often require heavy bureaucratic lifting. Last week's announcement is a testament not only to this, but also to the interagency team from the State Department, National Security Council, and Department of Homeland Security that worked together to cut through more bureaucratic red tape than most can fathom to make this happen. For four years, while serving in the State Department's Office of Iranian Affairs, I consistently tried to push this issue, achieving little beyond helping my former colleagues better understand its importance to Iranian students and America's strategic objectives. Indeed, hard work in government does not always translate into results. But when it does, the results are often game changing -- and that is precisely what this victory can be for U.S. foreign policy. Rescinding the single-entry visa policy has demonstrated that persistent, high-level engagement is a critical ingredient for successful Iran policy, writ large. This realization must stimulate the administration's comprehensive efforts, and need not require starting from scratch. Building on existing policy, identifying core issues, and settling them once and for all is perhaps the strongest example of how America can defuse the Iran crisis more effectively through the power of its example than through the power of its preaching.

To that end, repealing the single-entry visa policy provides a blueprint for how America can operate within its existing policy context. After serving both the Bush and Obama administrations, I can say unequivocally that it is very hard to devise Iran policy -- particularly now. I do not envy my former colleagues in the least bit. The Obama administration knows that political constraints -- both domestic (hostile Congress, 2012 election) and foreign (push back from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and some E.U. countries) -- will severely limit its ability to engage in the kind of sincere and comprehensive diplomacy that is needed to untangle 32 years of institutionalized enmity. There is a history of Iran being politically toxic in this country, and its deteriorating human rights record only exacerbates that problem. Barring an unprecedented and unlikely willingness on the part of Iran's government to make up-front concessions that do not yield anything of equal value in return, the Obama administration will not have the political will -- and by extension, the political space -- to make a deal beyond the scope of a zero-sum game. As a result, its policies must be devised so as to send separate messages to Iran's government and its people.

This is precisely what rescinding the single-entry visa policy has achieved. Smaller measures that demonstrate the power of America's example maximize the flexibility and likelihood of policy success. Ultimately, the United States must avoid falling into the Iranian government's tried-and-true trap of turning issues into mass mobilization factors that exploit nationalist sentiment and pride, as it largely has over the course of the nuclear impasse. There is a prominent conservative political faction in Iran that wants to isolate the Islamic Republic, so the United States must empower processes that work against this current rather than facilitate it. Individuals and factions inside Iran that are working against this current -- both within Iran's bureaucracy, as well as civil society and the business community -- are doing so because they have learned the value of being integrated into the international community. Allowing multiple-entry visas for Iranian students is a prime example of U.S. soft power initiatives that can support Iran's indigenous quest for integration while also producing a tremendous outpouring of good will.

Because it is unlikely that the United States will take my advice about talking directly with Iran at this point, it is important for the administration to balance its "crippling sanctions" with tangible actions for the Iranian people. Following through on his March 2010 promise to help provide a better future for young Iranians is a prime example of U.S. actions, not Obama's words, telling the story of America's Iran policy. Rescinding the single-entry visa policy alone is not a panacea. Amplifying and sustaining goodwill will require additional measures. Under the existing policy blueprint that made visa changes possible, this can include: lifting the ban on export of airplane spare parts; eliminating Internet restrictions; ending humanitarian restrictions; rescinding the "no-contact" policy that prohibits routine interaction between American and Iranian diplomats; and enforcing existing anti-terror laws against the free hand currently enjoyed by the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO), a designated foreign terrorist group, in the United States. These small but powerful measures, especially if taken swiftly, will demonstrate to the Iranian people America's sustained willingness to improve their present and invest in their future.

The United States understands that a healthy foreign policy toward Iran is about ties between our societies and governments. To that end, neatly packaged public diplomacy is not a substitute for compelling policies -- and actual results -- that matter to the Iranian people. Rescinding the single-entry visa policy shows that the Obama administration understands the value of promoting contact between Americans and Iranians. Indeed, the almost daily spats between governments serve as reminders that efforts must redouble to move beyond the mutual hostility and troubled past. President Obama has demonstrated America's willingness to focus high-level attention on -- and build a relationship with -- Iran's future. Capitalizing on hard-fought, newly acquired momentum will require taking another page from America's own playbook -- a page that goes beyond sanctions.

Reza Marashi is director of research at the National Iranian American Council and a former Iran desk officer at the U.S. State Department.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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