First-Year MA Candidate at SAIS Europe
Like most, I have never had the privilege of participating in diplomatic talks between Iran and the United States.
This fact, however, has not stopped my overactive imagination from picturing how they might proceed.
In a dim room laid with a durable material, possibly linoleum, men in suits sit across from one another. The silence becomes unbearable, and some low-level American official squeamishly says, “Why do you hate us?” He references the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, and the first shot rings out.
Calm and collected in a cool, powder blue suit, his Iranian counterpart responds, “Such shortsighted thinking. We should ask the same of you. In 1953, you overthrew our beloved Mossadegh and gave the Shah the keys to your military arsenal. We had to bear the brunt of this breach of sovereignty for over twenty-five years. “
We are all the heroes of our own stories. I walk into the room wearing a houndstooth smoking jacket. As all eyes turn to me I say, “1979? 1953? Well, what about 1907?”
1907 was a visionary year in Iran. Popular demands, a year earlier, pressured the infirm king of Iran, Mozaffar ud-Din Shah, to allow a constitutional monarchy to form and Iranians drafted their first constitution in their country’s history. The king died in early 1907, and his son, Muhammad Ali Shah, suspended the constitution and sent in his brigades to attack the newly formed parliament.
Howard Conklin Baskerville, a Presbyterian missionary from Nebraska, was working in Tabriz as a schoolteacher at the time. He joined the constitutional cause and commanded a group of 150 men to defend the city’s fortifications. The twenty-four-year-old American said, “The only difference between me and these people is my place of birth, and this is not a big difference.” In an attempt to break the monarchical siege on the city, Baskerville was shot in the heart and died instantly.
Today, as people on both sides of the Iranian-American divide are itching for a deal, diplomats ought to seize the spirit of Baskerville—an American martyr in defense of Iranian constitutionalism. With the ongoing nuclear talks, leaders from both sides can harken back to this symbol to build diplomatic bridges.
Certainly, some critics do not share my Baskervillian optimism. Eliot Cohen, director of the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University- SAIS, believes the Obama administration is “hungry for a deal, but in a weak negotiating position. Iran does not take the American threat of force as seriously anymore.” However, “Iranians negotiate to the 61st minute—they will keep trying to press their advantage.”
Standing a bit closer to my perspective, Gary Sick, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s SIPA, attempted to define the Obama Doctrine after the speech President Obama’s gave at the UN General Assembly in September. In this context, Obama sees a rapprochement with Iran as being clearly in the US’s interests. This doctrine has redefined American policy, rendering it more minimalist, multilateralist, and US-centered. The US will no longer go “abroad, in search of monsters to destroy,” echoing John Quincy Adams’s famous words in 1821. Even if a nuclear deal is not absolutely perfect, it will reduce the threat of a new war in the Persian Gulf. If Iran ceases to be perceived as a perpetual threat—an exaggerated one—the US can begin to draw down forces in the Persian Gulf. This would be opportune for an Obama administration trying to pivot towards Asia and for a war-weary America demanding greater attention to domestic issues.
Although the ensuing talks will feel painstakingly slow for the near future, a nuclear deal will come out of it. Through this process, US-Iranian officials have had hours of intimate dialogue. Will this discourse lay a foundation for future cooperation? Baskerville and the idealists since him would certainly hope so.